What are (specific) learning disorders?
Learning disorders, which may be characterized as specific learning disorders (ICD/DSM), learning disabilities (US), or learning difficulties (UK), are brain-based differences that result in difficulty in the development of academic and functional skills, including reading, written expression, mathematics, reasoning, listening, and speaking. Learning disorders are considered specific developmental disabilities affecting a narrow range of skills, rather than global disabilities affecting cognition and functional skills more generally. If you believe that your child might have a learning disorder, a good first step is to discuss your concerns with your child's educators and healthcare providers.
Aren't children with learning disorders just slow or unmotivated?
No, not at all. Children with LDs are not slow, unmotivated, or generally poor learners. In fact, most children with learning disorders work much harder than their typically developing peers. A defining feature of an LD is that it affects a relatively narrow range of skills (however, other disorders tend to co-occur with LDs), and the difficulties produced by the LD cannot be better explained by other factors, such as behavioral disorders, intellectual disability, or lack of educational opportunities -- that is to say that learning disorders produce underachievement that is unexpected given a child's behavior, educational background, and intellectual and functional abilities. The brains of children with LDs simply process some information differently than the brains of typically developing children. That doesn't mean they are more or less intelligent or motivated than their typically developing peers. It simply means they require additional support to achieve their full academic potential.
What are (neuro-)developmental disorders?
Developmental (or neurodeveopmental) disorders are disorders that affect the development of the way the brain and its processes develop. Developmental disorders begin before birth, in infancy, or in childhood and have impacts that last throughout a person's lifetime. They may affect learning, memory, emotion, self-regulation, and/or other mental and emotional processes. People with developmental disorders may have differences in physical development as well. While the category technically includes specific developmental disorders, like dyslexia, the term developmental disorders is usually used to describe disabilities with more global developmental differences, like autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities (characterized as learning disabilities in the Commonwealth), fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, etc. There are many developmental disorders, and every individual with a developmental disorder is different, with unique strengths and challenges. Therefore, interventions and supports for people with developmental disorders should be tailored to individual needs.
Can my child with a learning or developmental disorder enjoy improved achievement?
The answer to this question is an emphatic yes! Research has demonstrated again and again that intensive, systematic instruction that is carefully tailored to the needs of the child can affect extraordinary improvements in achievement, especially when provided early in a child's education. Furthermore, brain imaging research has revealed that following intensive, systematic intervention, the brains of children with specific LDs can begin to process information in a way that is more consistent with typical development -- that is to say that the quality of instruction not only affects achievement but also the brain itself. Please view Dr Schneider's LD Resources page for more information concerning the characteristics of effective instruction for students with learning and developmental disorders.
Signs of Potential Learning & Developmental Disorders
Among young children (pre-school and kindergarten):
Among primary school children (grades 1 through 5):
Among middle and secondary school children (grades 6 through 12)
When to Seek Help
Learning, like any developmental process, rarely follows a completely smooth trajectory. There are often brief plateaus and even short-lived regressions along the way. That said, the general direction of your child's development should be onward and upward. Look at the warning signs and consider the totality of your child's development. If you notice your child consistently struggling with academic or functional skills that come easily to her or his peers, please consider speaking to your child's teacher and then to a medical or psychological professional if your concerns aren't adequately addressed.
Dyslexia, or specific learning disorder in reading, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in reading. Children with dyslexia may struggle with visual, auditory, and phonological processing, resulting in difficulty with reading and written expression. Dyslexia often manifests early in a child's development, as the child may acquire spoken language late and struggle with many of the language games her or his peers enjoy (rhyming, counting syllables, etc.).
Dysgraphia, or specific learning disorder in written expression, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in handwriting and written expression. Children with dysgraphia have difficulty encoding the sounds of language in print and may struggle with penmanship and also with the ability to write coherently. Dysgraphia often occurs along with other learning disorders, such as dyslexia, and children with dysgraphia frequently exhibit early delays in the acquisition of language and fine motor skills.
Dyscalculia, or specific learning disorder in mathematics, is a learning disorder that produces unexpected underachievement in mathematics and mathematical reasoning. Children with dyscalculia may struggle to acquire numeric concepts and manipulate numbers arithmetically. They often have poor memory and retrieval of mathematical facts, and they may struggle to perform everyday tasks involving numbers (e.g., reading clocks, following a recipe). Dyscalculia may manifest early on in a failure to identify simple qualities at a glance (one, two, or three objects) or a delay in the acquisition of one-to-one correspondence.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)
Autism is a neurodevelopment difference that can cause impairments in social interaction, language development, and communication. People with autism often have repetitive behaviors or intense interests, and many autisic individuals are very sensitive to light, sound, and other sensory input. People with autism can have very different behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses. For this reason, autism is called a spectrum disorder—a group of disorders with a range of similar features.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an individual's ability to concentrate, maintain attention, and regulate behavior and emotion. Children with ADHD may struggle to focus in school, exhibit in excessive activity, struggle to manage responsibilities, or engage in inappropriate or impulsive behavior.