Pinpointing a Learning Disability: Characteristics and Strategies

Recent data from the US Department of Education indicates that about 4-5% of students enrolled in school are receiving special education services for a specific learning disability. That is about 1 in 20 students. I’m sure most people in education and probably even most families have heard of ‘learning disabilities’, but what exactly does a learning disability mean? An exact definition can be confusing to say the least. State education departments across our nation disagree about what characteristics comprise a learning disability, leading to specialized services being provided in one state but not necessarily in another. There are multiple definitions in professional research as well.

Despite the differences in defining it, there is some agreement among agencies that have helped to categorize a learning disability. Learning disabilities are neurological conditions that interfere with a person’s ability to process, store, or produce information. Many areas can be affected, resulting in poor performance in academic areas such as reading, writing, speaking, spelling, and solving math problems. Cognitive functions like attention, memory, processing, or reasoning can also be affected. In states throughout the US, criteria is met for a learning disability when a person has strengths and weaknesses in some cognitive areas that can be directly linked to strengths and weaknesses in academic areas. Criteria greatly differs among states, but this pattern of strengths and weaknesses is starting to become a prevalent identification model.

Characteristics to Keep in Mind


It’s important to note that people with learning disabilities are completely capable of learning and being successful. Early identification can lead to acquiring adaptive strategies that become automatic for students with learning challenges. What types of academic behaviors should parents and teachers be aware of that could indicate a learning disability? In elementary school, watch for difficulty in learning the connection between letters and sounds, confusing basic words, consistent reading and spelling errors, difficulty learning basic math concepts, difficulty learning new skills, or trouble with recalling facts. During middle school, watch for difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills, difficulty with prefix/suffix/root words, difficulty in maintaining organization or keeping up with time management, or difficulty understanding oral discussions and expressing thoughts aloud. In high school, watch for difficulty with taking on reading or writing tasks, difficulty with open ended questions, difficulty with memory skills, an inability to generalize skills, or a difficulty in grasping abstract concepts.

Please keep in mind this is by no means an all-inclusive list, just some general behaviors that are commonly associated with learning disabilities. If you have noticed any of these or have concerns about a child or student, don’t delay in seeking someone out to discuss them. Feel free to contact us at JCB Diagnostics to discuss those concerns or to seek a professional opinion.

Simple Strategies to Implement in the Classroom


Do a little research. Students with learning disabilities have specific needs in specific cognitive areas, so a great place to start is by thoroughly examining the evaluation that documents their disability. This report typically identifies the areas students show deficits in and offers recommendations on how to address them. There are additional strategies teachers can implement as well.

Control the difficulty of processing demands on tasks. Utilizing this strategy involves giving a simplified demonstration of the learning task or objective. Lessons are structured in a way that sequences tasks from easy to difficult; this allows the teacher to identify a specific step the student is having difficulty with (see this blog post for a more detailed explanation of task analysis). It also allows the students to retain some control over the level of difficulty.

Using strategy cues. This strategy involves reminding the students to use previously taught strategies or mnemonic devices when encountering a task that requires its use (this helps to trigger short and long term memory, which are common cognitive areas associated with learning disabilities).

About the Author: Jonathan is the owner and founder of JCB Diagnostics. He has worked in education and mental health for the last 15 years. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Special Education.

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