Understanding the characteristics, causes and definition of learning disabilities is an imperative aspect of becoming a qualified special educator. Current statistics claim there are 2.7 million students being served as learning disabled today (Heward, 2009) and 6.3% of students who are seen by speech and language pathologists in the school systems are also receiving services for another disabling condition that affects learning.
Understanding the characteristics, causes and definition of learning disabilities is an imperative aspect of becoming a qualified special educator. Current statistics claim there are 2.7 million students being served as learning disabled today (Heward, 2009) and 6.3% of students who are seen by speech and language pathologists in the school systems are also receiving services for another disabling condition that affects learning. Often overlooked is the domain of giftedness by those who seek to become special educators. This remarkable condition is briefly discussed. This paper serves as a brief overview of learning disabilities communications disorders and giftedness as well as students who are dually diagnosed.
Currently there is no single definition of Learning Disability (LD) that is commonly accepted. However, according to Hewett (2009) there are two definitions that have the most influence. The first is the federal definition found in the Individuals with Disability in Education Act (IDEA) which states:
In General—The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.
Disorders Included — Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
Disorders not included — Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily there result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (P.L. 1008-466, Sec.602. ) (p. 173)
The second definition that bears weight among professionals today is the product of a collaborative effort comprised by thirteen professional organizations. The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) stands by the following definition:
Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities.
These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may appear across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities, but don’t constitute a learning disability by themselves.
Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences (pp 1, 174).
Heward (2009) continues to define learning disabilities by outlining the criteria for qualifying for services in the public school setting. Summarized are termed the IQ-Achievement Discrepancy as the student has a severe difference between what he or she knows and what is produced in the classroom. These difficulties are not caused by another factor or condition and the student must have special education services (i.e., specially designed instruction) to achieve in school.
The characteristics of learning disabilities run in conjunction with the deficit in the particular processing area affected. Described by the Learning Disabilities Association of America (n.d.), learning disabilities are an interruption of a processing component of auditory, visual and sensory information entering the brain. Typically information enters the brain and is sequenced and organized involving working, short and or long term memory. The information is integrated using sequencing, abstract reasoning or organization. Finally, the quality of what is produced (output) is the product of the input and processing (n.d.). A person with a learning disability will have a unique pattern of difficulties that may gather around common difficulties such as language processing manifested in poor auditory perception, sequencing/ abstraction/ organization, memory and language disability.
Learning disabilities are a neurologically based processing problem many times of an unknown origin (Heward, 2009). Cited in Exceptional Children, an Introduction to Special Education, 9th ed. (Heward, 2009) categorizes the assumed causes of learning disabilities as “brain damage, heredity, biochemical imbalance, and environmental factors” (p.187). Research on brain damage or dysfunction is showing some promising signs for detecting biological causes of specific learning disabilities and evidence is mounting indication increased exposure to sound teaching and extra tutoring can increase the neural pathways that assist with learning to read (2009). Heredity or the genetic predisposition to learning disabilities has some credibility in causation especially in determining reading difficulties (2009). Heward (2009) maintains that biochemical imbalances are not given much recognition in the professional field as a verifiable cause for learning disabilities at this time while environmental factors probably contribute greatly to a child’s performance in school and chances of needing special education services (2009).
Considerations of selection and adaptations of curriculum are vital to the success of the student with learning disabilities. Heward (2009) outlines the reading, written language and math underachievement as critical areas where excellent curriculum and adaptations are needed. Reading problems are the most prevalent of all learning disabilities. Phonemic awareness and rapid naming speed need. Fluency and comprehension are key focus points for teachers. Written language deficits can be enhanced by using frequent practice and a systematic approach that has proven results for the individual student. Systematic practice with instruction that offers guided, meaningful practice giving feedback to the student will help the student to succeed (2009). Emphasis on appropriate feedback is extremely important for the student with a learning disability. Anita Archer, Ph.D., educator and author, once said, “Practice does not make perfect”. “Practice makes permanent” (n.d.). A student left to do multiple repetitions the wrong way will only further increase frustration with learning and will not produce positive academic results.
Communication disorders are defined by Heward (2009) as “an impairment in the ability to receive, send, process and comprehend concepts or verbal, nonverbal and graphic symbol systems” (p. 329). A child with a deficit in communication is from the start going to have a more difficult time in school. At risk for this student is success in accessing academic materials, processing information and social skill development. Thatcher, Fletcher & Decker (2008), emphasize the importance the role of literacy and communication have stated: The critical role of communication in schools cannot be understated. Communication skills are necessity both in academic and social atmosphere of the school environment…Literacy is obviously a critical skill for school success and lifelong success. Research demonstrates the relationship between speech and/or language and literacy acquisition. (p.579).
Speech disorders are characterized by three impairment, articulation, fluency and voice disorders. Additionally, how a child processes language either expressively or receptively will influence speech and language development. Many speech and language disorders etiology may be tied to an organic cause such as brain damage from trauma or cerebral palsy. However, most are functional disorders that have no specific known cause (Heward, 2009).
Dual diagnosis or co morbidity is the presence of more than one diagnosis or condition at the same time. Often a child with a learning disability will also have problems attending in class or behavior problems. These conditions may be the result of having to struggle in class and the child’s emotional health and or may be caused by other factors such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) Heward (2009). The inception of IDEA has caused an exacerbation in the number of children now able to qualify as learning disabled. Current numbers suggest about 2.7 million students are receiving services. Furthermore, Pinborough-Zimmerman, Satterfield, Miller, Bilder, Hossain & McMahon (2007) findings confirm 6.3% of school aged children receiving speech therapy services for communication disorders are experiencing co-concurring conditions including intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and emotional, behavioral disorders (2007). These numbers have grave implications for the public school system as it strives to provide essential services for these children.
Giftedness, or “those children who give evidence of high-achievement or capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities” (Heward, 2009, p.528) comes in many forms and is often misunderstood and underrepresented in education. Heward (2009) characterizes the gifted child as having the ability to learn, retain and use large amounts of information relating ideas across domains and being able to make judgments based on reasoning. Also the child with special talents and abilities is able to see and understand systems in ways typical persons may not be able to grasp while evoking the ability to comprehend and manipulate abstract thought and creating ingenious solutions to problems by reframing the question (2009).
Identification and assessment of giftedness usually involves a combination of tests, achievement measures and observations of the child’s performance and interest levels in specific domains. Porath (2006) describes an interesting developmental psychological model to better understanding giftedness. Looking carefully at the development of children’s thought and the conceptual understanding, gifted children hold is a quality indicator of giftedness. Porath (2006) describes an integrated model of giftedness by claiming children follow the same developmental path toward understanding, but the gifted child’s “conceptual understanding is markedly more complex and flexible than average…they follow the same path but the nature of the journey is qualitatively different” (p. 147). An example of the richness of a gifted child’s ability is demonstrated in the narration of a make believe story. The following is an example of a six-year-old describing the problem in his story: The planet’s atmosphere started to burn. Gold went down like a shooting star, like a bullet from the sky. Flying like a flaming jet from powers of the universe. Guns were shooting down from there. He goed [sic] up in space and swept them down. Even the bad guy’s shooters couldn’t resist the power. He had the mightiest parts on his spaceship than ever (Porath, 2004a) (p.150).
The gifted child will tell an elaborated plot using psychological insights and a demonstration of understanding actions of others and the motivational structures that guide the characters. A higher order of social thought and incorporation of emotion, empathy, social-psychological pieces to the story are included. Simply put a six-year-old storyteller with giftedness tells a story that is more in tune with an eight-year-old using more than one concept in the plan and showing the ability to present complicated problems, with varied resolution demonstrating a rich knowledge of language and genre (2006).
Developing a working knowledge of the plight of the child with learning disability, giftedness or a dual diagnosis discussed here is significant for a person seeking to become a special educator. Information supporting current literature, defining and addressing key features of these conditions and uncovering the causal factors assists in preparing the teacher for maximizing the services he or she provides while endeavoring to motivate the student toward high achievement.