Children - Learning Disorders

What is a learning disorder?

A learning disorder is defined as difficulty in an academic area (reading, mathematics, or written expression). The child's ability to achieve in the specific academic area is below what is expected for the child's age, educational level, and level of intelligence. The difficulty experienced by the child is severe enough to interfere with academic achievement or age-appropriate normal activities of daily living. About 8% of children in schools are classified as having specific learning disabilities and receive some kind of special education support.

What causes learning disorders?

Learning disorders are believed to happen because of an abnormality in the nervous system, either in the structure of the brain or in the functioning of brain chemicals. The difference in the nervous system causes the child with a learning disorder to receive, process, or communicate information in a different way.

Who is affected by learning disorders?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 5% of children in U.S. schools (kindergarten through grade 12) have some type of learning disorder.

Genetic predisposition, problems during pregnancy, birth, or early infancy, as well as other general medical conditions may be associated with the cause of learning disorders.

What are the symptoms of learning disorders?

The following are the most common symptoms of learning disorders. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Reading disorder. A reading disorder is present when a child reads below the expected level given his or her age, grade in school, and intelligence. Children with a reading disorder read slowly and have difficulty understanding what they read. They may have difficulty with word recognition and confuse words that look similar. A reading disorder is sometimes called dyslexia.

  • Mathematics disorder. A mathematics disorder is present when a child has problems with skills related to numbers. Examples of this include counting, copying numbers correctly, adding and carrying numbers, learning multiplication tables, recognizing mathematical signs, and understanding mathematical operations.

  • Disorder of written expression. A disorder of written expression is present when a child has difficulty with writing skills. Examples of this include understanding grammar and punctuation, spelling, paragraph organization, or composing written information. Often these children also have poor handwriting skills.

How are learning disorders diagnosed?

The signs of learning disorders may be identified by parents or teachers when a child consistently has difficulty with any, or all, of the following:

  • Reading, spelling, writing, or completing math problems

  • Understanding or following directions

  • Distinguishing right from left

  • Reversing letters or numbers (confusing "b" and "d" or 12 and 21)

A comprehensive evaluation by educational and mental health professionals includes educational and psychological testing, as well as talking with the child and parents. A comprehensive evaluation identifies whether a child has a learning disorder. It also identifies learning strengths and weaknesses. Results of the evaluation are used to determine educational needs, identify the best school placement, and determine the possible need for medicine to help with distractibility or hyperactivity. Results can also determine the possible benefit of any additional therapies, such as speech therapy or family psychotherapy, to maximize the child's learning potential and quality of life.


Specific treatment for learning disorders will be determined by the coordinated effort of your child's healthcare provider and mental health and educational professionals based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disorder

  • Type of disorder

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medicines or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disorder

  • Your opinion or preference

Learning disorders are treatable. A coordinated effort between parents, teachers, and mental health professionals provides the basis for individualized treatment strategies. These may include individual or group remediation, and/or special classes or resources.

Prevention of learning disorders

Preventive measures to reduce how often learning disorders happen are not known at this time. However, discovering learning disorders and doing something about them early on can reduce their severity. This will also improve the quality of life experienced by children with learning disorders.

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