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How to Spot and Manage Learning Disabilities

February 7, 2013


You have to work with your school. That’s an absolute must.

Theresa Cooper

Loving Your Disabled Child

What is a learning disability (LD)?

A learning disability (LD) is a disorder that affects people’s ability to interpret what they see or hear, or how they link information together in the brain. At least 10% of school-age children have LD.

What are the basic types of LD?

Developmental reading disorder, sometimes called dyslexia, is the most common type of LD. Children with this disorder may reverse numbers and letters, or lose their place on the page. More often, they have trouble telling sounds apart, which makes sounding out words very difficult.

Other types of LD are developmental writing disorder, dysgraphia and developmental arithmetic disorder, or dyscalculia. Some children have learning disorders that don’t fit into these categories.

What are the early warning signs of LD?

Early symptoms vary, but during the preschool years, a child with LD may have difficulty speaking, following directions, taking turns or following simple steps to complete a task.

LD is rarely diagnosed in preschoolers. Even kindergarten and first grade may be too early for a diagnosis, since children develop at different speeds and are still learning to read.

Parents should be careful not to label their child “learning disabled” without a diagnosis. Most children struggle a bit when learning to read and write. It’s normal for a kindergartener or first-grader to reverse “b” and “d” sometimes. But struggling with basic reading, writing or arithmetic into second and third grade may be a sign of LD.

What should I do if I suspect my child has LD?

If you suspect LD, contact your child’s teacher. Before testing can take place, the teacher is required to try several “interventions,” such as:

  • extra tutoring
  • teaching in a multi-sensory way, like having the child learn letters by seeing, saying and drawing them in sand
  • special learning exercises to do at home.

If interventions don’t help and your child is significantly behind in school, you have the legal right, as a parent, to request testing. Put your request in writing and give it to the principal. If testing identifies a learning disability, your child may receive extra help in the classroom, in visits to a resource teacher, or in a special day class.

How do you cope with the stigma attached to LD? 

When Georgia Abi-Nader’s son was teased by his classmates about LD, he was very angry. She worried that he might lash back at the other students. So Abi-Nader went into his classroom and had students do exercises like reading scrambled messages and writing while looking in a mirror, to help them understand a little of what it’s like to have LD.

“There’s a real stigma about learning disabilities,” Abi-Nader says. “Children with disabilities are often called ‘retard,’ but mental retardation is something totally different.”

In fact, research shows that many people with LD have above-average intelligence.

What can experts do to help a child with LD?

Children don’t outgrow LD, but they can learn to read and succeed.

According to Daylin Boyd, who has taught LD students in Hayward and Los Angeles, a special education teacher helps the LD student by:

  • finding out his or her abilities and inabilities;
  • changing or simplifying lessons to fit the student’s ability level;
  • explaining instructions in several ways to make sure the student understands;
  • setting up special ways to test the student;
  • giving the student time to work at his or her own pace;
  • using lots of repetition and practice;
  • using intensive reading programs and workbooks.

How can parents help?

When Theresa Cooper’s son was diagnosed with LD at age 7, she coordinated with the teacher and used the same program material, “Hooked on Phonics,” at home. Cooper and the teacher also passed a notebook back and forth every day, to communicate about how Eric was doing.

“You have to work with your school,” says Cooper, who directs Los Angeles-based Loving Your Disabled Child. “That’s an absolute must.”

Other tips for parents include:

  • Praise your child for what he or she does well. Give your child opportunities to develop those talents.
  • Read out loud to your child every day, and have your child read out loud to you.
  • Do learning activities with your children.
  • Learn more about LD. The more you know, the more you can help.
  • Join parent groups for support.

Originally written by Anita Bott.