Just before Thanksgiving of last year, my daughter’s teacher pulled me aside and suggested I have my daughter evaluated for learning disorders. I had known this was coming, yet it was still a blow to hear.
I’d long suspected my daughter might have dyslexia, but her teacher was actually more concerned about how she was doing in math. The numbers just weren’t making sense to my little girl, no matter how hard she tried.
I went home and did some research, taking a brief online assessment that involved answering questions about my daughter’s abilities in math.
The results came back that she was showing strong signs of dyscalculia, a term I’d never previously heard of, and a professional evaluation was recommended.
During my research, I also discovered that learning disorders can have varying degrees of severity, and some are more common than others.
- Learning disorders affect the psychological processes involved in learning.
- They can impair the way a person learns how to read, write, do math, or any other learning process.
- The most common learning disorder is dyslexia, affecting approximately 80 to 90 percent of all learning disorders.
Exactly what is a learning disorder?
According to social worker and educational advocate Monica Mandell of MLM Advocacy, learning disorders, or disabilities, are impairments of the psychological processes involved in learning.
“It can affect the way a person learns how to read, write, do math, or any other learning process,” she said.
Before going through this with my daughter, I hadn’t realized there were a variety of potential learning disorders a person could be living with. (I’d personally only ever heard of dyslexia.) But the Learning Disabilities Association of America identifies several.
Jessica Myszak, PhD, child psychologist and director of The Help and Healing Center, explains there are three learning disorders that are commonly diagnosed:
- Dyslexia. Symptoms include difficulty in accurately reading words.
- Dysgraphia. Children have significant difficulty expressing themselves in writing. They may sit for hours trying to get through writing a few sentences, or their writing may be really difficult to read due to poor spelling.
- Dyscalculia. Symptoms include difficulty understanding numbers, memorizing simple arithmetic facts, or being able to reason through word problems.
“The most common learning disability is dyslexia, affecting approximately 80 to 90 percent of all learning disabilities,” said Jill Lauren, MA, a learning specialist and author of the book “That’s Like Me!”
“It is estimated that as much as 20 percent of the population is dyslexic,” she said.
Knowing what to do next
My daughter has been in services for speech and occupational therapy since she was 2 years old. So, after a professional evaluation was recommended, my first instinct was to call her pediatrician.
She got the ball rolling on a neuropsychological evaluation, testing that could provide in-depth answers into how my daughter’s brain works. But she also suggested we still go through the school district for learning-specific evaluations.
“Evaluations through the school system are free to the student, and a school system evaluation can help determine if the student is eligible for special education services or accommodations,” Myszak explained.
Individualized education plans (IEPs) are available to kids who have learning difficulties. A 504 plan can determine the additional accommodations teachers and school systems should provide.
Getting that paper trail started was what convinced me we needed evaluations through the school system as well.
But it was in my first meeting with the school district when I learned they wouldn’t provide a specific diagnosis. They wouldn’t even name the learning disorders they suspected my daughter might have.
Instead, they’d simply identify areas in which she was having difficulty and suggest (or provide) tools to help her overcome those issues.
Because of this, Myszak says it’s not uncommon for families to pursue testing and services through both the school system and medical providers.
“Medical or private testing can provide a medical diagnosis for children, while school evaluations typically do not diagnose, but rather determine, the child’s eligibility for school-based services,” Myszak said.
Some kids may not need more than that. But in our case, pursuing both paths simultaneously felt like the right choice.
I learned evaluations can also pick up on auditory or language processing issues, visual deficits, and memory or executive functioning challenges a person may be having.
Working with the special education system can be complicated, but there’s help available
At first, getting my daughter the evaluations she needed involved relentlessly calling the school system until they got back to me after the holiday break.
Then there were mounds of paperwork to complete, meetings to attend, and details to hash out.
The team assigned to her evaluations has, thankfully, been wonderful. Kind, compassionate, and genuinely eager to help.
But I’ve heard stories of other families hitting walls when it comes to getting the evaluations and help they need.
School systems are often underfunded. While they’re legally required to meet these needs, they don’t always have the resources to do so in a timely manner.
And not every family knows how to jump through all the hoops that may be required.
That’s where an educational advocate can come in handy.
“Educational advocates help families navigate the school system and understand their rights. Dealing with the special education system is complicated, and most people are not knowledgeable about the nuances of the system,” Myszak said.
“By having a supportive professional to talk about the process and attend meetings with them, families can feel more confident about their voice being heard and feel that their child’s needs are being attended to,” she said.
Myszak adds that families who have good relationships with their children’s school and feel supported in the process may not have a need for an educational advocate.
But it could be worth considering for families who feel as though their child’s needs aren’t being met.
An educational advocate can also be an additional resource for families who are simply feeling overwhelmed or confused by the process.
“As an educational advocate, I help families understand what the problem is and how it affects their child in school,” Mandell said. “I help them to understand what the evaluations mean and how it can benefit their child.”
If you’re thinking about hiring a child education advocate, Understood.org has a great list of resources to get you started.
Available treatments and tools
One of the things I asked in my first meeting with the school district was what could be done to help if the evaluations found my daughter did, in fact, have a learning disorder.
I was told there are a variety of learning methods that have been found to work better for kids with various learning challenges and reading groups she could attend. Tutoring could be arranged as well as accommodations in the classroom to allow her more time on tests.
There were also various tools that might help her better process what she’s learning in the moment.
“It all depends upon the disability and what part of the learning process is affected,” Mandell said, explaining that tutoring as well as access to reading, math, or writing specialists are all potential options.
Early intervention is key
I talked to a lot of parents about what we were dealing with in the beginning, hoping for any advice or insights those who had been through something similar might be able to share.
I was surprised by how many parents seemed to want to discount the idea of learning disorders entirely.
Several of the people I spoke to said learning disorders were just the school system’s way of keeping kids in boxes, or explaining why some couldn’t succeed within their system.
This was surprising to me, especially because the research on learning disorders is so extensiveTrusted Source.
And while some parents may think their kids will eventually catch up on their own, the research has found that when learning disorders are involved, the learning gap between kids who have them and their peers persists without intervention.
“Early intervention is key,” Lauren said. “The longer a parent waits for a child to receive the needed support, the harder it will be to make up for lost time, both academically and emotionally.”
Myszak explains that children are generally very aware of how they stack up against their peers, and that when they continue to struggle, they may develop low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
“All parents want what is best for their children, and they might need help seeing that the choice may be between identifying a child with a specific difficulty and then being able to access evidence-based interventions and supports to help them overcome these difficulties, versus not doing anything and continuing to let the child struggle and fall further behind,” Myszak said.