James J. De Santis, Ph.D.
Post Office Box 894, Glendora, CA 91740-0894
(818) 551-1714

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What is a Learning Disability?

Recognize any of these remarks?

"He's failing in math, but I know he could do better."

"She never follows directions--she just won't pay attention."

"He's a slow learner. I hope he'll outgrow it."

Few of us are "straight-A" students in school; however, some of us
experience challenges in school more than most do. One possible reason for
school failure is a specific learning disability. A student may be bright,
cooperative, and able to concentrate, yet struggle with the essential tasks
of learning.

Learning disabilities affect about 5% of school-aged children. Problems
usually tend to be evident by second or third grade. Not much is yet known
about the exact cause of learning disabilities. It may have a neurological
basis. Some evidence suggests a genetic contribution; it seems to run in
families. Environmental factors are sometimes implicated, such as pregnancy
and birth complications, or infections and high fevers.

A number of cognitive abilities each contribute to our ability to learn,
including memory, visual and auditory processing, processing speed,
comprehension, and abstract reasoning. If any of these functions are
impaired, they can interfere with one's ability to process information

Learning disability literally means "unable to learn." A learning disability can
interfere with attainment of maximum academic potential. Over time,
learning disabilities can begin to produce frustration and stress, foster a
negative attitude toward learning, and adversely affect optimal social
adjustment at school as well.

When to Seek an Evaluation

Difficulties with academic performance in school may suggest a need to
consider assessment. Testing can be a valuable tool to advocate for and
obtain needed services.

A number of warning signs may indicate the need to consider evaluation:

Difficulty recalling facts or instructions
Difficulty understanding or following instructions
Loses or misplaces homework or textbooks
Difficulty distinguishing right from left
Letter or number reversals or sequencing errors
Difficulty detecting differences in similar sounds
Word-finding difficulty
Many reading errors
Doesn't seem to comprehend what is read
Can't organize thoughts on paper
Confuses columns when doing math problems
Trouble understanding math concepts
Doesn't seem to learn from mistakes
Failing in several academic subjects

What Does a Good Evaluation Customarily Include?

Learning disabilities should be diagnosed only by a qualified professional. An
in-depth investigation is generally necessary to obtain an accurate
diagnosis; no single interview or test will conclusively diagnose a learning

A thorough evaluation usually will begin with an initial consultation to
discuss your concerns, to collect a developmental history, and to review
school grades and narratives, classroom or work samples, and any prior
testing. The evaluator may consult with a referring teacher or physician or
may observe the school environment as well.

Once relevant information has been collected and reviewed, the evaluator
will customize and administer a battery of tests tailored to address the
problem efficiently and comprehensively. The specific tests chosen may
vary but generally will include a test of general intelligence, tests of specific
cognitive functions, and tests of academic achievement. Such tests may
involve answering oral questions, writing with pencil and paper, identifying
pictures or symbols, and manipulating blocks or puzzles.

Testing yields a pattern of scores which the evaluator then uses to identify
strengths and weaknesses. The evaluator begins to consider a diagnosis of
learning disability if demonstrated academic achievement is significantly
below predicted intellectual potential.

Comprehensive evaluation should rule out other relevant difficulties that can
mimic or complicate a learning disability, such as anxiety or depression,
memory impairment, understimulating or disorganized environments,
attention deficit, behavior or motivational problems, sensory problems like a
vision or hearing loss, intellectual impairment, and brain trauma.

Once all assessment procedures are completed, the evaluator explains the
results and conclusions in clear and understandable language. At your
discretion, the evaluator can provide feedback to the referring physician or
school. The evaluator may meet with school personnel to explain findings to
faculty or to assist in the development of an educational plan.

When a written report is requested, a good report is not complete without a
summary of relevant history, explanation of test findings, a diagnosis, and a
plan for addressing the identified problem.

Advantages of Private Evaluation

When evaluation is done privately, you have control. You have control of
the quality of the evaluation. A private assessment is essentially an
independent appraisal. You can personally select an evaluator based on
professional education, training, and experience. Evaluation can be
comprehensive in scope and include consideration of other significant
possible contributing factors such as attention, memory, or emotional

The final report may have a significant impact on a person's life, and so you
will have control of disclosure and distribution of the results when testing is
done privately. You can obtain a re-evaluation easily and as needed to
assess the effectiveness of interventions provided by teachers, tutors, and
resource specialists.

How is a Learning Disability Remediated?

Although no permanent "cure" has yet been found for learning disability, it is
definitely treatable. When not treated early, skills not acquired in early
grades can affect performance in later grades. A comprehensive plan for
educational remediation and treatment may include a number of
recommendations to maximize a student's learning potential, such as:

Specialized teaching methods and materials
Environmental classroom modifications
Training in strategies of observation and analysis
Coaching in self-monitoring techniques
Specialized school placement
Psychological counseling
Assertiveness training
Encouragement of peer socialization
Family education about learning disabilities
Support and advocacy organizations

Click here to view the Los Angeles Psychodiagnostic Assessment Directory.

Finding Answers About Learning