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In many schools and organizations, the term “learning disability” has been replaced with “learning difference.” Disability implies a person can’t learn—but we know that’s not true! One in five kids are diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia, among other learning differences. With the right accommodations, resources, and instruction, they thrive in the classroom and in life!

Students with learning differences are bright! They are creative and intuitive problem solvers who see, hear, and understand the world differently. Learning differences are not the result of low intelligence or poor vision—they are brain-based and biological. Heredity can also play a role, as these challenges often run in families. While some people struggle in only one area, it’s common to struggle in more than one. These difficulties include reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension, social competence, or motor coordination.

Dyslexia (Reading Disorder or Learning Disability in Reading)

In a clinical environment, dyslexia is often referred to as a reading disorder. In the public school evaluation and IEP process, it is called a specific learning disability in reading.

Dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language, leading to challenges in identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Individuals with dyslexia struggle with spelling and word recognition, as well as phonemic and phonological awareness. Due to poor word decoding skills, reading comprehension can also be impaired.

These difficulties have no connection to overall intelligence and are quite common. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia affects 20% of the population and represents 80-90% of all diagnosed learning disabilities. Early assessment, identification, and intervention are essential. When students with dyslexia are not identified and do not receive intervention, their reading difficulties continue into adulthood.

An educational evaluation is needed to determine if someone is dyslexic. The evaluation should compare expected and actual reading abilities while noting specific strengths and weaknesses. All aspects of the reading process should be examined to determine where the breakdown is occurring. There are evidence-based interventions that help students with dyslexia find success:

Signs of Dyslexia in Early Childhood

  • May talk later than most children
  • May have difficulty pronouncing words such as busgetti for spaghetti, mawn lower for lawn mower, etc.
  • May be slow to add new vocabulary words
  • May be unable to recall the right word
  • May have difficulty with rhyming
  • May have trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, months of the year, colors, shapes, how to spell and write his or her name
  • May have trouble interacting with peers
  • May be unable to follow multi-step directions or routines
  • Fine motor skills may develop more slowly than in other children
  • May have difficulty telling and/or retelling a story in the correct sequence
  • Often has difficulty separating sounds in words and blending sounds to make words

Signs of Dyslexia in Early Elementary

  • Has difficulty decoding single words (reading single words in isolation)
  • May be slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
  • May confuse small words: at, to, said, and, does, goes.
  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (d for b as in dog for bog), word reversals (tip for pit), inversions (m and w for u and n), transpositions (felt and left), and substitutions (house and home)
  • May transpose number sequences and confuse arithmetic signs
  • May have trouble remembering facts
  • May be slow to learn new skills; relies heavily on memorizing without understanding
  • May be impulsive and prone to accidents
  • May have difficulty planning
  • Often uses an awkward pencil grip (fist, thumb hooked over fingers, etc.)
  • May have trouble learning to tell time
  • May have poor fine motor coordination

Signs of Dyslexia in Middle Childhood

  • Is usually reading below grade level
  • May reverse letter sequences – soiled for solid, left for felt
  • May be slow to discern and to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other reading and spelling strategies
  • May have difficulty spelling; spells the same word differently on the same page
  • May avoid reading aloud
  • May have trouble with word problems in math
  • May write with difficulty with illegible handwriting; pencil grip is awkward, fist-like or tight
  • May avoid writing
  • May have slow or poor recall of facts
  • May have difficulty with comprehension
  • May have trouble with non-literal language (idioms, jokes, proverbs, slang)
  • May forget to hand in homework or to bring in homework
  • May have difficulty with planning and time management

Signs of Dyslexia in Older Students and Teens

  • May read very slowly with many inaccuracies
  • Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  • May procrastinate reading and writing tasks
  • May avoid writing
  • May have trouble summarizing and outlining
  • May have trouble answering open-ended questions on tests
  • May not adjust well to new setting or to change
  • May have difficulties with foreign languages
  • May work slowly
  • May have poor grasp of abstract concepts
  • May pay too little attention to details or focus too much on them
  • May misread information
  • May not complete assignments; may complete them and not hand them in
  • May have an inadequate vocabulary
  • May have an inadequate store of knowledge from previous reading
  • May have difficulty with planning and time management

Dysgraphia (Writing Disorder or Learning Disability in Writing)

In a clinical environment, dysgraphia is often referred to as a writing disorder. In the public school evaluation and IEP process, it is called a specific learning disability in writing.

Dysgraphia impairs an individual’s writing, including spelling accuracy, handwriting legibility, and the ability to express their thoughts on paper. Dysgraphia causes students to produce illegible or inconsistent writing, omit letters or words, fluctuate in their spacing between words and letters, use an awkward pencil grip/position, tire quickly while writing, and exhibit great difficulty while thinking and writing simultaneously.

Students with dysgraphia have writing skills that do not match their verbal skills, often causing parents and teachers to mistakenly think these students are lazy or lacking motivation. The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 7-15% of children have dysgraphia. Other learning differences like dyslexia and developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) can also cause a student to face challenges with certain aspects of writing, so an educational evaluation is important.

Evaluations should include assessment of a student’s writing ability, fine motor skills, and academic progress to get a sense of both writing quality and the physical act of writing itself. Remediation, accommodations, and modifications can help students with dysgraphia use their strengths to achieve writing success.

Some general strategies for inside and outside the classroom include:

  • Accommodations and assistive technology, i.e. speech-to-text
  • Modifying expectations or tasks by offering copies of notes and additional time to complete written work
  • Explicit and multisensory instruction for improving handwriting and writing skills

Dyscalculia (Math Disorder or Learning Disability in Math)

In a clinical environment, dyscalculia is often referred to as a math disorder. In the public school evaluation and IEP process, it is called a specific learning disability in mathematics.

Dyscalculia affects an individual’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based operations. Dyscalculia causes difficulty with number sense, quantitative reasoning, mental computation, measurements, pattern recognition, telling time, working with money, and fluency of mathematical facts and procedures.

Not all difficulties in math class are caused by dyscalculia. The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 5-7% of children have dyscalculia. Other learning differences like dyslexia, ADHD, and slow processing can also impact a student’s ability to successfully complete certain math problems.

An educational evaluation is needed to determine if someone has dyscalculia. The evaluation should compare expected and actual levels of skill and understanding, while noting specific strengths and weaknesses. Intervention, accommodations, specialized instruction, and extra support can help students with dyscalculia learn how to approach mathematics by using strengths to their advantage.

Some basic strategies for students with Dyscalculia include:

  • Teaching students different ways to approach math facts
  • Introducing new skills with concrete examples before moving to more abstract applications
  • Using graph paper to help line up numbers and problems

Executive Function Deficits

Executive Function (EF) refers to the set of skills that enable people to engage in goal-directed action. EF deficits can impair an individual’s ability to plan, problem-solve, organize, and manage time. Students with EF deficits may struggle to focus, start/complete tasks, follow directions, prioritize, keep track of their materials, and manage their emotions.

An EF deficit is not a stand-alone diagnosis, but often occurs as a result of another disorder. EF deficits are common for students with learning differences. These abilities begin developing in early childhood and continue well into adulthood, but deficits are typically identified when the school environment becomes more challenging and the academic expectations increase (middle school). It’s important to help students build these skills early.

A comprehensive evaluation that assesses multiple areas of learning and thinking can identify EF deficits. Combining this information with input from parents and teachers helps determine where challenges lie and understand what strategies may be effective moving forward.

There are many approaches that may help improve EF deficits, including:

  • Following or creating step-by-step instructions for completing work
  • Using tools like planners, reminder apps, and alarms
  • Preparing and frequently reviewing visual schedules and aides
  • Pairing written directions with verbal explanations whenever possible


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with several areas of functioning or development. ADHD can be predominantly Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive, or a combination of both.  

Typically, ADHD is diagnosed in childhood and occurs in approximately 7% of the population. ADHD is not diagnosed with a single test as there are several common conditions that overlap with the attention and behavior problems often seen in ADHD. These include: learning disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, cognitive dysfunction, and sleep disturbances.  

An ADHD evaluation needs to be comprehensive and include a thorough diagnostic and family history, an assessment of cognitive ability and academic skill development, standardized behavior rating forms completed by parents and teachers, and behavioral observations. Combining this information together will assess whether challenges with attention and behavior are best explained by ADHD or other conditions related to a child’s medical history, environment, or other common childhood conditions.  

Research suggests that the most effective treatment for ADHD is a combination of:

  • Medication
  • Deliberate use of behavioral strategies at the point-of-performance
  • Education about the nature of the condition and access to appropriate accommodations

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