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Understanding Learning Disabilities

By Peter Chaban

One of the paradoxes seen in schools is the child who appears to be bright and capable, yet struggles to learn in the classroom. Initially, teachers and parents respond with the belief that the child may have a hearing problem or may need glasses. When these solutions do not pan out, the next approach is to assume that the child will grow out of it.

Usually in these cases, by Grade 4 or 5, when the child is expected to use math and reading skills to begin acquiring knowledge, it has become evident that the child has failed to develop these basic skills. As well, the child often appears to have difficulty following instructions or even organizing themselves. In fact, there is a good chance that this child may have a learning disability.

Students with learning disabilities are quite common in schools. In Ontario, 10% of students are identified as “exceptional” — in other words, they require special attention and programming. Half of these students have learning disabilities. In simpler terms, it is fair to say that almost every classroom in Ontario will have at least one student with learning disabilities.

Yet, if students with learning disabilities are so common, why are schools so slow to identify kids with LD, and why are many teachers unequipped to work with these students? Part of the problem lies in the definition of a learning disability. There is no standard definition of a learning disability. In Ontario, for example, the Ministry of Education lists learning disabilities under the general category of  “communication exceptionalities.”

The situation is not unique — across North America, there is a continuing struggle between governments and school boards around defining LD and establishing standards of practice to determine what programs and services are best for children with LD. The issue of who should pay for these programs and services is also contentious.

Students with LD are often described as having problems with processing information, especially language-based information. Because this description is so general, it opens the door for individual school boards to develop their own definition of what constitutes a learning disability, and more importantly, the type of programs or interventions used.

As a result, parents who move their child with LD to different school boards find that there are no program standards across Ontario. A child who is identified as exceptional by one school board may in fact not be identified similarly by another school board.

Organizations such as The Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO) and Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC), have commissioned researchers to develop a standardized definition of learning disability that all professionals who work with children, including teachers, physicians, and psychologists across Canada can use. What these definitions do is help pinpoint for professionals — as well as parents — what a learning disability actually is. The belief is that this will allow for a better grasp of learning disabilities and therefore a better plan to deal with learning disabled students.

Here are four important points to consider from the LDAO’s definition of a learning disability:

  • Learning disabilities affect the acquisition, retention, organization, and understanding of verbal and non-verbal information.
  • A learning disability is not a single condition, but could be any one of a variety of learning impairments. Learning problems can be specific to reading, writing, or math, or to organization and integration of information. It can be specific to one area or can affect many areas, which is why it is essential to understand the individual profile of each child with a learning disability.
  • Learning disabilities can range from mild to moderate to severe. This has implications for the amount of intervention offered by a school. Some students may need simple accommodations such as more time to do work, while other students with a severe learning disability will need highly trained teachers and supportive technologies to be able to succeed with learning in school.
  • Students with learning disabilities have average to above-average abilities necessary for thinking and reasoning; however, their academic achievement is significantly below what would be anticipated based on their intellectual ability. It is a specific learning disability that undermines their ability to achieve their academic potential in school. This is often referred to the “discrepancy model” for learning disabilities. In this model, students with LD are different from students identified with mild intellectual deficits or developmental disorders. This distinction is made to ensure that schools will use appropriate programs for both groups.

As parents, we can only truly begin to help our children with learning disabilities when we understand the nature of learning disabilities and the diversity of profiles within the definition. This is especially important for teachers and other professionals who are charged with planning appropriate programs for students with LD. Designing a program without having a clear picture of why a student is struggling with reading or writing or math only compounds the problem and sets that student up for frustration, failure, and reduced self-worth.

The more informed we are about how our children with an LD learn, the better we will be at designing and deliveringschool programs for success.

In a future column I will talk about the discrepancy model for learning disabilities: what it is, its pros and cons.

Peter Chaban is a teacher researcher, head of the School Liaison Team, Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children, and learning disabilities representative for the Ontario Minister's Advisory Council on Special Education.

Learning & Education columns by Peter Chaban


Peter Chaban is a teacher researcher, head of the School Liaison Team, Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children, and learning disabilities representative for the Ontario Minister's Advisory Council on Special Education.

Learning & Education columns by Peter Chaban