Learning Disabilities at School: An Introduction

Teacher helping student with schoolwork

All children find school hard sometimes. But learning disabilities are different. A child with a learning disability may have average to above average intelligence. But he has a lot of trouble with reading, writing, or math.

Reading disability

Reading disabilities may include problems with:

  • phonological processing. This is  the ability to break up words into sounds. It is necessary to master the sound-to-symbol code of reading. This type of reading disability is sometimes called dyslexia. It can range from mild to severe.
  • reading fluency or reading speed
  • reading comprehension

Writing disability

Writing disabilities may include problems with:

  • composition: coming up with ideas, organizing ideas, or elaborating
  • spelling
  • grammar
  • handwriting

A problem with spelling or handwriting alone is not a writing disability. A handwriting problem by itself is a motor problem. A spelling problem by itself may be related to dyslexia.

Math disability

Math disability may involve problems with:

  • understanding math terms and operations
  • decoding written problems into math symbols
  • recognizing number symbols
  • grouping objects
  • copying numbers
  • using arithmetic signs correctly
  • remembering to “add in” carried numbers
  • following sequences of math steps
  • counting objects
  • learning multiplication tables

How do learning disabilities occur?

Learning disabilities occur when a child’s brain has problems working with specific types of information. This is called a processing deficit. It may cause problems with listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, remembering, spelling, or doing math.

Diagnosis of learning disabilities

Psychological assessment

Usually, to diagnose a learning disability, a child is assessed by a psychologist. The psychologist will first rule out global developmental delay and sensory problems. If the child’s achievement in reading, writing, or math is much lower than expected for age, exposure, and education, he may be diagnosed with a learning disability.

Many schools in Canada require a learning disability diagnosis in order for a child to receive special help.

There is usually a long wait before a child can see a psychologist through the school. Private assessments are faster but expensive.

Response to intervention (RTI)

Some schools boards have a system called response to intervention (RTI). In RTI, all children are assessed at the start of the school year. Their achievement is monitored regularly. A child who is not learning as quickly as his peers is given more intense instruction. If he catches up, he goes back to regular instruction. If he does not catch up, he will receive a more intense intervention. His progress is monitored. If the child is still not progressing appropriately, he may be referred for a psychological assessment.

The benefit of RTI is that children do not need to wait for an assessment to receive help. They get the help as soon as a problem is suspected. They are continuously monitored to determine if they need help.

Treatment for learning disabilities


There are many programs to help children with learning disabilities. These are called interventions. These can be done through special education or remediation. Remediation means to fix something.

Special education is done within the school system. Remediation can be done within the school. It can also be done with outside help. The terms intervention and remediation mean the same thing.

The younger a child is, the more likely it is that an intervention will be successful. However, it is never too late to start.

Mastering skills can help children with learning disabilities gain confidence.


Accommodations are changes in the classroom. They can help some children succeed despite their learning disability. Accommodations can be as simple as having someone take notes. Or they can be as sophisticated as having text-reading computer software.

Living with a learning disability

A learning disability is not anyone’s fault. Many people with learning disabilities say that their problems seemed worse before they understood their disability.

By learning about his differences, a child will grow to understand them. Through this understanding and support at home and in school, he can avoid shame. The effects of the disability can be reduced through intervention. And he can develop strong skills in other areas.

Key points

  • A child with a learning disability has significant problems in reading, writing, or math. These problems are not due to a global developmental delay or a sensory problem.
  • Learning disabilities are often diagnosed with a psychological assessment. This can be done through the school or privately.
  • Interventions are used to help children improve their skills when they have a learning disability.
  • Accommodations are changes in the classroom such as taking notes for the child.
​Ross Hetherington, PhD, CPsych