frustrated boy in schoolThe most frequent problem for which children receive special education is a learning disability. A learning disability is characterized by specific difficulties in acquiring information, which usually causes deficiencies in academic skills.

Achievement vs. ability

The definition of a learning disability is governed by a state’s educational regulations. In New Jersey a child is considered to have a “specific learning disability” when his academic achievement falls well below his demonstrated intellectual ability.

If you suspect your child has a learning disability, you can request an evaluation by writing a letter to the principal. While the school is not obligated to honor this request, it must at least review your child’s educational status and determine whether he is experiencing significant learning difficulties. If so, the district must conduct the evaluation. If not, the district may refuse your request—although it must tell you why in writing. If the district does not evaluate your child, you of course can have your child evaluated privately, and then have the results considered by the school district.

At what point should you request an evaluation? This decision should be based on your and the teacher’s observations. Give considerable weight to the views of an experienced teacher and her understanding of appropriate age- and grade-level norms. She may point out that your child:

has reversals in progress with reading or writing (although these are not uncommon in kindergarten through second grade).
  • is not breaking the code for reading as his classmates have done.
  • has problems copying from the board.
  • does not retain information, such as letter sounds or math facts.

But don’t discount your own observations as well. You may be getting signals (that are not apparent to the teacher) that your child is struggling in school. He may resist going to school in the morning, or he may take an inordinate amount of time to complete homework, or he may have trouble following basic directions. Of course, before you go the route of evaluation, you will want to work with the teacher first to try to resolve the problem. 

More common in boys, learning disabilities are found in approximately 10 percent of children nationwide.

Signs of a problem?

Most learning-disabled children have a combination of difficulties, rather than one specific one. Here are some of the problems they may experience:

Difficulty learning to read, which may be restricted to a problem in decoding letters, sounds, and words, or in comprehension. 
Problems with written or oral language. These children may have difficulty putting their thoughts on paper, or they may have problems processing      what they hear—even though their hearing is intact.
Struggles grasping math concepts, including telling time and using money. 

Dr. Shore, a psychologist, teaches part-time at Rutgers. He has authored six books and created a film series on bullying. Visit his website or email him.