Parent Education

How Do You Know If Your Child Might Have a Learning Disability?

Many of the requests we receive from parents describe their child's learning problems and then ask if he or she might have a Learning Disability (LD). We receive similar questions about Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These are two separate and very different problems. Students with ADHD might show hyperactive/fidgety behaviours, inattention/distractibility problems, and/or impulsivity. These behaviours, usually present before the age of 7 years, should be present in two or more settings. Students with LD have a neurologically-based processing problem that interferes with the ability to master specific learning skills. Many children have both conditions present, so it is necessary to consider both.

So, how would you know to suspect that your child or adolescent has a learning disability?

Students with LD have difficulty processing information in one or more of several areas of learning.

Information Input Problems

They may have problems getting information into the brain by either auditory processing or visual processing or perception. He or she may have difficulty integrating information once it is received in the brain. These problems may include the ability to sequence information, to infer meaning (abstract), or to organize information.


Some may have problems with the storage and retrieval of information or memory. The memory problem might involve information still in the process of being learned (often called working memory or short-term memory) or material that has been learned but not retained (long-term memory). Memory has many different facets and therefore the memories required for learning academics specifically needs to be considered.

Information Output Problems

Students may have problems getting their thoughts onto paper (reflected by problems with spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization). Students also may have difficulty with language output, including problems organizing their thoughts, finding the right words, and expressing themselves.

Graphomotor/Fine Motor Difficulties

This problem may impact the ability to send information to their muscles. For example, a student with this problem may have difficulty coordinating the muscles of the hand and have slow, tedious and awkward handwriting. Poor artistic skills may or may not be present. This may be a neurological deficit which requires particular management in the early years.

There is no one definitive characteristic found in a child or adolescent with learning disabilities. The student may show characteristics of one or more of the areas described. In fact, it is very uncommon to have only one area of difficulty. Some children master the basic skills required in the early grades and then begin to experience problems as the demands of comprehension and organization increase. Behavioural and emotional reactions displayed by a student must always be taken into consideration as other possible signs of them experiencing learning difficulties.

What are some of the clues of a learning disability?


In preschoolers, look for:

● Communication delays, such as slow language development or difficulty with speech. Problems understanding what is being said or problems communicating thoughts.
● Poor coordination and uneven motor development, such as delays in learning to sit, walk, color, and use scissors. Later watch for problems forming letters and numbers.
● Problems with memory and routine; for example, not remembering specifics of daily activities and not understanding instructions. Possibly problems remembering multiple instructions.
● Delays in socialization including playing and relating interactively with other children.

In elementary school, look for:

● Problems learning phonemes (individual units of sound) and graphemes (letters, numbers). Problems learning how to blend sounds and letters to sound out words. Problems remembering familliar words by sight . Later, difficulty with reading comprehension.
● Problems forming letters and numbers. Later, problems with basic spelling and grammar.
● Difficulties learning math skills and doing math calculations.
● Difficulties remembering facts.
● Difficulty organizing materials (notebook, binder, papers ), information, and/or concepts.
● Not understanding oral instructions and an inability to express oneself verbally. Some types of LD are not apparent until middle school or high school. With increased responsibilities and more complex work, new areas of weakness may become apparent.
● Losing or forgetting materials, or doing work and forgetting to turn it into the teacher.
● An inability to plan out the steps and time lines for completing projects, especially long-term projects.
● Difficulty organizing throughts for written reports or public in speaking.

If you see these clues and believe your pre-school or elementary-school aged son or daughter might have LD, request a meeting with your child’s teacher and or principal to discuss your child’s progress and request that they be considered for a psychoeducational assessment. You may also seek information from your local chapter of The Learning Disabilities Association (of Ontario) regarding the process.

For more information on obtaining an evaluation for learning disabilities (LD) and or an Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you may contact this Centre.

Adapted from an article by: Larry B. Silver, M.D. (2008)