Identifying Learning Disorders in Children

Learning disorders (LDs) are a reality for many school-aged children. It is estimated that between 5 and 10% of Canadians have an LD, while approximately 20% of children in the school system are identified with some sort of exceptionality that impacts their learning. Although exceptionalities such as developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities indicate that the individual’s potential to learn is lower than others the same age, LDs indicate that a person is just as capable of learning but that there are differences in how they take in, store, or use information and this impacts their learning in a significant way.

For example, 10 year-old Michael is just as intelligent as other children his age, but he has difficulty processing and storing auditory information- meaning that he often forgets what he hears. However, Michael is much stronger at remembering what he sees or even what he has a chance to “code” with a visual picture. Determining this learning profile allowed Michael to receive more visual aids in the classroom, and to learn the memory strategies that work for him. In order for his learning profile to be discovered, Michael required a psycho-educational assessment.

A psycho-educational assessment is a comprehensive examination of a person’s functioning in areas that impact the learning or education process. These almost always include:

  1. Measure of Intelligence: A comprehensive test to look at the child’s cognitive or intellectual abilities- how capable are they of learning? How well can they think, reason, and solve problems? Is there a difference in how well they learn using language versus visual-perceptual abilities? How quickly and accurately do they process information? And finally, how well can they remember (process, store, and recall) simple information they have just learned? Even within this one measure, there is a lot that is discovered about the child’s capacities. This test is also often used to determine if a child is “GIFTED”, and requires special learning opportunities at school.
  2. Measure of Academic Achievement: A multi-subject test assessing a child’s level of functioning in math computations, math problem solving, reading, reading comprehension, decoding new words, spelling, written expression, listening comprehension, and more. The results help us to know exactly where the child is compared to other children the same age. Sometimes, the results are very different than their report cards would predict, because they are being seen in a quiet, one-on-one setting. If there is big enough gap between the academic and intelligence scores, the child is considered to be “under-achieving”.
  3. Measures of processing. In order to be considered a learning disorder, we also need to find a processing deficit to explain the under-achievement. This means that something in the learning process is being blocked or reduced in quality. Processing deficits can include things like not remembering things well, having trouble paying attention, needing more time to process information, and understanding more than you can express orally and/or in writing.

Sometimes, parents or teachers assume that the child is lazy, unfocused, or lacks motivation.

It is very common for children with Learning Disabilities to have been labeled this way prior to the assessment and identification process. Some children with undiagnosed learning disabilities can become so frustrated in the classroom and doing homework that they avoid school work, stop trying, and lose interest in school. At times, their behaviour can mirror attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or anxiety disorder, as they do everything in their power to get away from the frustration that comes with academic work. As these children grow older, they may start to hang with the “wrong crowd”, looking for a sense of belonging and validation this way, as they are not feeling successful in school. Parent-child relationships also may become strained, as parents grow more and more disappointed in their child for not achieving when they know intuitively how intelligent their child is. And keep in mind, the child with an LD is intelligent. This is a requirement for a diagnosis of an LD: average or above-average intellectual ability. So we need to ensure that parents, educators and other professionals realize how bright the child is, and most importantly that the child feels capable themselves.

In a way, the psycho-educational assessment is very much like a key that unlocks the mystery of the child’s underachievement, helps them to understand how they learn best, and opens doors for the child and family to receive much-needed accommodations (changes in the way they learn or are assessed at school) and modifications (changes to the level they are learning at). Other times, it just helps the child, family, and teacher to understand the learning profile and make small changes that help the child learn the way that works for them. Whether a child needs these small accommodations or something more, it all starts with a psycho-educational assessment.

If there have been concerns about your child being lazy, unmotivated, or unfocused at school, there may actually be a learning disorder getting in the way of their success. Public schools can provide psycho-educational assessments to children, although waiting lists are often quite long. You can help by discussing the possibility of an assessment with the school. If you don’t want to wait, or the school has many children with greater needs on their wait list , you can find private psychologists in your area through the Ontario Psychological Association’s free referral service at 416-961-0069/toll-free at 1-800-268-0069 or you can access the online service at https://opa.knowledge4you.ca/referralsvcs.aspx

In our next psychology post, we will review the criteria for identification as gifted learner in “How can I know if my child is gifted?”

Your Kindercare team psychologist,

Dr. Mirisse Foroughe, C. Psych.

  • Well said. A thorough assessment can also rule out other possible causes of school difficulties, like hyperthyroidism (can cause restlessness and handwriting difficulty) or diabetes (can cause irritibility and vision problems).