• Heather Kuhl, Psy. D., LMFT

Could My Child Have A Learning Disability?

Two kids trying learn alphabets | Learning Kids | Learning Disability

Does your child struggle in school with reading, spelling, and sounding out words? Have you noticed your child confusing letters that look alike or sound alike? Does your child read slow or have a hard time grasping what they’ve read?

Perhaps you’ve noticed your child has trouble counting, performing calculations, or remembering math facts. Or maybe your child writes slowly, has poor grammar, or has difficulty expressing their thoughts and ideas in writing. Have you wondered if your child may have a learning disorder?

A learning disorder (also referred to as a learning disability) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that often becomes evident during school-age years. Early signs may appear in preschool, but become pronounced in elementary school as the learning and academic demands increase. Difficulties include problems with learning in the areas of math, reading, and/or writing.

While it’s not uncommon for children to struggle somewhat while learning, children with a learning disorder often have specific difficulties which persist throughout school.

In addition, children with undiagnosed learning disorders may develop a sense of inadequacy and feel as though no matter how much effort they put forth, they still can’t grasp concepts and struggle to learn. This can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, or behavioral problems such as acting out in school or at home.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), an estimated 5 to 15 percent of school-aged children are diagnosed with a Specific Learning Disorder.

The following DSM-5 criteria must be met to make a diagnosis of a Specific Learning Disorder:

A. Difficulties learning and using academic skills, as indicated by the presence of at least one of the following symptoms that have persisted for at least 6 months.

  1. Inaccurate or slow and effortful word reading (e.g. - reads single words aloud incorrectly or slowly and hesitantly, frequently guesses words, has difficulty sounding out words).

  2. Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read (e.g. - may read text accurately but not understand the sequence, relationships, inferences, or deeper meanings of what is read).

  3. Difficulties with spelling (e.g. - may add, omit, or substitute vowels or consonants).

  4. Difficulties with written expression (e.g. - makes multiple grammatical or punctuation errors within sentences; employs poor paragraph organization; written expression of ideas lacks clarity).

  5. Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts, or calculation (e.g. - has a poor understanding of numbers, their magnitude, and relationships; counts on fingers to add single-digit numbers instead of recalling the math fact as peers do; gets lost in the midst of arithmetic computation and may switch procedures)

  6. Difficulties with mathematical reasoning (e.g. - has severe difficulty applying mathematical concepts, facts, or procedures to solve quantitative problems).

B. The affected academic skills are substantially and quantifiably below those expected for the individual’s chronological age and cause significant interference with academic or occupational performance, or with activities of daily living, as confirmed by individually administered standardized achievement measures and comprehensive clinical assessment. For individuals aged 17 years and older, a documented history of impairing learning difficulties may be substituted for the standardized assessment.

C. The learning difficulties begin during school-age years but may not become fully manifest until the demands for those affected academic skills exceed the individual’s limited capacities (e.g. - as in timed tests, reading or writing lengthy complex reports for a tight deadline, excessively heavy academic loads).

D. The learning difficulties are not better accounted for by intellectual disabilities, uncorrected visual or auditory acuity, other mental or neurological disorders, psychosocial adversity, lack of proficiency in the language of academic instruction, or inadequate educational instruction.

Specific Learning Disorders can be diagnosed in three academic areas: Math (also referred to as Dyscalculia), Reading (also referred to as Dyslexia), and/or Written Expression (also referred to as Dysgraphia). Some children had problems in more than one area.

So how do I know if my child has a learning disorder?

As many issues can interfere with learning, a comprehensive psychoeducational or psychological evaluation can help a parent better understand their child’s learning style as well as obstacles to learning. For instance, children may simply have difficulties with focus, attention, hyperactivity, or organization of their work such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which can make learning a challenge. Or children may have an undiagnosed Language Disorder that affects the way they express themselves in spoken or written language, or they may struggle to comprehend spoken or written language.

In addition, there may be medical explanations for why your child has difficulty. Problems with vision can make it difficult to read and often treating the vision issues through corrective lenses or perhaps vision therapy can improve reading problems. Children can have 20/20 eyesight, yet still, have impaired vision. When this may be suspected, I will refer the family for a Developmental Vision Evaluation which is designed to assess all the visual functioning required for reading, writing, and learning and is very different from a routine eye exam.

Similarly, undiagnosed auditory issues can also affect learning. If a child has subtle hearing loss or hearing problems, this can definitely interfere with education. In addition, auditory processing issues can make learning and communicating a challenge. Specifically, auditory processing difficulties may lead to a child misunderstanding due to not hearing words accurately or detecting the subtle nuances in sounds.

Therefore, due to the many factors involved in learning, I believe a comprehensive evaluation can identify specific problems. As part of my evaluations, I take a thorough history with the parent(s) including consulting with teachers and reviewing academic records.

In terms of testing, I assess language, intellectual functioning, general academic functioning, memory and learning, attention and concentration, auditory processing, visual processing, fine motor skills, as well as emotional functioning. When specific learning concerns are present, I also conduct more rigorous testing in the academic area whether it’s math, reading, or writing. This information can be incredibly helpful to pinpoint the specific issues making learning difficult for your child.

Because learning disorders are brain-based learning differences, children will need extra help and instruction that is individualized to target their needs. This may involve working with tutors who are specialized to educate children with learning differences or working with a school to put accommodations and/or an individualized education plan in place. Regardless of the needs, understanding your child’s strengths and challenges and having resulted from an evaluation can ensure you get a plan in place to ensure your child can succeed in school.

If you have concerns about your child’s learning, please do not hesitate to call me at (954) 391-5305 for a complimentary consultation.

For more tips on common behavioral challenges your child may be struggling with such as ADHD, click here. For more information about Dr. Heather Kuhl's approach, click here.

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