Learning Disabilities

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What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities make it hard for your child to learn in certain areas. Your child may have trouble with listening, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing math. One example of a learning disability is dyslexia. A child with dyslexia has a hard time reading, writing, and spelling.

Learning disabilities aren't the same as learning challenges that are caused by problems with seeing, hearing, or moving. But many children with learning disabilities have other conditions that make school hard. These include ADHD and issues with behavior or memory.

Taking steps to manage a learning disability in early childhood can help with success in school and other areas. This success can continue into adulthood.

What causes it?

Most of the time, experts don't know the reason for learning disabilities. But these disabilities tend to run in families.

Some learning disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth or by the use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy.

After a child is born, a head injury, poor nutrition, exposure to toxins (such as lead), or child abuse can contribute to learning disabilities.

What are the signs?

The signs of learning disabilities vary depending on age. They are often discovered in elementary school, when a child has trouble doing tasks that involve reading, writing, or math.

The most common signs are:

  • Trouble reading, such as slow reading that takes a lot of effort.
  • Trouble writing.
  • Not doing well in school, and with no clear reason.

Your child also may:

  • Talk later than expected and be slow to learn new words.
  • Find it hard to learn the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, colors, shapes, and how to spell and write their name.
  • Make consistent reading and spelling errors.
  • Mix up math symbols and misread numbers.
  • Have a hard time putting information or events in a correct order.
  • Not understand the "rules" of talking to others. For example, your child may stand too close to others when talking or may talk out of turn.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor or a school professional will ask you what signs of a learning disability you and your child's teachers have seen. Your child will also be asked questions. Your child may take reading, writing, personality, and learning style tests. Your child's language skills, problem-solving skills, and intelligence quotient (IQ) may also be tested.

How is a learning disability treated?

A learning disability is treated by using educational tools. Medicines and counseling usually aren't used.

For most children, federal law requires that a public school create a learning plan, such as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP details your child's disability, appropriate teaching methods, and goals for the school year. The IEP changes, based on how well your child is doing. You have the right to ask for a change in the IEP if you don't agree with it.

How can you care for your child?

Learn more

  • Research and learn all you can about your child's learning disability. Your doctor can suggest the name of a specialist who can give you helpful information.
  • Find out your child's best learning style. Does your child do best through reading or listening? Would a demonstration or hands-on practice work better? For example, if your child understands more when listening, let them learn new information by listening to an audio book.

Support your child

  • Celebrate and support your child's gifts and strengths.
  • Be honest with your child about the disability. Explain it in a way that your child can understand. And offer your love and support. Tell your child that some things may be hard for them, but they can succeed.
  • Help your child set goals. Show your child how to do homework or a project as a series of smaller tasks instead of one large task.
  • Teach your child to stay with a task or project until it is done.
  • Help make time for your child to get daily play and exercise.

Get help

  • Teach and show your child that it is okay to ask for help. Whenever you make a mistake, talk to your child about how you learn from it.
  • Show your child how to plan and study, or find someone who can. Ask the school about getting a tutor.
  • Work as a team with your child's teachers.
  • If you have concerns about your or your child's mental health, look into counseling. Counseling may be able to help you and your child manage any feelings that you have.

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Current as of: June 24, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.