Without proper treatment, specific learning disorder (SLD) might cause your child to fall behind in school. But with resources at the ready, you can help them overcome and succeed.

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SLD, also known as specific learning disability, is the diagnosis a doctor may give to children (and some adults) who have trouble understanding or learning information. It’s a type of neurodevelopmental disorder.

They may have significant challenges with math, reading, or writing. This may be problematic, as these are the building blocks and core competencies for many future career paths that might be that person’s strength.

SLD interferes with how children take in and process information. If they have issues with incorrect or incomplete schoolwork, it isn’t because they “aren’t focusing” or “not trying hard enough” — it’s a result of SLD.

SLD is different from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in which children have trouble sitting still or staying on task in school.

“[SLDs] are usually first noticed in third grade,” says Dr. Richelle Whittaker, an educational psychologist and licensed professional counselor-supervisor.

“As the work in third grade becomes more rigorous and much more is required of the child, challenges with certain subjects become noticeable.”

Take your kid’s classroom this year. According to recent statistics, an estimated 5% to 15% of those children in homeroom experience some form of learning disorder. Without proper treatment, this can cause them to fall behind in school and potentially harm their mental health.

Specific learning disability characteristics

  • slow reading speed for the child’s grade level
  • trouble understanding the meaning of what they’re reading
  • struggling to clearly write out thoughts without grammatical errors
  • marked difficulty with spelling
  • particular trouble with mathematical concepts like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • difficulty completing math problems or knowing how or when to apply the concepts
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To get a diagnosis, your child must experience symptoms of SLD for at least 6 months despite your attempts to help them in school.

For example, if you’ve tried a tutor, supplementary worksheets, and extra help from the teacher but there’s been no improvement, your child’s doctor might diagnose SLD.

SLD symptoms do vary from child to child. No kid experiences all of the symptoms of SLD at once.

There are three main types of SLD that can better describe what your child is having trouble learning.

It can be confusing to hear the terms and acronyms thrown around the developmental psychology and academic genre, so here’s a key to the terms based on what you’re seeing.

Their reading is very slow, and the letters on the page seem to move around and get mixed up.Dyslexiadifficulty with reading and comprehension
Writing and putting their thoughts down on paper is super frustrating.Dysgraphiaillegible handwriting, often with spelling and grammatical errors
Telling the time on a clock is hard.

They don’t seem to understand math assignments and how or when to use the concepts.

It’s really hard to visually see if one group is numerically larger or smaller than another.
Dyscalculiadifficulty understanding mathematical concepts and how to apply them to math problems

Symptoms of all three SLDs can get worse if they’re not noticed or addressed in childhood.

“All of these are neurodevelopmental disorders and can lead to frustration, crying spells, misbehavior, loss of confidence, and lack of motivation in children,” says Dr. Whittaker.

Researchers don’t really know what causes SLD, but research is ongoing.

Some studies suggest that if a parent has a learning disorder, the chances are higher that their child will have it too. This suggests that genetics play a role.

A note on genetic predispositions

Your genes play a role in whether you will develop some mental or physical health conditions, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle.

Epigenetics is the study of how the DNA you inherit does or does not manifest in you. This means that any genetic predispositions that run in your family can stay inactive or can even be reversible when signs show up early.

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Experts believe that additional external factors may also play a role, including:

  • a pregnant person becoming severely ill during their pregnancy
  • substantial complications during pregnancy, such as decreased oxygen to the baby’s brain
  • a child becoming severely ill at a very young age

Environmental factors can put your child at much higher risk for developing SLD, especially if they interfere with their brain development at an early age.

“Some causes of neurodevelopmental disorders,” explains Dr. Whittaker, “are physical trauma such as a traumatic brain injury, psychological trauma such as abuse or neglect, family history, [and] prenatal and neonatal difficulties.”

For example, a baby who has exposure to substances in the womb or heavy lead in their drinking water is at substantial risk for SLD.

Also, malnutrition or a lack of engagement by parents or caregivers can slow a child’s brain development, which may increase their chance of developing SLD.

In order to make an accurate SLD diagnosis, there can’t be another explanation for your child’s symptoms, like vision or hearing problems, not having good quality classroom instructions, or not fully understanding or speaking the language of the instructor.

To diagnose SLD, specialized testing and an evaluation from a mental health professional are important steps in determining the particular diagnosis.

In school

This process usually begins in your kid’s school through a process called “response to intervention.” This helps identify students who may have a learning disorder.

By setting up academic testing benchmarks, teachers are able to monitor their students’ progress and spot any students who may need additional attention.

Even students without a learning disorder can benefit from this because they can receive personalized help or move into a classroom that better fits their learning style.

“Children who continue to struggle will then be tested by the school [or district] psychologist to assess for a learning disorder,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, a child psychologist and the director of The Help and Healing Center.

“In addition to testing at school, learning disorder testing is conducted by psychologists or neuropsychologists” whom you can contact through your insurance provider or state healthcare program.

With a pediatrician

A more thorough evaluation from a psychologist in your community or your child’s pediatrician can include:

  • academic and psychological tests
  • a review of family history
  • interviews with teachers
  • a medical exam to rule out any other explanations for their learning challenges

“A proper, comprehensive assessment should look at overall academic ability,” says Dr. Myszak, “along with the components of the areas that are impaired to identify if there are particular skills in which the individual is needing support.”

When it comes to treating SLD, early intervention is key to your child’s overall success in school.

Since there is currently no way to cure SLD, helping your child understand their learning disorder and giving them the tools they need to overcome their obstacles is the best way to set them up for success.

Treatment often involves a personalized approach for each child. It can include multimodal teaching that utilizes the five senses.

For example, a recommended treatment for dyslexia involves:

  • focusing on the sounds that letters make
  • phoneme awareness, which refers to hearing each individual sound in a word and how the sounds all work together
  • combining letters and phonemes by writing it out by hand

There are a lot of resources available for parents and caregivers looking to help their child with a learning disorder.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees free and appropriate public education, a free evaluation for your kid if their teacher suspects that they might have a learning disorder, and the creation of an Individualized Education Program.

“Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) [are] personalized educational plan[s] to set specific goals for the student and the steps the school will take to help the student achieve these goals,” explains Dr. Myszak.

There are also 504 plans, so-called for Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. These allow for customizations of the learning environment for someone who’s in developmental need.

A note on IEPs and 504 plans

The difference between an IEP and another health impaired ability modification, the 504 plan, is the amount of accommodation your child might need for success.

It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of this decision for your child. These programs tend to stick with a child’s record as they move from school to school.

It can create some headaches for parents if the school removes an IEP, or you change your mind and decide you’d no longer like your child on an accommodation plan or program.

You can learn more about your child’s rights here.

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SLD is treatable, and there are many strategies you can try to be proactive, to advocate, and to aim for success with your kid.

Having SLD is not something to be ashamed of. It is in no way a reflection of your child’s intelligence or potential to succeed.

Early diagnosis and treatment can help your kid better understand their own abilities and help them learn to manage the symptoms of SLD before it significantly impacts their self-esteem.

Your child’s school should provide you with help to treat their SLD. It’s their obligation.

Many private, specialized tutoring companies are also available if you feel that your child needs extra attention from a professional who’s knowledgeable about alternative teaching approaches.

“Ignoring learning disabilities will not make them go away,” says Dr. Myszak. “Learning disorders affect some of the smallest building blocks of reading, writing, and math, so helping children acquire these skills as early as possible will provide them with the tools to continue to grow.”