When your child has a learning disability, you really need to know what to expect and what to do so she can succeed.
Every child struggles from time to time — perhaps it’s with reading comprehension, or math skills, or even verbal communication. However, as a parent or teacher, how can you tell if a child’s struggles are something more, such as a learning disability?
For Carrie Drake, a Colerain mom of four, it was a gut feeling that told her something “wasn’t quite right” when her daughter Maggie was in the second grade. “She was inconsistent with her grades on tests and her grades for class,” Drake explains, “She would seem like she was OK for a bit, but then she would drop back.”
Not wanting to wait, Drake took Maggie to a state certified psychologist, who used the same testing rubric as schools. The results confirmed Drake’s suspicions with the diagnosis of both a learning disability and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) — two disorders that frequently coexist.
Maggie is now in middle school, where she has her own Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and Intervention Specialist. Drake says that the attention her daughter has received at school, especially early on, has made all the difference.
Let’s take a look at what it means for a child to have a learning disability, how learning disabilities are diagnosed and treated, and proactive steps and actions both a parent and teacher can take in order to ensure the child gets the best attention and education needed to cope with — and perhaps conquer — this challenge.
Demystifying a Learning Disability
A learning disability, or LD, is broadly defined as a neurological condition that interferes with the ability to acquire, process, store, or produce information. Individuals with learning disabilities possess a normal or above normal IQ; however, there is “one specific area with which the child has an unusual amount of difficulty. These areas are typically in reading, writing, spelling, or math,” explains Dr. Kathy Winterman, assistant professor of secondary and special education at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Winterman says that this cognitive “discrepancy” can create significant problems for the child if left untreated. Jan Annett, admissions director at Cincinnati’s Springer School and Center, agrees. Annett adds that a LD can affect an individual’s ability to achieve to the level of their intellectual potential. A learning disability can interfere with one of more of these areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, and mathematics. What’s more, Annett notes, throughout the individual’s life, the condition may also affect emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, daily living activities and vocational performance.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Unlike many behavioral disorders or physical disabilities, a student with a LD is typically not identified until the child is in elementary school, generally sometime between kindergarten and third grade.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal education legislation that guides how states, school districts, and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services children with disabilities. IDEA lays out the processes that school systems must use to identify and educate children with disabilities, as well as the responsibilities that states have for providing early intervention services to children with LDs.
Under IDEA, when a child is suspected of having a LD, schools must follow a process called the Response for Intervention Act, or RTI. This process is essentially a method of academic intervention designed to provide early, effective assistance to children who are having difficulty learning.
According to Donna Schulte, director of special education at Ft. Thomas Independent Schools in Ft. Thomas, there are three tiers of services under the RTI. Depending on the progress the child is making, he or she will remain in that tier or move on to a higher tier with more individual instruction. In fact, Schulte says that many students respond so well to RTI that they may not need to go to the higher tier, i.e., the special education route.
Winterman adds that, while it’s usually the school which requests an evaluation, this is something that anyone can request. For example, if the parent suspects their child has a LD, they can request that the public school completes an evaluation.
Regardless of who requests the evaluation, if it is determined that there is a disability that adversely effects the education of the child, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be developed for the student. The IEP will outline specific goals the teachers (both special education and general education) will work on with the student, what instruction will need to take place to help the child meet the IEP’s goals, and how much time/services the child needs.
All of this will vary depending on the child, the severity of the disability, and what works for that particular student. Once the school determines that the child qualifies for having a LD, an IEP must be written within 30 days.
However, if your child goes through this process but is not diagnosed with a LD, that doesn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t benefit from extra help and attention. Tutoring centers such as Sylvan Learning Center and Huntington Learning are an excellent resource for kids who might fall into this category (see sidebar).
While many children with LDs attend public schools with their typical peers, specialized schooling is another route parents can take. Cincinnati’s Springer School and Center is a private school that is devoted entirely to children with LDs.
All of its staff are well trained to work with children with LDs, and the school gives kids with LDs an environment where they feel understood: “Our students feel comfortable and understood at Springer. Every adult at Springer understands learning disabilities and responds to children through that understanding. This appropriate environment permits a child to believe in, and work toward his/her potential,” says Admissions Director Jan Annett.
Plus, specialized schools like Springer offer smaller classes and more individualized instruction, which are invaluable services for children with LDs. Annett explains that Springer’s class sizes “enable teachers and therapists to know student learning profiles with great specificity.”
Recent budget cuts at school districts throughout the area have ultimately led to larger class sizes, making it more difficult for teachers to provide this type of one-on-one instruction, and easier for children with LDs to fall through cracks.
However, given the current economic situation, private school isn’t always an option (despite scholarship and tuition assistance) — so what else can parents do?
Outside the Classroom
As a parent, you are your child’s best advocate — so speak up if you suspect that your child has a LD. Be proactive: request a parent/teacher conference, discuss your options, and know that you have the right – and responsibility to your child — to seek an evaluation if you believe one is needed.
If and when your child is diagnosed with a LD, remember that the process doesn’t stop there. Dr. Winterman emphasizes that parents must follow through on services and continually revisit them to make sure they are working and effective. Schools are there to help students learn — when schools and parents form a team, students are able to make the most progress, Winterman concludes.
Finally, remember that you know your child more than anyone else — and if you think something is “off,” seek help. Drake says the early detection of her daughter’s learning disability has made all the difference: “The younger the issue is caught the more time your child has to figure out ‘how to learn’ the best way they can. My daughter had the best intervention team in elementary school — and is now flourishing with all A’s and B’s at her current grade level.”
Sarah McCosham is a local freelance writer and mother of one.