In a word…no.
People learn differently. Some people need to hear information in order to learn it; others need to see or write down items in order to remember them. Yet other people need to physically DO the activity in order to learn it completely. And then there are those people who need a combination (seeing and hearing and doing, etc.) in order to fully learn a new subject or task.
These different types of learning styles – visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) and kinesthetic (physically doing) – are called learning differences. Once you understand the kind of learner your child is, the easier it will be to help him learn.
A learning disorder or disability is a bit different.
When a child is exposed to typical teaching methods repeatedly, yet he struggles and cannot learn material in a way that is similar to his peers, then he may have a learning disorder or learning disability. The two terms mean nearly the same thing, but come from different places:
Learning disorder is the medical term for the diagnosis of persistent difficulties in reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic calculation, and mathematical reasoning. The DSM V (the official diagnostic manual) states that “Specific learning disorder disrupts the normal pattern of learning academic skills; it is not simply a consequence of lack of opportunity of learning or inadequate instruction.” A child with a learning disorder is bright – he has average or above average intelligence – and he is NOT lazy. He tries hard but struggles to learn.
There are different kinds of learning disorders, and a qualified specialist can test your child to determine the kind of disorder your child may have. A specific learning disorder is biologically based, and is usually discovered during formal years of schooling. It often runs in families, too.
Specific learning disability (SLD) is the term that is found in our special education law – IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). IDEA’s defines SLD as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations…The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”
In other words, SLD is the legal label that is necessary in order for your child to receive special education services.
Which term should you use?
In a world that is becoming more and more sensitive towards individuals with differences, it is logical that we would gravitate toward using “learning difference” when we talk about our kids who are struggling in school. And it seems that even professionals use the terms “disorder” and “disability” interchangeably. However, it is important that the correct term be used in the right situation, so that you give your child the help he needs in order to be able to learn.
For example, special education services are available only to children with disabilities. If your child has a specific learning disability, he may qualify to receive specialized educational instruction, accommodations and curriculum modifications in school. In order to be considered to receive services, he must have the “disability” label. If your child qualifies, the special education team at your child’s school will meet with you to discuss and implement an individualized educational program (IEP) to meet your child’s needs.
Even if your child does not have a disability or disorder, he may still learn differently from his friends. It is important for your child to be taught in the way in which his brain learns. If he is in a classroom where all information and directions are given verbally, he may only process part of the information and the rest may not be absorbed or be easily forgotten. If the auditory directions are combined with a visual direction and/or perhaps even a kinesthetic direction, there is a greater chance that your child will learn and master the information.
For example, to learn the letter “C,” a child can say “C” out loud, while tracing a large, colorful letter C with his finger. His brain is taking in the information visually, auditorily and kinesthetically, and is able to process it the way his brain works best. The result is that your child will have a better chance of remembering the letter C. When different senses are used to activate learning, it becomes more fun for the student and it also makes it more likely that your child can learn and remember the information.
Try not to get hung up on the labels. As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post – everyone learns differently. But, if your child is struggling, consider having your child evaluated to determine whether he qualifies for specialized help. The earlier he gets the help he needs, the better off he will be.
Learn more about the different kinds of learning disabilities, as well as what they ARE and are NOT.
Have questions? Send them to AskUs@marchofdimes.org.
See other topics in the Delays and Disabilities series here.