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Learning Disorders

Learning Disorders affect approximately 5% of all children in the U.S. These disorders are characterized by significant difficulties in 3 academic areas: reading, math and writing. They are diagnosed by using scores from standardized tests in which reading, math and writing abilities are measured for the individual child. In order to be diagnosed with a Learning Disorder, a child must score substantially lower than would be expected for age, development, IQ and education. Additionally, the difficulties experienced must significant complicate educational achievement and functioning in other areas of daily life that require the use of reading, math or writing skills (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Learning Disorders include:

Reading Disorder
Mathematics Disorder
Disorder of Written Expression
Atypical Learning Disorders

More than one learning disorder can occur in the same child; however, since each disorder is specific to a particular skill, they are discussed here in brief and individually.
Reading Disorder is characterized by reading achievement that is significantly below that of other children who are the same age and have similar intelligence levels and educational backgrounds. Reading achievement includes the accuracy of reading skills and the comprehension of what is read. Reading achievement is measured by the administration of standardized testing.

Mathematics Disorder is characterized by difficulties in understanding ‘reading problems’ that use language to describe math problems, perceiving numbers and other symbols used in math, conceptualizing the various math functions, remembering math operations such as adding, dividing and other math skills such as copying figures and symbols or counting. Mathematics Disorder is diagnosed using standardized testing that measures such abilities. The diagnosis is given when test scores are substantially lower than other children of the same age who have comparable intelligence and educational backgrounds.

Disorder of Written Expression is a writing disorder that is characterized by difficulties such as impairments in learning to write, in remembering the proper sequence of written letters or words or in copying letters or words. Similarly, children with this disorder may have difficulty writing what is heard, understanding the use of punctuation and the organization of sentences and paragraphs. Spelling errors and poor handwriting are common. This disorder is diagnosed with the use of standardized testing. A child must score at a substantially lower level in writing abilities than do children of the same age with comparable intelligence and educational backgrounds.
Atypical Learning Disorder or Learning Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS) is a learning disability that may include problems in all 3 areas (reading, math and writing), but does not specifically meet requirements for one of the other disorders listed here.

Other Conditions that Frequently Occur with Learning Disorders

Children with Learning Disorders are at risk for low self-esteem, depression, poor social skills, anxiety and behavioral problems. Some disorders that frequently occur with Learning Disorders are Conduct Disorder, ADHD, clinical depression and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Additionally, there may be cognitive difficulties such as problems with attention and memory or problems processing language and visual information. Medical conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome or heavy metal poisoning have also been associated with a high incidence of learning disabilities.

The Impact of Learning Disorders upon Children and Their Families

Children with Learning Disorders are at great risk for academic failure and dropping out of school. The dropout rate for children with these disorders may be as high as 40% (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Consequently, academic and occupational goals are compromised. Further, children with Learning Disorders may not be able to overcome their disabilities and will become adults who continue to have significant problems with reading, math and/or writing. Occupational goals for some children who persist in pursuing their education will be compromised as well.

Many children with Learning Disorders will equate their difficulties with low intelligence although intellectual abilities do not cause these problems. Consequently, children may become reluctant to try new experiences, feeling themselves incapable of learning and succeeding. Low self-esteem, anxiety and depression are common as is anger, frustration and related disruptive behaviors. Children with these disorders are also likely to be ridiculed and ostracized by their peers. The necessity of remedial education can further stigmatize and isolate them. School refusal is not uncommon and families may find themselves dealing frequently with school related problems and disruptive behaviors. Anger, frustration and avoidance may present as opposition and defiance in the home as well.


The treatment for Learning Disorders is primarily educational and schools generally will formulate individualized plans for remedial education. Teachers trained to help children with Learning Disorders can provide structured classroom settings and teaching techniques that compensate for these disabilities. Many children will require multiple forms of assistance both in the classroom and other settings, however. Some will benefit from a multisensory approach to academics and learning other related life skills. Visual and auditory aids may be helpful as well as movement and touch techniques used in learning. Some children may require additional therapeutic help in learning to process sensory information more effectively. Often these children will work with occupational therapists that provide therapy through play activities and tasks designed to engage the children’s interest and curiosity. Using various forms of equipment such as balls, swings, ramps and slides, the occupational therapist can help children with Learning Disorders learn in nontraditional ways (Goodman, Hurst, & Locke, 2008). Additionally, some children will require tutors or individual time working with specially trained teachers. For children who have developed emotional and behavioral problems, counseling services are often necessary. The families of children who have developed emotional and behavioral issues may also benefit from supportive counseling, support groups with other parents facing similar problems and education that focuses upon coping strategies.

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Goodman, J., Hurst, J., & Locke, C. (2008). Occupational Therapy for People with Learning Disabilities. Churchill Livingstone. 

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