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Factsheet: Learning Disabilities

How Common Are Learning Disabilities?


Parents are often worried and disappointed when their child has problems learning in school. There are many reasons for failure in school; a common one is a specific learning disability. A child with a learning disability is usually bright and initially tries very hard to follow instructions, concentrate, and “be good” at home and in school. Yet despite this effort he or she is not mastering school tasks and falls behind. Some learning disabled children also have trouble sitting still or paying attention.

Learning disabilities affect as many as 15 percent of otherwise able schoolchildren.


What Causes Learning Disabilities?


It is believed that learning disabilities are caused by a difficulty with the nervous system that affects receiving, processing, or communicating information. Some learning disabled children are also hyperactive, easily distracted, and have a short attention span.


Early Detection and Treatment is Important


Child and adolescent psychiatrists point out that learning disabilities are treatable, but if not detected and treated early, they can have a serious "snowballing" effect. For instance, a child who does not learn addition in elementary school cannot understand algebra in high school. The child, trying very hard to learn, becomes more and more frustrated, and develops emotional problems such as low self-esteem in the face of repeated failure. Some learning disabled children misbehave in school because they would rather be seen as "bad" than "stupid."


Warning Signs


Parents should be aware of the most frequent signals of learning disabilities. Does your child:

  • Have difficulty understanding and following instructions.
  • Have trouble remembering what someone just told him or her.
  • Fail to master reading, writing, and/or math skills, and thus fails schoolwork.
  • Have difficulty distinguishing right from left, for example, confusing 25 with 52,
    “b” with “d,” or “on” with “no.”
  • Lack coordination in walking, sports, or small activities such as holding a pencil or tying a shoelace.
  • Easily lose or misplace homework, schoolbooks, or other items.
  • Not understand the concept of time; is confused by “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow.”


Work With A Mental Health Professional


Such problems deserve a comprehensive evaluation by an expert who can assess all of the different issues affecting the child. A child and adolescent psychiatrist can help coordinate the evaluation and work with school professionals and others to evaluate and test your child to determine if a learning disability exists. After talking with the child and family and reviewing the educational testing and consulting with the school, the child and adolescent psychiatrist will make recommendations on appropriate school placement, the need for special help such as special educational therapy or speech-language therapy, and help parents assisting their child in maximizing his or her learning potential.


Treatment for Learning Disabilities


Sometimes individual or family psychotherapy (“talking” about your child’s problems) will be recommended. Psychotherapy may help to strengthen your child’s self-confidence; which is vital for healthy development. Therapy also helps parents and other family members better understand and cope with the realities of living with a child with learning disabilities. Medication may be prescribed for hyperactivity or distractibility.


Other Resources


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
3615 Wisconsin Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20016
Phone: (800) 333-7636

Learning Disabilities Association of America
4156 Library Rd
Pittsburg, PA 15234
Phone: (412) 341-1515

Learning Disabilities Resources
30 Summit Grove Ave.
PO Box 716
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
Phone Number: (800) 869-8336


For More Information:

For help finding treatment, support groups, medication information, help paying for your medications, your local Mental Health America affiliate, and other mental health-related services in your community, please contact us.

If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24 hour crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance.


Page last updated: 2/25/2009


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