Learning Disability Assessment: School and Beyond

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Do these comments sound familiar?

“He has the ability, if he just tried harder, he could do it. He chooses not to do the work.” “If she would just pay attention, she would get it.” “After I give the instructions, he sits there and stares at his paper. He is not motivated.” “Maybe he needs medication. He just can’t focus.” “I hate going to parent-teacher conferences feeling blamed for not making him do more homework, but it’s just a meltdown night after night.”

So many students are easily labeled with motivation problems, ADHD, or emotional disorders, but are we actually missing an underlying processing disorder that affects learning?

What signs might suggest a learning disability?

The symptoms of learning disabilities are a diverse set of characteristics that affect development and achievement. Some of these symptoms can be found in any child at some point or another. However, a person with learning disabilities has a cluster of these symptoms, which do not diminish as s/he grows older.

Most frequently displayed symptoms of a learning disability:

  • Short attention span
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Poor reading and/or writing ability, or poor math skills
  • Eye-hand coordination problems
  • Disorganization and other sensory difficulties

Other characteristics that may be present:

  • Things change from day to day
  • Says one thing, means another
  • Difficult to discipline
  • Does not adjust well to change
  • Difficulty telling time and knowing right from left
  • Difficulty sounding out words
  • Reverses letters or numbers
  • Difficulty understanding words
  • Delayed speech development
  • Low frustration tolerance resulting in disruptive behavior

How do I know if a learning disability is really the cause of these symptoms?

The process of testing for learning disabilities varies, depending on the setting. School criteria for determining a learning disability hinges upon the eligibility for special education services. Just because a child has learning difficulties does not mean s/he will be eligible for Special Education as a student with a Specific Learning Disability. When a school is performing testing, their main focus is eligibility.

In the past, learning disabilities used to be determined by measuring the discrepancy between intellect and academic achievement. If there was a large enough span between IQ and achievement test scores, a learning disability was diagnosed. However, this model of diagnosis is currently shifting.

Locally, this shift is toward a Pattern of Strengths & Weaknesses model that helps educators gather data from multiple points (individual testing, classroom performance, grades, standardized testing scores, etc). Because the purpose of testing is to decide if the student needs assistance to do the academic work, the criteria focuses primarily on academic performance factors. This allows schools to better understand several settings or circumstances that might also affect performance. If concerns are noted, to meet educational criteria for a specific learning disability a student often must be performing below the 12th percentile in a given subject, and they must have strengths in other subjects or domains. In this way, a “pattern of strengths and weaknesses” shows that the student has a specific weakness(es) in one or a few areas, but has abilities in others.

But current guidelines also suggest that the student must be performing low enough in the “weak” subject to necessitate Special Education services (Kent ISD Special Education Evaluation and Eligibility Manual – August, 2009, pg. 8). For example, a student who is intellectually gifted in reading and writing but is struggling in Math may still be getting average grades.

Parents see the student’s struggle to learn Math, but because the student’s grades are still average s/he is not able to get assistance. The school is not required to provide additional supports to bring up the Math grades to the performance levels for Reading and Writing. This also impacts students with a learning disability but also have a strong work ethic that enables them to get passing grades. This process can be quite frustrating for parents, who don’t want to see their child slip to the bottom of the class before getting help.

Some schools are employing a Response to Intervention Model (RTI) in the elementary grades. This model provides supports for any student who doesn’t meet specific benchmarks. In this model all students in the class are regularly measured for specific skill proficiency. If anyone fails to show mastery of the skills s/he might be offered small group intervention, additional instruction, and/or other intervention within the regular classroom setting. This often means students get help earlier than in the past, but the interventions aren’t necessarily customized to the student and if a student truly has a disability and doesn’t respond to the intervention, the special education evaluation process begins.

From a neuropsychological perspective, however, we don’t have to wait until a student has “failed” or is struggling significantly to understand where the “glitches” are. Different areas of the brain are involved in thinking and learning, and processing difficulties might signal an area of the brain that is not interpreting what it sees or hears, or regulating the sensory inputs. For example, there can be a variety of processing difficulties that can cause a reading disorder. Neuropsychological testing can help understand exactly where the processing breakdown occurs.

Neuropsychological testing may also be able to identify any potential problems long before the student actually shows evidence of lower grades. While RTI may help students who do not have “true” LD but need extra support to catch up, the process may delay the identification of a learning disability and the necessary early intervention. As Dr. Sally Shawitz notes in her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, “The human brain is resilient, but there is no question that early intervention and treatment bring about more positive change at a faster pace than an intervention provided to an older child” (pg. 120).

Even children as young as 4-5 years of age may exhibit specific auditory or visual processing disorders that can hinder their learning in pre-school or kindergarten. Similarly, attention difficulties don’t necessarily stem from ADD/ADHD or frontal lobe impairment. There are a multitude of concerns that can make it difficult for a student to focus on academic content, but unless we evaluate the various areas of processing, we are just guessing about what might be helpful.

About the Authors: Dr. Rochelle Manor, PhD. is a co-owner and neuropsychologist at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Manor has a special interest in diagnostic assessment especially of learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. To learn more about Dr. Manor, click here.

Dr. Mary Rozendal, PhD., ET/P is founder and director of Encourage Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Rozendal has extensive experience in K-12 general, special, and music education. To learn more about Dr. Rozendal, click here.