September 1, 2016 9:57 am
Updated: September 1, 2016 1:45 pm

How to know if your child has a learning disability, and what to do next

Dealing with issues that affect your child’s education.


Signs your child has a learning disability can be so subtle, you may not even know he or she is struggling until well into the new school year.

According to the 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, the latest numbers show that just over three per cent – or 121,080 – of children ages 5 to 14 have a learning disability.

Of those aged 15 years and older, Statistics Canada reported over two per cent – or 622,300 – struggled with their education in 2012.

Both psychologist Dr. Clairneige Motzoi and executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada Claudette Larocque want to make sure parents are better equipped to understand learning disabilities – how to spot them, what to do and how to cope.

Read on for some of their top tips and bits of advice.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a type of learning problem in a specific area like reading, writing and math that can range from mild to severe.

It’s a lifelong neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to store, process and retrieve information and appears in children with both average and above average intelligence.

There are three known causes of learning disabilities recognized by the National Institute for Learning Development. Often times they are genetic, but problems during pregnancy (like fetal alcohol syndrome) and incidents after birth (like head injuries or exposure to toxic substances) can also lead to the development of a learning disability.

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“It doesn’t mean you’ll be unsuccessful,” says Motzoi, who works at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. “It means that it will take you longer to learn whatever it is that you’re learning.”

Learning disabilities are different than other disabilities in that they’re invisible and children with them can be perceived as lazy or lacking motivation, Motzoi says. They may also have trouble making friends and experience bullying.

This can cause a lot of frustration.

“They know they’re not the same as their peers,” Larocque adds. “Many kids in grades one to three start thinking of themselves as ‘stupid’ – that’s a word they use. They’ll get stomach upsets, have trouble sleeping and are full of anxiety, especially around this time of year when school’s just about to start.”

Learning disabilities should not be mistaken for intellectual disabilities, which pertain to kids who struggle with their social and practical skills.

The signs to look for

The first way to detect signs of a learning disability, Larocque says, is to observe your child’s basic skills when they’re a toddler.

“Did they have any problems in their development?” she asks. “Were they OK with walking, did they struggle with playing quietly; was noise a problem with them? Was it easy for them to learn language? Keep an eye on them going into kindergarten if they’ve had those difficulties.”

And often children with learning disabilities do well in most areas with the exception of one or two subjects.

Also pay attention to your child’s behaviour.

Some children, Larocque says, don’t know how to express themselves and will vent their frustrations through emotional outbursts.

Diagnosis can happen at any time in life however there are two age ranges when they are most often identified, says Motzoi.

The first is in elementary school between the first and fourth grades; the other is in high school.

“In elementary school we start noticing that some of the reading or basic math skills are difficult for them,” she says. “We see another spike happen in high school when demands go up. Maybe some of the difficulties that were there, the child may have been compensating in some way up until that point. As the demands go up, difficulties become more noticeable.”

What to do next

Just because the signs are there, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a learning disability. There may be another underlying cause — like depression for example — for your child’s academic performance and behaviour, says Motzoi.

Even before it’s determined what the underlying problem is, parents should communicate their concerns to their child’s teacher. Let him or her know what the situation is, Larocque says, and devise a plan to move forward with the child’s learning.

In order to get a definitive diagnosis a psycho-educational assessment should be scheduled. This involves the child taking a standardized test that looks into their intellectual, social and emotional development.

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Assessments can be scheduled either through the school board or with a private psychologist.

“What an assessment helps you with is to get a good sense of your child’s intellectual abilities overall and how they compare with other children their age,” Motzoi says. “By the end of the assessment you have a better idea of where the learning difficulties are coming from. It can also help you understand what’s underlying the learning disability such as dyslexia. Once you know then you can tailor the interventions a little better.”

Make sure to reassure your child, too, says Larocque, and let them know you support them.

Strategies vs. accommodations

For parents of children with a learning disability, it’s important to understand the difference between the strategies schools put in place to assist a child, and the accommodations they’ll make.

The former are almost always implemented before a full assessment (per the above) is completed.

One strategy schools use is to have a resource assistant in the classroom who works with a struggling student. Sometimes schools will bring in occupational therapists if a child has issues with fine motor skills, like writing. Teachers will also provide additional one-on-one time to help them with a subject they’re having difficulty in and may agree to modify their homework.

If all of those strategies fail to help a child, then the school will provide a psycho-educational assessment, Larocque says. Once it’s deemed the child has a learning disability, that’s when accommodations will be put into place.

The difference between a strategy and an accommodation, Larocque says, is the latter is a legally-binding term between the parent and school board; it means the school is obligated by law to provide services to accommodate the child.

Accommodations can include additional time for assignments and tests and providing assistive technologies. These technologies can be anything from a program that translates voice to text, audio books, talking calculators and optical character recognition software which allows a user to scan printed material into a computer and can be read aloud via speech synthesis.

“We don’t want that learning disability to stop the child from learning,” says Motzoi. “So these accommodations are really important to have in place.”

Tips for parents

For both Motzoi and Larocque, it’s important parents pay attention to the signs and symptom and remain calm if they suspect their child has a learning disability.

“A lot of parents of children with learning disabilities experience anxiety themselves, but it’s important not to project that anxiety,” says Larocque. “Your child will pick that up and will immediately become anxious themselves and the start of the school year will be a stressful ordeal.”

The key, they say, is to get the child help as soon as possible. The earlier the issue is dealt with, the better the outcome.

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