9 Things Teachers Wish You Knew About Learning Disabilities

Updated: Mar. 14, 2022

You might think you know all about learning disabilities, but getting the facts will help all types of learners get the help and understanding they need to succeed.

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There are many types of learning disabilities

When you hear about learning disabilities, you probably think of school children having trouble with reading, writing, or math—and that might mean dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia respectively. But learning disabilities are neurological processing problems that take many forms. They can be manifested in hearing (auditory processing disorder), speaking (language processing disorder), and weakness in such areas as eye-hand coordination and interpreting nonverbal cues. Learning disabilities cannot be cured, but with proper intervention and support, those with learning disabilities can do well in school, at work, and in life. (Don’t confuse learning disabilities with ADHD.)

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Learning disabilities affect everyone

Learning disabilities are the most prevalent handicapping condition covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guides special education. About 2.3 million children out of a total 6.5 million in special education have a learning disability. Learning disabilities do not discriminate; they impact children of all ethnicities and income levels. They can run in families. They are not generally treatable via medicine. Those with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence, yet 20 percent of students with a learning disability drop out of school. You do not grow out of a learning disability.

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Dyslexia is not the same things as a learning disability

The word “dyslexia” is commonly used as a term for learning disability, but it is important not to use the words interchangeably. Nonetheless, dyslexia is the best-known type of learning disability because it impacts reading, and reading is the fundamental skill for success in school. As such, how schools teach reading has a great deal to do with how kids with dyslexia perform. Unfortunately, some approaches to reading make it more difficult for students with dyslexia. These are the myths about dyslexia most of us still believe.


Schools don’t know how to teach kids with dyslexia

There is a long running disagreement on the best way to teach reading—whole language or phonics. Whole language says expose kids to books, read to them, excite them about books, and reading will develop. Phonics says teach kids how to break down letters and combinations of letters into sounds and words to develop the building blocks of reading. At the beginning of this century, a major study of reading by the federal government concluded that phonics was clearly the better approach. But colleges of education have been slow to change from whole language and few prepare elementary school teachers in phonics-based approaches. There are still many ways to make reading fun for your child.

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Some schools don’t even recognize dyslexia

Sometimes kids with learning disabilities are caught between the education and health-care systems. We all agree that learning disabilities are neurological (brain-based) problems, but a pediatrician does not treat learning disabilities, and health insurance does not cover them. Perhaps you have noticed that in the past decade, families of children with autism—which is not a learning disability—organized around the leadership of Autism Speaks to make sure treatment for autism is covered under health insurance. (These are the signs of autism to never ignore.) Well, parents of children with dyslexia have organized via Decoding Dyslexia to advocate at the state level that a standard definition of dyslexia, mandatory teacher training, early screening, and other best practices are implemented within the public schools.


The politicalization of learning disabilities

Along with Decoding Dyslexia and Autism Speaks, other advocacy organizations for children with disabilities are becoming more politically organized and active. Supported by the power of social media and embracing the rapid developments in neurobiology and other sciences, these groups are often bypassing public education and taking a legislative route to fight for the services and protections they want for their children. They are also gearing up for what will likely be a real battle when the federal law for special education is reauthorized in coming years. Here’s why your brain needs to read every day.

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You can advocate for your child

Parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability should reach out to their school for assistance. By law, public schools must respond to parents who ask for their children to be evaluated for a learning disability. There are very real obstacles for most school districts to respond quickly to these requests–personnel shortages, a backlog of evaluation requests, and budgetary issues, just to note a few. Be polite and persistent with your public school, join a local advocacy group such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and seek a private evaluation of your child if necessary. (These are the things your principal won’t tell you—but you’ll want to know.)


Lots of very successful people have learning disabilities

Remember, people do not grow out of a learning disability. While it is encouraging to see a Hollywood celebrity, major athlete, or a political figure with a learning disability, it is crucial to keep in mind that they each contend with their disability on a daily basis, whether it is trouble reading a script, memorizing a playbook, or depending on a personal assistant to stay on schedule. Their success can inspire us to persist in not letting the challenges of a learning disability stop our growth.

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Nothing beats a parent’s love and support

Kids with learning disabilities are not lazy. No matter how hard they try or what rewards or penalties are set up, without the right approaches designed to address the disability, reading or writing, or even tying a shoe can be demoralizing. Many parents regret what they thought and how they acted toward their child before they knew the child had a learning disability. Here is a quick and simple way to understand how it feels to have a learning disability: If you are right-handed, cross you right leg over your left knee and spin your foot in a counterclockwise circle. Now write your name. Tough, isn’t it? Remember to pour on that love and support. Here are some tiny ways to encourage your child every day.

Mark K. Claypool and John M. McLaughlin are CEO and Director of Research and Analytics respectively for ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy and Education, which provides services for at-risk students and students with special needs in 27 states. Their latest book is How Autism Is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA.