Nearly every student will experience difficulties with learning at different points in his or her school career.

Nearly every student will experience difficulties with learning at different points in his or her school career. While not every learning struggle signals a disability, it's often hard for parents to tell the difference and know what to do if a specific learning disability (SLD) is at the root of learning problems.


Defined
The term "specific learning disability" refers to several disorders which affect students of all intelligence levels, causing them to have problems obtaining knowledge and showing their understanding in specific skill areas.

Gale Kingsley, a psychological specialist with Ohio's special education regional support team, thinks the most potent descriptor of a possible SLD is "unexpected underachievement."

"These students are some of the hardest workers in the classroom," said Sarah Sandrock, a first grade teacher at Big Walnut Local Schools who also has tutored learning disabled students in Columbus. "I think of a little boy I had in class this year who was a great reader and was wonderful at writing and communicating, but he really struggled with math concepts," she said. "That's your red flag. People often don't realize that anyone, even gifted students, can have a learning disability."

According to data provided by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), roughly 15 percent of current school-aged children across the state have a disability; students identified as having a specific learning disability make up almost half that group.


Described
Some signs and signals of a possible learning disability include:
Problems with communication Problems with reading, writing or math Difficulty paying attention (not to be confused with ADHD) Low grades/test scores despite good preparation Inability to remember skills or tasks Low self-esteem, easily frustrated or other disciplinary problems Parents can download a free copy of the comprehensive Learning Disorder Checklist of Signs and Symptoms from the National Center for Learning Disorders Web site, www.ncld.org.


What to do
If you see some of these signs, contact your child's teacher to discuss your concerns. School staff members will probably first suggest interventions. Intervention Assistance Teams (IAT) include teachers from several grade levels, a school psychologist, guidance counselors and special education instructors. The goal of proactive intervention plans is for teachers and staff to target students in order to prevent an extended period of failure. "We don't want to identify kids as disabled," Charla MacKenzie, director of pupil personnel services for Southwest Licking Local Schools, said "To us, that's a very big thing."

"It's only when we've exhausted all those suggestions, all those interventions, and we still don't see progress that we look at a possible disability," Sandrock explained.

Dr. Alex Dubin is a pediatrician at the Columbus Center for Behavior & Learning. He recommends a child's school start the evaluation ball rolling with a form that initiates testing. Dubin and other pediatricians furnish reports and medical evaluations or consult with school psychologists.

School psychologist Vicki Glaizer is often responsible for determining whether a child qualifies for services. She does so by fitting together many pieces of a "puzzle" of evaluations, from testing to observations, in which she's "looking for a thread that's present throughout ... that impacts negatively on one or more academic achievement areas."

When your child is identified as having a learning disability, you become a member of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. You will work with school staff and specialists to choose an appropriate program to meet your child's needs, and then continue to meet, Kingsley said, for reviews and re-evaluations.

"The parent knows the child best and is therefore the most important member of that team," Sandrock said. She urges parents to see themselves as advocates for their child, learn about the laws and processes, and seek out other parents who have been through it "to keep your own frustration level down."

"That's where a parent mentor can be such a help," MacKenzie said. Parents of students with disabilities who serve as parent mentors are available to most school districts. "They can help you with the ins and outs of special education, point you to groups and resources, and most importantly, understand the feelings you have about it," she said.


Down the road
Learning disabilities can't be "fixed" or "cured," but effects can be lessened with strategies to compensate for the student's specific difficulty. "A person might seem to 'grow out' of some aspect of a difficulty if they have learned how to effectively compensate for the problem," Kingsley pointed out.

Dubin agreed that students typically improve once an individualized plan is being carried out. "Most can catch up; some kids will test out," Dubin said. "The good news is that they will improve over the years with a normalized educational experience." He added that some families may find private tutoring helpful as well. He said parents can find qualified tutors through their child's school or even at local libraries.


Kim Garee is a freelance journalist and artist. She lives in central Ohio with her husband, a public school teacher, and their three young children.