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Learning Disabilities

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities

doctor How can a parent determine if a child has a learning disability? What can parents do once their child is diagnosed? Where can they go for help? Find these answers and more from our panel of experts below.

Candace Cortiella:
The first stop when looking for help should be the local school district. Since schools have an obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide a free, appropriate public education to children with disabilities, parents should work with their local school to determine the services needed by their child in order to progress and benefit from education. This might mean the formulation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines the services that will be provided as well as annual goals that set forth the amount of progress to be made within a specified period of time.

In addition to working with their local school on specific services, parents should learn as much as possible about their child’s learning disability so they can advocate successfully. There are several organizations devoted to providing information on learning disabilities as well as support at the state and local level. These include the Learning Disabilities Association, the International Dyslexia Association, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. All have Web sites that offer information and resources, and many have local and state chapters that hold conferences, and training classes and offer support to parents. Getting to know other parents of children with learning disabilities is an effective way to discover resources, share ideas, and learn from the experiences of others who have traveled the same road.

If the child is eligible for special education services, parents will be able to maximize these services if they understand the federal law, federal regulations, and any state laws or regulations that mandate these services. For information on special education laws, parents should contact the Parent Training and Information Center in their state. These “PTI” Centers are funded through the IDEA and are responsible for providing training and information to parents on special education law. Many hold training classes that will help parents understand both their role and responsibilities in special education as well as those of the school. Only by understanding the rather complex special education laws and regulations will parents be prepared to successfully navigate the special education process. Books on the topic are another good source of information, but parents should remember that each state has its own set of regulations, so it’s important to be knowledgeable about state level policies in addition to federal requirements.

Gail Grodzinsky, Ph.D.:
Determining whether a student has a learning disability is a multi-step task, and it is accomplished differently in different locales. The process usually begins with the concerns of a teacher, parent, or pediatrician about the student’s difficulty in acquiring a basic skill. Teachers and other professionals collect specific information about student performance and confer with school-based teams to develop strategies for help in the classroom. If these strategies produce positive results, the case is closed. If difficulties persist, a teacher or parent could refer the case for a special education evaluation. Once a referral is made, schools must follow the guidelines and procedures outlined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For more specific information about a particular school’s procedures, contact the special education chairperson or representative at that school or at the local education agency’s central office.

Once a referral is received, the school conducts a formal evaluation of the student. In the case of a suspected learning disability, the evaluation usually includes assessments of intellectual potential, academic achievement, emotional functioning, hearing and vision, social functioning, and performance in the classroom. When the assessments are completed, a “group of qualified professionals and the parent of the child” examine the results. Both the specific strengths and the specific weaknesses of the student are identified. If the results reveal learning difficulties that meet the local criteria (for example, a significant discrepancy between IQ and achievement), the team will identify the student as having a learning disability.

Creating an educational plan for getting the right help after diagnosis is very important. Because learning disabilities can affect the child and family in so many ways, help may be needed on a variety of fronts: educational, medical, emotional, and practical.

Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D.:
A critical first step is to gather information about your concerns and share them with others. Teachers, physicians, tutors and even other family members can be invaluable sources of information about your child’s areas of strength and weakness. Once you can share your concerns (and give examples whenever possible), help is not far away.

Parents as well as teachers and other professionals can recommend that your child be evaluated, and the school must get your explicit written consent before an evaluation can happen. If school personnel do not feel that testing is warranted, they must inform parents in writing and explain their reasons. Parents who disagree can request a due process hearing and present their case to an impartial hearing officer.

Once it is decided that your child needs to undergo a formal evaluation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that your child can be evaluated (at no cost to you, if you chose to have the school district take the lead) to determine if he or she is eligible for special education and related services. The evaluation must take into account the information you have gathered, including feedback from teachers, and is comprised of a number of different tests and screening measures that sample skills and behaviors in all the areas that may be affected by the suspected disability. Once the evaluation is done, a meeting is held to share all the findings and to recommend a plan of support, which may or may not include special educational services.

At the post-evaluation meeting (sometimes called a CSE —”Committee on Special Education”— meeting) parents and school personnel create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that details reasonable learning and behavioral goals for your child and states the services that the school district will provide and how attainment of these goals will be measured. This meeting must be held within thirty school days after your child is found eligible for special education services.

You and your child have the right to participate in the development of the IEP, along with your child’s teachers, a representative from the school administration who is qualified to recommend and supervise special programs and services, representatives from other agencies that may be involved in your child’s transition services (if your child is age 16 or older), and a parent of a child receiving special education support. You are also free to invite other people to this meeting if you think they can be helpful.

Think of this meeting as an opportunity to get your child the help he or she needs to succeed in school, and know that services must be provided in the least restrictive environment possible. This means that, to the fullest extent possible, your child should receive instruction and support with classmates who do not have disabilities. Also be aware that your child is entitled to special education services or supports to help them participate in extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports.

David Urion, M.D.:
Evaluation for learning disabilities includes physical, psychological, and cognitive aspects. These are often done through the school system, looking at various capabilities compared to peers. Testing should be done by professionals competent in areas such as psychology, speech/language, reading, and other academic areas, as well as physical and occupational therapy in some cases.

Once a child is diagnosed as having a learning disability, schools usually write some form of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) that takes observations and diagnostic information and puts actions in place to compensate for and remediate areas of difficulty. If a family does not feel that the evaluation describes their child or that questions have been left unanswered, they should seek outside evaluation to look into this. Professionals in the community, as well as larger facilities such as hospitals, often have such services available.

Cheryl Weinstein, Ph.D.:
The parent may want to first discuss their child’s learning with the classroom teacher or an objective professional. If there is concern about the child’s academic or emotional performance, then a comprehensive assessment should be considered. Shorter evaluations that only assess intellectual abilities and academic skills may fall short because speed of processing information may be missed. In a more intensive neuropsychological evaluation, we can understand how a child’s learning is influenced by the “executive functions”: planning, prioritizing, organizing, integrating, memorizing, and manipulating information. For example, if the child cannot hold on to new information or retrieve material when needed, there is a breakdown in the learning process. Assessment of language skills is also important because problems processing, “taking in,” and generating language influence educational and social progress. Finally, psychological development must be clarified. Specifically, are behavioral problems (depression, anxiety, obsessive behaviors) contributing to reduced learning? As noted above, learning problems can influence the entire course of personality development and, if there is a mismatch between the child’s temperament and the expectations of parents and teachers, unfortunate problems may arise.

A good comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation should provide extensive guidance about treatment options. Anyone can point out deficits, but the goal of a comprehensive evaluation is to clarify where there is breakdown in performance, when there is a breakdown in performance, and the conditions under which a child can recoup. Therefore, before beginning the evaluation process, it is important to negotiate with the neuropsychologist/educational specialist to make certain that there is an individualized evaluation. This means that the assessment process leads to treatment recommendations that are geared to the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, the assessment process will be a positive experience so that child and parents understand the results. So often, college students present for reevaluation having never seen their previous evaluations. This is unfortunate because they remain uninformed about who they are and therefore never have the opportunity to “own” their learning abilities.

Jane Holmes Bernstein, Director of Neuropsychology at Children’s Hospital in Boston, also recommends that the neuropsychological evaluation indicate future risks for the child. If parents are aware that their child may have more problems with transitions or may have difficulty learning a foreign language, then plans can be put in place to access help at critical points. In summary, the best thing parents can do once their child is diagnosed is to make sure that a competent and qualified neuropsychologist/educational psychologist completes an individualized evaluation of all relevant biological, psychological, and social factors. The report must contain recommendations for implementing strategies to help the emotional and academic growth of the child, the family, and teachers. Computerized reports will not do, and a report filled with neuropsychological babble is unacceptable!

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