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Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities Overview

The term learning disability (also referred to as learning disorder, learning difficulty, and learning difference) is applied to a range of impairments that impede a persons ability to learn, think, speak, read, write, spell, and do math. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, adolescent and teen learning disabilities fall into one of the following four categories:

  1. Input (problems with auditory or visual perception)
  2. Integration (problems with sequencing, organizing or understanding certain abstract concepts)
  3. Memory (problems with the ability to store and retrieve information from both short- and long-term memory )
  4. Output (problems with language or basic motor skills)

Common types of learning disabilities include auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dysphasia, dyscalculia, and nonverbal learning disorder.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities describes learning disabilities in the following terms:

People with [learning disabilities] are of average or above-average intelligence and do not have any major sensory problems such as blindness or hearing impairment or cognitive challenges like mental retardation. Still, they may struggle to keep up with people of the same age in acquiring basic academic skills and in daily functioning.

It has been estimated that as many as 2.5 million children, adolescents, and teenagers in the United States have some type of learning disability.

Causes of a Learning Disability

There is no one cause of learning disabilities. Mental health professionals and other experts believe that a range of causes increase the likelihood that a child, adolescent, or teenager will develop a learning disability. Among these possible causes are genetics, environmental issues, and developmental problems that occur before birth.

Some experts believe that “errors” or malformations during fetal brain development may manifest as learning disorders later in life. For example, if cellular networks do not form correctly within the brain, the ability to understand or even remember information may be compromised.

Genetics also appear to play a role in increasing the risk factor for learning disabilities, as researchers have noted that parents who have learning disorders are more likely to have children with similar learning disorders. Of course, family can also have an environmental impact on the development of learning disorders, as parents who fail to model positive learning behaviors may make it more difficult for their children to develop the skills they need in order to be successful in the classroom.

In addition to family dynamics, other environmental factors may also increase the likelihood that a student will develop a learning disorder. For example, if a woman smokes, drinks alcohol, or uses other drugs while pregnant, her child may be born with a wide range of potential disorders, including learning disorders.

Even after the child is born, environmental factors such as exposure to lead (for example, in lead-based paints) can impede healthy development and result in learning disorders.

Symptoms of a Learning Disability

Symptoms of learning disorders will vary widely depending upon the type of learning disorder that a student has. Common symptoms of the more prevalent learning disorders include the following:

  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) — Students who have auditory processing disorder (also referred to as “word deafness” may have difficulty recognizing subtle differences between sounds. This inability to differentiate between words whose meanings are significantly different (but whose sounds are similar) can lead to significant frustration in a classroom environment.
  • Dyslexia — Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that affects reading comprehension. Students who have dyslexia (which is often referred to as “Developmental Reading Disorder” have difficulty recognizing certain symbols (such as letters). This learning disorder may lead to students transposing certain letters (for example, seeing a “p” as a “b”. It may also impair a student’s ability to match sounds with written letters and words.
  • Dysgraphia — Dysgraphia is a learning disability that is characterized by the student’s inability to express his or her thoughts via handwriting. For many dysgraphic students, the problem relates to an inability to properly sequence symbols — for example, letters will be transposed or entire words will be written out of order. Because it can be difficult to tell dysgraphia apart from poor handwriting, this learning disorder is not identified nearly as often as dyslexia is.
  • Dysphasia — Dysphasia (or, as this learning disorder is also commonly referred to, aphasia) is a learning disorder marked by impaired ability to speak and to comprehend speech. Some dysphasic students have trouble naming certain objects, while others have a complete lack of speech. Testing for dysphasia often involves evaluating a student’s ability to speak with some level of fluency, to comprehend spoken words, to repeat words that have been spoken, and to name selected objects.
  • Dyscalculia — Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a student’s ability to perform mathematical calculations. Just as dyslexic students may see letters out of order, and dysgraphic students may write letters out of order, students with dyscalculia may have trouble seeing or placing numerals in the correct order. Other symptoms of dyscalculia include an inability to follow numbers on a number line, to grasp the concept of positive or negative numbers, or to comprehend place values in numbers.
  • Nonverbal Learning Disorder — Also known as Nonverbal Learning Disability and NLD, this learning disorder is a developmental disability in which students who have high verbal acuity nonetheless perform very poorly on standardized tests. Students with NLD may often also have difficulty with visual acuity, motor/spatial skills, and socialization. While the term “Nonverbal Learning Disorder” may appear to indicate that students with this learning disability have trouble forming and using words, the opposite is actually the case. NLD students are likely to be highly verbal and have advanced vocabularies, but have great difficulty solving problems, relating to others in social situations, or even recognizing faces.

Treatment For Learning Disabilities

The optimal treatment for any student with a learning disability is dependent upon a number of factors, including the age of the student, the nature and severity of the learning disability, and the presence of other disorders and disabilities that may have contributed to or been exacerbated by the learning disability in question.

In many cases, providing additional attention and modified learning techniques are crucial elements in helping a student with a learning disability achieve academic success. For example, a dyslexic student may need to have an exam read to him or her by a teacher’s aide, while a dysgraphic student may need to use a word processing program in order to complete written assignment, while a student with dysphasia may need to work with a speech therapist or other professional in order to develop the skills to overcome this learning disorder.

The most important factor when dealing with a student who has a learning disability is ensuring that the student’s school is aware of the learning disability and has taken all necessary steps to ensure that the student has been provided with the assistance and adaptations that are necessary for that student to pursue academic success.