Learning disorders or learning difficulties are general terms used to describe difficulties in learning and the acquisition of academic skills. Difficulties in learning are most commonly seen in the areas of reading, writing, spelling and mathematics. While many children at school may struggle with academics at various points in time, these problems are usually only transient as there are various interventions (eg. ‘reading recovery’ and literacy programs, tutoring etc) which can successfully improve academic skills to a level that is commensurate with the child’s cognitive abilities. Most children who experience difficulties in learning do not present with a Specific Learning Disorder (also known as a Specific Learning Difficulty or Specific Learning Disability).
What is a Specific Learning Disorder?
A Specific Learning Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder where there are ongoing difficulties in key academic skills such as:
- Reading (ie. reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension)
- Writing/written expression
- Spelling (ie. decoding words)
- Mathematics (ie. number knowledge, applying facts, calculation and problem solving).
‘Ongoing difficulties’ in key academic skills are those which have persisted for at least 6 months despite a period of tailored intervention targeting the specific area(s) of need (eg. two school terms of the ‘reading recovery’ programme in NSW schools). For a specific learning disorder to be considered, performance in key academic areas must be demonstrated to be well-below a child’s chronological age despite adequate educational opportunities.
The term ‘specific’ refers to the fact that the learning disorders cannot be better explained by a range of other difficulties which need to be ruled out first. Some of these possible other difficulties which may be related to problems in learning are:
- Global developmental delay
- Intellectual/cognitive disability
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Hearing or vision impairments
- A medical or neurological condition
- Psychological difficulties (eg. anxiety, depression)
- Attention deficit difficulties (eg. ADHD)
- Family or life stressors (eg. family break ups, traumas)
- Ineffective schooling (eg. poor school attendance or truancy, inadequate exposure to lessons or poor teaching of academic/foundation skills, English as a second language or bullying).
In some cases, a specific learning disorder can co-occur with attention, psychological and language disorders as well as sleep, motivational or behavioural difficulties. It is often these overt difficulties that alert parents and professionals to a student’s problems and the possibility of a specific learning disorder.
Diagnosis & Assessment of Learning Disorders
A child or adolescent who is having difficulties academically and/or finding school challenging requires a thorough psychometric assessment. A comprehensive assessment of learning difficulties requires consultation and discussion with the child or adolescent, parents/carers and educational professionals to gain a clear understanding of the student’s developmental and academic history, current academic functioning highlighting strengths and weaknesses as well as family, school, social and emotional circumstances. Obtaining information from a range of sources is important, as is ruling out other possible causes for difficulties at school (listed above). In addition, psychometric assessment of a student’s intellectual functioning, that identifies cognitive strengths and weaknesses in conjunction with curriculum-based psychometric assessment, is required.
The most commonly used measures which can only be administered by trained psychologists are: The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Third Edition (WPPSI-III), the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Fifth Edition (WISC-V), the Stanford Binet Scales of Intelligence-Fifth Edition (SB-5) and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test-Second Edition (WIAT-II). Additional testing examining individual key learning areas (eg. reading, decoding etc), attention and behaviour as well as speech pathology and occupational therapy assessments are also helpful in defining a child’s strengths, weaknesses and areas of need.
Intervention for Learning Disorders
An intervention approach that uses a student’s strengths to aid learning and assist with key areas of weakness is incredibly important. This is the case because many children who present with learning disorders are at risk of self-esteem and confidence issues, as well as motivation, anxiety, attention and behavioural difficulties. Truancy, school drop-out, depression and problems with adaptive functioning (ie. self-care and everyday living skills) are also possible.
In general, children and adolescents with a specific learning disorder can benefit from interventions that focus on the following:
This type of support involves adjusting the curriculum or Individual Education Plan (IEP), using a teaching aide or learning support teacher, ‘reading recovery’ or intensive reading classes, and attention and behavioural strategies. Clinical psychologists can liaise with the school and can have a key role in adjusting IEPs.
Clinical Psychology Support
For specialised assessment and diagnosis of learning disorders and co-occurring conditions as described above. Clinical psychologists can provide treatment for conditions that occur alongside learning disorders such as anxiety, low mood, sleep disturbance, attention/concentration problems, and behavioural difficulties. They can also teach stress management strategies, organisation and time management skills, problem-solving and social skills, and emotion regulation skills.
Tutoring at home and/or school
This focuses on key academic areas such as mathematics, reading, writing and spelling.
Specialised and evidence-based remedial programmes
These include MiniLit, MultiLit and Kumon.
Speech and language assessment and therapy
This type of support assists with expressive and receptive language difficulties/disorders, reading and literacy as well as social communication and social skills.
Occupational therapy assessment and treatment
To assess and assist with possible fine motor, handwriting and written language challenges.
Paediatric or psychiatric support
Medication for co-occurring anxiety, mood, attention and behavioural difficulties may be beneficial following a period of focused and consistent interventions such as those listed above. Engagement with some of the above interventions is generally required before medication is considered.
Evidence-based treatment approaches are extremely important when helping students with learning difficulties to reach their full potential. Several treatment approaches are controversial and not considered to be evidence-based for the remediation of learning disorders. These include: dietary supplement or sensory programs, visual perceptual or eye exercises, behavioural vision therapy or the use of tinted or coloured filters/lenses/paper. It is helpful to consult a registered professional about treatments that you have heard about and ask about the research supporting their efficacy.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for Learning Disorders, or to book an appointment with one of our child clinical psychologists who provides assessment and treatment for these issues, please email or call the clinic on 0405 430 530.