Practice Note:  Specific Learning Disability is only a label – What is the Disability?

When schools evaluate children for specific learning disabilities, their assessments are often what I call "eligibility assessments."  This means that the school evaluates the child in order to determine whether the student has a specific learning disability.  In the past, the presence of a learning disability was determined by giving the child a psych-ed evaluation.  This meant that an intellectual (I.Q.) and an achievement evaluation is administered to the child.  If the child has a discrepancy of more that 1 to 1.5 (depending on age) standard deviation in any area of achievement, then that child may be considered to have a specific learning disability.  Today, another diagnostic method (Response to Intervention - RtI) is largely replacing the "discrepancy" method in Florida and in many parts of the country.  This evaluative process focuses upon determining whether a child's academic difficulties can be remediated through the applications of general education interventions.  If the academic problems are resistant to these interventions, the child may be considered to have a learning disability.  (This definition and explanation of RtI is very limited - for more information - see 

Unfortunately most school’s and school psychologist usually stop the evaluation process at this point (either through the discrepancy model or RtI).  Too often the school is able to tell the parent(s) that the child, by definition, does have a learning disability, but they are unable to define clearly and precisely how the disability actually affects the student’s ability to learn. 

A learning disability is always the result of the child having difficulty processing information.  This means that the child is able, through one of the senses (e.g. auditorily, visually, tactile, etc.), to receive information from his or her environment, but when the brain tries to "process" this information, a problem develops. 

Visual Processing:  For example, a child may be able to see the words and letters on a page, but the brain flips the letters around, making it difficult to correctly decode the words and assign meaning to the resulting word.  Another child may see the information, for example on the whiteboard, but has difficulty holding that information in his or her "visual memory" long enough to transcribe the information onto the child's notebook.  (This latter may also be discribed as a short-term memory issues - see below).

Spacial Processing:  Another child may "see" as well as another, but the brain has difficulty translating the information "seen" into an effective understanding of that child's precise location in the environment or space (these children may bump into things, not understand "personal space").  These children may seem clumsy tripping over their own feet, bumping into walls as they walk down a hallway.

Auditory Processing:  A child may be able to hear language as well as another, but the brain may have difficulty assigning meaning to the words being heard.  On the extreme end of the spectrum it may be extremely difficult for the child to understand language (Autism).  There are, however, many children who are simply slower at decoding language, who may confuse similar sounding words, or who have difficulty holding auditory information in their short-term memory.  I think that in a way cordical deafness is actually an extreme auditory processing problem.  The part of the brain assigned the role of "understanding" sounds, malfunctions so badly that the child may appear to be deaf.

Tactile Processing:  Some children have difficulty processing information that they receive through their tactile senses.  Similar to the Spacial Processing above, these children may have difficulty applying appropriate pressure on writing instruments.  While this may not seem to have to great an impact upon a child's academic successful, I have met a child whose tactile processing issues had a major impact on the child's education.  This child was blind.  This is not a visual processing problem because the deficit is in the child's ability to receive the information.  The problem is physical.  Unfortunately, the child also had a tactile processing deficit.  When she tried to read braille the tactile senses from her fingers were somehow reversed and confused by the part of her brain assigned the role of "understanding" or assigning meaning to her tactile senses.

Short or Long-term Memory:  Another child may hear, see, or otherwise "sense" environmental information accurately, but may have difficulty "holding" that information in "memory" long enough to be able to use the information effectively.  This deficit can be a "short-term," memory deficit, such as where a child has difficult holding immediate math information in his or her memory long enough to use that information to solve math problems.  This same deficit can make it difficult for the child to remember, what she or he just read.  The deficit can be a "long-term memory deficit, much means that the child has difficulty in moving received information from short-term memory into long-term memory. 

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Teaching to the strengths:  As important as it is to understand the nature of a child's learning disability, I have found that it is equally vital to understand the exact nature of the child's strengths.  I am not referring to the usual "he is sweet and socialable" information usually listed under "strengths" on an IEP.  I am that in the same way that a child might have a clearly identified "deficit," the child may well have a strength in certain areas of processing.  This strength may be actual, in that the strength exists as compared to a national norm, or the strength may be relative, in that it exists as compared to the child's deficits.

This means that it is not only important to identify the type of learning disability as child has, but it is very important to know the child's specific learning strengths.  This is because an effective teacher will focus teaching methodology, which plays to the child's strengths.  A good example is with children with autism.  We have learned that these children who have a recognized auditory deficit.  We have also learned that many of these children actually have significant strengths in the visual domain.  Simply put one would want to devise an educational plan, which leans heavily upon the visual presentation of academic information.

The key issue:  These processing problems will be different from child to child.  One child might have difficult processing certain visual information, while another might have problems processing certain auditory information.  Another child might have difficulty processing or retaining short-term or long-term memory.  The point here is that it is essential for the educator to know the exact nature of the child's processing problem.  It is only when one understands this, that one can begin to understand how to accommodate and provide appropriate instruction to a child with a learning disability.

In my experience, schools seem to dismiss the importance of understanding the exact nature of a child's learning disability.  This may be because teachers are taught to provide "multisensory instruction."  The idea is that when a child receives multisensory instruction, presumably the instruction will "hit" the child's preferred or most effective learning mode. 

While I would not fault the logic behind "multisensory" approaches, I find that far too often, however, teachers do not understand what is meant by "multisensory" instruction.  I will often ask a teacher what she/he means by multisensory and they will begin to describe how they sprinkle various sensory approaches throughout the academic day.  They will show a DVD here, do some lecturing here, allow some hands-on learning here.  The problem with that is if a child has an identified severe auditory processing problem, then the teacher's lecture will be largely lost on the child.  The child will be more easily distracted and may engage in "off-task" behaviors or act out.  True multisensory teaching means that every important piece of information is taught through an integrated program of multisensory presentation.  One could argue, in fact, that it may be very important that a child with a severe sensory deficit, not be asked to sit through a relatively long session of what might be an inaccessible presentation.

The essential point here is that unless we understand how the disability specifically affects the student, we cannot know how to best teach the child or to help the student overcome the disability.  In the same way we need to know the child's learning strengths.  It is, thus, vitally important that the advocate not accept incomplete assessment.  The school must be able to explain the nature of the student’s disability and to identify the appropriate methodologies for supporting the student’s learning. 

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