There are many potential reasons for problems at school, but one of the primary reasons is learning disabilities, both those already diagnosed as well as undiagnosed ones. Here’s what to do if you think your child has a learning disability.

What is a learning disability?

Almost 1 in 10 children have a learning disability, making it a very common occurrence. A learning disability is defined as lower academic performance than would be expected based on intellectual ability and opportunities to learn. There is a wide variation in how people process, retain and use information and for some, these differences can cause difficulty in school.

While individual differences are to be celebrated and some of the most successful individuals in our history have had learning disabilities (including Michael Phelps, Thomas Edison, President John F. Kennedy, and entrepreneur and billionaire Richard Branson), learning disabilities, particularly those undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to serious school problems, low self-esteem and high drop-out rates.

Kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities often start thinking of themselves as “stupid” or “lazy” and stop trying at school in order to avoid continued failure. Finding out there is a label for what they are experiencing and getting the help they need can be life changing for these youngsters. Early identification and intervention are very important for school success and mental health.

Some examples of learning disabilities

  • Reading disability, when a child struggles to learn to read despite having the intellectual ability to read and ample instruction on reading.
    • Reading disabilities are often identified either when children are first learning to read or around third grade when the focus of school shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
  • Disabilities in math, handwriting, and communicating thoughts via writing are also common. These concerns can be very frustrating for kids when schools place an emphasis on math and writing.
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other difficulties with executive functioning are also very common and affect the ability to organize, plan, pay attention and follow through with tasks. Difficulties in this area can affect school performance across the board as these skills are vital for learning and performing in school.

A psycho-educational or neuropsychological assessment may be needed to determine where there are weaknesses or differences in order to make a plan to help. Public schools are obligated to perform these evaluations for free and then to accommodate any particular needs determined in these evaluations. Talk to your school counselor or psychologist for information on getting these done. There is often a long waiting list for these evaluations.

What to do if you think that your child has a learning disability

Learning disability resources


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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