Can learning disabilities or differences be cured? Certainly, parents and educators must sometimes wonder this — and while the short answer is no, many of the challenges that disabilities present can be overcome. Still, the question itself is founded on generalizations and misconceptions that merit clarification.
As an educator and researcher in the field of early childhood reading development, I’ve often noted that the label “learning disability” can obscure the specific challenges faced by individual children. This misunderstanding, in turn, may lead to missed opportunities on the part of parents and educators alike. Mixing different and distinct learning challenges in the same pot, as often happens when people use this label, makes it all the more difficult to provide children with the specific learning supports they need to meet the challenges of their disabilities and achieve at academic levels that match their abilities.
Putting all students with learning disabilities into a single category makes little sense if we understand that learning challenges have a range of effects, that they don’t manifest in exactly the same way for all students, and that they can’t be overcome according to a single formula.
For example, a student with dyslexia, a difficulty with reading and writing, has very different needs from a student with dyscalculia, a pronounced difficulty in math. Yet another student may excel in math, routinely solving problems that require a high level of mathematical reasoning, but she may face challenges as she develops her writing skills or tries to organize her ideas. Moreover, while ADHD is not officially considered a learning disability, it can affect a child’s ability to pay attention and develop school-related skills. This, in turn, may have an impact on her overall learning.
In other words, describing all of these children as having learning disabilities as if they fall into the same group can prevent parents and educators from effectively addressing the struggles that each child is facing. In fact, I prefer to use the term “learning difficulties” because it prompts a follow-up question: “What kinds of difficulties?”
The Role of Environment
In any discussion related to learning disabilities or the challenges associated with them, there are neurological or behavioral contributors as well as environmental or socio-emotional factors that impact learning. High-stress living conditions or traumatic events can interfere with a child’s ability to focus, pay attention, remember, or practice skills — all of which are critical to learning. While emotional or other attentional challenges are not usually considered learning disabilities per se, parents and educators need to acknowledge that the social environment a child grows up in can often create or compound learning challenges in school.
Importance of Early Identification
If you see your child struggling repeatedly with the same skills or in particular subjects, don’t assume you need to wait for her teacher to raise the issue, or that these difficulties simply represent the natural progression of learning a new subject. Researchers, learning specialists, and educators alike know that early identification, organized intervention, and a focused plan for instruction will help a child with a learning disability develop the specific skills she needs to thrive academically.
Of course, not all difficulties with a new topic are a signal of a learning disability — but parents are frequently the first to recognize that there’s an issue beyond just gaining new skills. Understanding the signs of atypical development or protracted struggle with certain milestones is key to knowing how and when to seek support.
Follow this link for a resource guide for parents of children with learning disabilities.
Literacy and Numeracy Skills
Difficulties can present themselves when a person is trying to learn almost anything. Most often, though, they show up in children as they begin to receive formal instruction in school, particularly in the areas of reading, writing, and math. While academic or cognitive development in literacy and numeracy varies with each child, difficulties with mastering certain skills are most commonly associated with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.
For parents to advocate effectively for early intervention, it is important to understand some of the common challenges that children with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia may face.
Issues Associated With Dyslexia
Difficulty pairing letter sounds and letter names (such as being able to say the sound that the letter b makes)
Trouble with phonological and phonemic awareness skills (that is, understanding the sounds and parts of words), such as:
- identifying rhyming words (such as “cat” and “bat”)
- distinguishing between words that sound similar (such as “chop” and “shop”)
- discriminating between short vowel sounds (like the e sound in “leg” versus the a sound in “lag”)
Slow or choppy decoding of unfamiliar words when reading (also known as “sounding out” words)
- Difficulty automatically identifying many grade-level written words (also referred to as having a low bank of “sight words”)
- Confusing two words that look alike (such as “tried” and “tired” or “was” and “saw”)
- Difficulty with retelling or identifying the main idea when reading independently
Issues Associated With Dysgraphia
- Trouble mastering correct letter and word spacing in writing
- Easily tired or cramped hands while writing
- Difficulty organizing information and thoughts in writing
- Difficulty with printing and spelling that leads to challenges with legibility and understanding written products
- Trouble with the mechanics of writing, such as punctuation, prepositions, and the direction we read and write words on the page (e.g., left to right in English)
Issues Associated With Dyscalculia
- Difficulty remembering names of numbers and the quantities they refer to (such as the understanding that 6 is a visual symbol that means six items)
- Difficulty with symbolic functions (such as the concept that + indicates that two numbers should be added together)
- Difficulty recalling math facts
- Difficulty performing various counting strategies (such as counting by ones, twos, fives, or tens — forward and backward)
- Difficulty recalling coin values, making change, or telling time
- Difficulty coming up with a plan to solve word problems
- Difficulty remembering the mathematical order of operations
- Difficulty keeping track of work during mathematical procedures that require multiple steps
- Difficulty interpreting information on charts or graphs
A Final Thought
Early identification of learning issues, along with instructional interventions to address them, is one of the first — and most important — steps you can take to help your child overcome a learning disability. While it’s true that these challenges cannot be “cured,” learning disabilities — in any forms they may take — do not need to be a barrier to your child’s educational achievement.