We work hard to make learning an enjoyable experience, but for some students, it’s inherently complicated. Whether creating an inclusive classroom setting, leading a summer camp, or running an after school program, it’s imperative that you recognize and respect the needs of children with learning disabilities who may be in your care.
What Learning Disability Means
The term learning disabilities describes a broad category of conditions that impact one’s capacity to engage in academic activities. Like subjects in school, the types of learning disabilities are deeply varied. Conditions impacting everything from comprehension to coordination can be found beneath the blanket term “learning disabilities.”
“Learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, the disorders are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age.”
Practically, learning disabilities can also mean an uphill battle is ahead for those who experience them – especially if they do not have an official diagnosis or resources to help them. Learning disabilities can prompt bullying from peers, lead to a disinterest in education, and inhibit the growth of a child’s self-esteem.
By understanding learning disabilities and their symptoms, we can help youth thrive in and beyond the classroom.
How Common are Learning Disabilities?
Learning disabilities are very common. In the United States, 4 million children under 18 have learning disabilities, equating to at least 1 in every 59 children.
And studies of adults allude to the possibility of a massive under-diagnosis problem. The Learning Disabilities Association of America found that 60% of adults with literacy problems had undetected or undiagnosed learning disabilities. While the signs may be hard to spot, early intervention is key to a student’s success in and beyond the classroom.
With early detection and swift assistance, a child’s academic trajectory can remain positive and on pace.
“Receiving help in the early grades greatly improves the chances for these kids to adapt learning strategies that will enable them to succeed in school. Among children who struggle with basic reading and language skills the most common learning problems 75% of those who do not receive help until the third grade will struggle with reading throughout their lives. But if those same kids receive appropriate help by the first grade, fully 90% of them will [meet standards].”
However, despite the prevalence of learning disabilities and our understanding of how to empower youth who have them, services are often not provided. Only a fraction of youth with learning disabilities currently receive services that include special education.
Common Learning Disabilities
As educators, caregivers, and program leaders, there is a sense of urgency involved in identifying and understanding the learning needs of the youth in our care. Digging deeper into typical signs of common learning disabilities is an excellent place to start.
“Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms that results in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading.”
Dyslexia is an extremely common learning disability. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity reports that dyslexia affects 20% of the population and accounts for up to 90% of people with learning disabilities. While we often associate the condition with difficulty reading, dyslexia can present difficulties with oral language skills and writing, as well.
Common Signs of Dyslexia
Early signs of dyslexia can vary based on a child’s age. However, there are a few agreed-upon indicators that a student may be struggling with dyslexia.
- Late talking
- Learning new words slowly
- Problems forming words correctly, such as reversing sounds in words or confusing words that sound alike
- Problems remembering or naming letters, numbers and colors
- Difficulty learning nursery rhymes or playing rhyming games
- Difficulty spelling simple words
- Reluctance to read aloud in class
- Trouble sounding out new words
- Spending an unusually long time completing tasks that involve reading or writing
- Difficulty summarizing a story
- Trouble learning a foreign language
- Difficulty doing math word problems
- Avoiding activities that involve reading
- Reading well below the expected level for age
- Problems processing and understanding what is heard
- Difficulty finding the right word or forming answers to questions
- Problems remembering the sequence of things
- Problems identifying letters similar to each other, such as “d” and “b” or “p” and “q”
While these are not the only symptoms that can flag the presence of dyslexia, they are common indicators of this highly prevalent disability.
How to Help
With the right support, youth with dyslexia can still reach academic milestones, including pursuing higher education. Here are a few things you can do to help students with dyslexia:
- Suggest testing. Recognizing the signs of dyslexia and proposing that a child be formally assessed can help connect that child with the services they need.
- Teach decoding. Decoding is the ability to apply and understand letter-sound relationships. Help your students with dyslexia by working on letter patterns and correct pronunciation.
- Offer alternatives. Reading and writing may put more strain on a child’s learning than necessary. Give students with dyslexia a chance to try:
- Listening to audiobooks as an alternative to reading
- Typing on a computer or tablet instead of writing
- Apps that can make learning fun by turning decoding into a game
- Using a ruler to help kids read in a straight line, which can help keep them focused
- Provide accommodations. Help kids with dyslexia by equipping them with the tools and freedoms they need to succeed, including
- Extra time on tests
- A quiet space to work
- The option to record lectures
- The option to give verbal, rather than written, answers (when appropriate)
- Elimination of oral reading in class
“Dyscalculia is a math learning disorder that makes mathematical reasoning and computation difficult, in spite of adequate education, average or greater intelligence, and proper motivation.”
Dyscalculia is understudied compared to highly common learning disabilities like dyslexia. From what we know, the math-specific learning disability impacts 3-6% of the population and disproportionately affects women and girls. It is characterized by difficulty in understanding number concepts.
Common Signs of Dyscalculia
Remember that dyscalculia deals not only with mathematical difficulties but also with any numbers-based concept. A child may be dyscalculic if they:
- Have difficulty recognizing numbers
- Be delayed in learning to count
- Struggle to connect numerical symbols (5) with their corresponding words (five)
- Have difficulty recognizing patterns and placing things in order
- Lose track when counting
- Need to use visual aids — like fingers — to help count
- Have significant difficulty learning basic math functions like addition and subtraction, times tables and more
- Are unable to grasp the concepts behind word problems and other non-numerical math calculations
- Have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a task
- Struggle with math homework assignments and tests
- Have difficulty keeping at grade-level in math
- Struggle to process visual-spatial ideas like graphs and charts
- Have trouble remembering numbers such as zip codes, phone numbers, or game scores
- Struggle with money matters such as making change, counting bills, calculating a tip, splitting a check or estimating how much something will cost
- Have difficulty judging the length of distances and how long it will take to get from one location to another
- Struggle to remember directions
- Have a hard time telling left from right
- Get easily frustrated by games that require consistent scorekeeping, number strategies, or counting
- Have difficulty reading clocks and telling time
Though dyscalculia is tricky to identify, the biggest indicator is a gap between a student’s intellect and their mathematical ability. Students with high aptitude in other areas but facing significant difficulty with math may be dealing with dyscalculia.
How to Help
With such an elusive disorder, spotting the signs is already a huge help to students with dyscalculia. Here are a few more ways you can help them thrive:
- Make math tangible. Using physical objects to represent numbers and mathematical concepts can make them more real for youth with dyscalculia. Being able to manipulate dominoes, blocks, tokens, or other physical items while they work out math problems will make the concepts easier to follow.
- Use vocabulary. Though numbers may be troubling for a student, warming them up to math concepts can start with a skill they already know – vocabulary. Work on math words, so they feel familiar when the student encounters them in math class, including
- More Than
- Offer accommodations. Give students everything they need to take on math class with confidence including
- A calculator to check their work
- Extra time on tests
- Tutoring or extra instruction
- Pencils (for erasing!)
- Graph paper to help keep columns and numbers straight
- Pre-set phone reminders and alarms to help keep track of time
- Math apps and games that allow them to practice essential skills in a fun way
- Be supportive. Helping kids with dyscalculia requires just as much emotional support as it does academic instruction. Encourage their self-esteem and quell their anxieties along the way.
“Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder characterized by writing disabilities. Specifically, the disorder causes a person’s writing to be distorted or incorrect. In children, the disorder generally emerges when they are first introduced to writing. They make inappropriately sized and spaced letters, or write wrong or misspelled words, despite thorough instruction.”
Definitions of dysgraphia can differ, which makes it difficult to pin down its exact prevalence. However, the National Library of Medicine estimates that between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing. Unlike dyscalculia, dysgraphia is more common in boys than in girls.
Common Signs of Dysgraphia
The close relationship between writing and language comprehension makes dysgraphia tough to distinguish from other learning disabilities at times. There are a few telltale signs, though, including issues with
- Letter formation and/or legibility
- Letter size and spacing
- Fine motor coordination
- Rate or speed of writing
- Writing in a straight line
- Holding and controlling a writing tool
- Writing letters in reverse
- Recalling how letters are formed
- Knowing when to use lower or upper case letters
- Forming written sentences with correct grammar and punctuation
- Omitting words from sentences
- Incorrectly ordering words in sentences
- Using verbs and pronouns incorrectly
Presenting one or more of these indicators does not immediately imply the presence of dysgraphia, but prolonged or profound difficulty with learning to write may be a sign of this learning disability.
How to Help
Writing is a big part of our participation in school. Give kids with dysgraphia the help they need by:
- Providing assessments. Medical testing is not available to identify dysgraphia, but there are examinations that can be administered by a trained professional to determine if the condition is present. These include formalized handwriting assessments and the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration which assesses a child’s ability to intertwine their visual and motor skills.
- Creating a sensory experience. Instead of putting pen to paper, allow youth with dysgraphia to create letters in other mediums. Tracing letters into clay, using a finger to draw a letter pattern in their palm, or creating letters in sand can help students gain a fun familiarity with how letters are made.
- Swapping your paper. Writing in a straight line and keeping sentences organized are tough for people with dysgraphia. Instead of standard lined paper, try offering graph paper as an alternative.
- Accepting alternatives. Like swapping out your paper, different methods for recording information may help kids with dysgraphia. Learning to type or narrate their notes may empower them.
The More You Learn, The More They Learn.
The more we know about learning disabilities, the better equipped we are to empower students who have them.
But we’ve only just scratched the surface of learning disabilities here. We encourage you to continue educating yourself and others with some of the sources we relied on to compile this overview.
Sources for common symptoms and ways to help cited in this article include:
And as always, you have an inclusive resource here with us at Kids Included Together.
With courses, templates, checklists, and activity ideas, we have your back on how to make any environment inclusive for students with disabilities of all types.