Boy with possible learning disabilityThe most frequent problem for which children receive special education is a learning disability. More common among boys, learning disabilities are found in approximately 10 percent of children nationwide. A learning disability is characterized by difficulties in acquiring information and typically gives rise to academic deficiencies.

While all learning-disabled children rarely have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses, they do share two characteristics: they’re not lazy and they’re not slow. In fact, they’re often puzzles to their teachers and parents—and almost always themselves—because they typically do some things well and others poorly. Many grow frustrated and discouraged by their failure to keep pace with their classmates and may respond in class by misbehaving, withdrawing, or becoming the class clown.

Watch for These Signs of a Learning Disability 

The following is a partial list of behaviors that may suggest a child has a learning disability:

  • has difficulty concentrating for even brief periods, and is easily distracted
  • often fails to understand oral or written information (for example, teacher directions)
  • has poor retention of learned material such as math facts, spelling words, days of the week, telling time
  • has significant difficulty sounding out words
  • after age 8, reverses letters or numbers when reading or writing
  • has a hard time organizing himself and his materials
  • is very slow in completing class assignments and has difficulty putting ideas on paper
  • is easily frustrated and gives up quickly
  • has spatial orientation difficulties (for example, is confused getting around in school)
  • misperceives social situations or reactions of other people

Children without learning disabilities may also exhibit some of these characteristics. And, of course, children who exhibit learning problems don’t necessarily have a learning disability. Learning problems can be caused by many factors, from an undetected hearing loss to emotional distress to boredom. Because it’s hard to distinguish learning disabilities from other kinds of problems, children may be wrongly diagnosed as learning disabled. Children who are having trouble learning may simply be receiving instruction that is poorly suited to their learning profile.

If your child is having significant academic difficulty and you have exhausted other school options to resolve the problem, consider having him evaluated to determine if he has a disability and is a candidate for special education. Every public school district in New Jersey has a team of professionals called a Child Study Team to evaluate students who may warrant special education. If your child is referred for evaluation, a school official, usually the principal, will meet with you to explain the reason for the referral, the evaluation procedures, and your due-process rights. The evaluation cannot proceed without your written consent.

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a school and family psychologist in NJ. Visit his website at