A learning disability is a learning disorder that results in difficulty acquiring knowledge and skills at the level expected at a given age; learning disorders are associated with difficulty speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability.
A learning disability is a specific developmental disorder that inhibits or interferes with the skills of learning, including speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematical ability. A learning-disabled child is defined legally as one whose level of academic achievement is two or more years below the standard for the child's age and IQ level. However, having a learning disability does not mean an individual child is not able to learn; rather that the individual learns differently. It is estimated that about 20% of school-age children in the United States are diagnosed with learning disabilities, of whom 66% are boys. In 2011, 33% of youngsters with learning disabilities were held back one grade, and 50% were either suspended or expelled from school. High school students with learning disabilities have higher dropout rates than non-disabled students, but 68% graduate with a regular diploma.
Learning disabilities may include different areas of functioning and atypical ways of acquiring information. As such, learning disabilities often appear together with other disorders, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These disorders are thought to be caused by irregularities in the functioning of certain parts of the brain. Evidence suggests that these irregularities may be acquired genetically since an individual is more likely to develop a learning disability if other family members have them. However, learning disabilities are also associated with certain conditions occurring during fetal development or birth, including maternal use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; oxygen deprivation or injury during birth; or exposure to infection, low birth weight, or sensory deprivation in infancy.
Unfortunately, misconceptions also surround learning disabilities, including that poor diet, vaccinations, or excessive TV watching can cause learning disabilities, none of which are substantiated by research. Some parents also associate learning disabilities with intellectual disabilities, blindness, and deafness, or even laziness. Children with learning disabilities can experience stigma and discrimination from others.
Underachievement may be the first sign of a learning disability. However, other warning signs may include overall lack of organization, forgetfulness, and taking an unusually long time to complete assignments or tasks. If given verbal instruction, only one aspect of a task may be completed and other aspects ignored or forgotten. In the classroom, the child's teacher may observe one or more of the following characteristics: difficulty paying attention, unusual sloppiness and disorganization, social withdrawal, difficulty working independently, and trouble switching from one activity to another. In addition, certain general behavioral and emotional features often accompany learning disabilities, including impulsiveness, restlessness, distractibility, inattentiveness, poor physical coordination, low tolerance for frustration, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, daydreaming, and sometimes anger or sadness.
The principal forms of treatment for learning disabilities are remedial education and psychotherapy. Either may be provided alone, the two may be provided simultaneously, or one may follow the other. Individualized plans are often designed to suit a child's special learning requirements. Schools are required by law to provide specialized instruction or special education for children with learning disabilities. Remediation may take place privately with a tutor or in a school resource center. A remediator works with the child individually, often devising strategies to circumvent the barriers caused by the disability. A child with dyscalcula, for example, may be shown a shortcut or trick that involves memorizing a spatial pattern or design and then superimposing it on calculations of a specific type, such as double-digit multiplication problems. The most important aspect of remediation is finding new ways to solve old problems, which diverges from ordinary tutoring methods that use drill and repetition that are typically ineffective in dealing with learning disabilities. The earlier remediation is begun, the more effective it is. At the same time that they are receiving remedial help, children with learning disabilities spend as much time as possible in the regular classroom.
While remediation addresses the obstacles created by the learning disability itself, psychotherapy deals with the emotional and behavioral problems associated with the condition. The difficulties caused by learning disabilities are bound to affect a child's emotional state and behavior. The inability to succeed at tasks that pose no unusual problems for one's peers creates a variety of unpleasant feelings, including shame, doubt, embarrassment, frustration, anger, confusion, fear, and sadness. These feelings pose several dangers if they are allowed to persist over time. First, they may aggravate the disability: excessive stress can interfere with the performance of many tasks, especially those that are difficult to begin with. In addition, other, previously developed abilities may suffer as well, further eroding the child's self-confidence. Finally, destructive emotional and behavioral patterns that begin in response to a learning disability may become entrenched and extend to other areas of a child's life. Both psychoanalytic and behaviorally oriented methods are used in therapy for children with learning disabilities.
Sensitivity to the needs of students with learning disabilities continues to increase and has been extended to adults as well in some sectors. Some learning disabled adults have been accommodated by special measures such as extra time on projects at work. They may also be assigned tasks that do not require extensive written communication. For example, a learning disabled person might take customer service phone calls, rather than reading and processing customer comment cards.
Learning disabilities are lifelong, affecting not only children but young adults in college and adults of any age in the workplace. About 4.6 million Americans self-reported having learning disabilities in the 2010 U.S. Census. Because learning disabilities have no actual cure, they continue to affect the lives of learning-disabled people, and the strategies individuals may have learned to succeed in school must also be applied in their vocations.
See also Learning ; Learning development.
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Utley, Cheryl, et al. “Culturally Responsive Practices for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Learning Disabilities.” Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal 9, no. 1 (2011): 5–18.
Learning Disabilities Association of America, 4156 Library Rd., Pittsburgh, PA, 15234-1349, (412) 341-1515, http://ldaamerica.org .
National Center for Learning Disabilities, 99 Park Ave., New York, NY, 10016, (212) 687-7211