Smart kid with a learning disabilityA learning disability (LD) is the most frequent problem for which children are enrolled in special education classes. More common in boys, LDs are found in approximately 10 percent of children nationwide. An LD means a child has specific problems in acquiring information, often giving rise to deficiencies in academic skills. Distinguishing an LD from other disabilities—or from a motivational problem—can be tricky, so misdiagnosis is common.

While learning-disabled children rarely have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses, they do share two characteristics: 1) their academic problems are not due to laziness, and 2) they are not slow. Indeed, children with LDs are often very smart. They may use their good intelligence to compensate for or work around their learning problems.

Ability vs. Achievement

In New Jersey, a “specific learning disability” is defined in the special education code as a “severe discrepancy” between a child’s intellectual ability and academic achievement in one or more areas. The underlying principle is that a child exhibits an LD when he is not performing at the expected level of achievement, given his measured learning aptitude.

Smart students with learning disabilities are often puzzles to their teachers and parents—and almost always to themselves—because they typically do some things well and others poorly. Many grow frustrated by their failure to keep pace with their classmates and may respond in class by misbehaving, withdrawing, or becoming the class clown.

LDs come in many shapes and sizes. Some learning-disabled children have difficulty learning to read. Others may be skilled readers but have problems with written or oral language. They may have difficulty putting their thoughts on paper so that what they write rarely reflects what they know. Or they may have problems processing what they hear even though their hearing is intact. Most learning-disabled children do not have just one specific problem but rather a combination of problems.

Children with LDs can outgrow the problem. Recent research indicates that children diagnosed with a reading disability in first grade often are not reading-disabled when tested again in third or sixth grade. Other learning-disabled children, however, do continue to have problems throughout school and into adulthood. For these children, the hope is that through specialized teaching techniques and a positive, supportive approach, they will learn to develop coping mechanisms and adjust to the disability.

If your child shows signs of significant academic difficulties in the coming year, and you have exhausted other school options to resolve the problems, consider having her evaluated to determine if she has an LD and is a candidate for special education. Every public school district in New Jersey has a Child Study Team, a group of professionals with expertise in evaluating students who may warrant special education.

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a school and family psychologist in NJ, and a part-time instructor at Rutgers. Visit his website at