Dealing with Learning Differences


New Tools and Approaches Help Kids and Families Succeed


Sound familiar?

• You open your textbook and begin reading, but the letters dance up and down – you can’t make them keep still.

• The teacher gives spoken directions, but when you start working on the assignment just minutes later, you can’t remember the first one.

• When you get home from school, your dad asks you who sits next to you, but you don’t remember her name.

Approximately one in five children experiences these kinds of frustrations because he learns differently from his classmates. Compounding these difficulties is the fact that learning differences and learning disabilities are invisible. These children look just like their classmates, so their differences are often unrecognized and ignored by teachers, with the result that the children feel confused and ashamed that they cannot keep up, and may feel that there must be something wrong with them.

Differences or Disabilities?

Although many people use the terms “learning difference” and “learning disability” interchangeably, James Wendorf, executive director at the National Cente for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), points out that, strictly speaking, they are not synonymous.

“‘Learning differences’ is a term used to describe a range of learning challenges that children and adults confront, which include learning disabilities,” he explains. “The number of children and adults dealing with learning differences is thus much larger than the learning disabilities figure. Around 20 percent of children may experience learning differences, but approximately 5 percent of school-age children in public schools today receive special education services because they have been diagnosed as ‘learning disabled.’”

Both learning disabilities and learning differences are neurobiological disorders that interfere with a child’s ability to process information. Wendorf says that these children are primarily of average or above-average intelligence, and some are off the charts in terms of high intelligence. This means that in certain areas, such as reading or mathematics, there is often a tremendous gap between the child’s potential and her actual achievement. A distinguishing feature of these youngsters is that they may be moving through some areas of the curriculum very well, and be severely challenged in other areas, because of the way their brains are wired.

In addition, the disability is very often displayed in ways that have a social or emotional aspect, Wendorf explains. “Unfortunately, most of these children have had experience with failing academically, and the result for many is that they are frustrated. This leads to the social problems that come with those failures: difficulty making friends and difficulty navigating through social situations in ways that do not faze children without a learning difference.”

New Tools

Wendorf is enthusiastic about a new research-based screening assessment, called “Get Ready to Read!,” that NCLD has developed to assess children as young as 4 years old. Traditionally, many children have not been identified as having a learning problem until third or fourth grade, when intervention is much more difficult.

“It is designed to identify signs of reading difficulty, not learning disability. But the two are so closely linked,” Wendorf explains, “that it makes sense for NCLD to move into the early-reading world.”

Parents can access the tool at and use it to assess their children.

One of the best-known innovators in the field of learning differences is Mel Levine, M.D., a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina Medical School and director of the University’S Clinical CenteR for the Study of Development and Learning. Levine casts a clinician’s eye on the world of learning differences, and uses his findings to develop teaching tools.

“Different kids have different ways of learning and succeeding in life,” he says. This means that Levine refuses to give children labels, which he believes are used negatively to oversimplify children and don’t factor in their strengths. Instead, in 1995 Levine founded the All Kinds of Minds Institute, which offers a variety of programs to help children with learning differences achieve success. But it is the most recent addition, the Schools Attuned initiative, that has become the centerpiece of Levine’s work.

“We have developed a comprehensive program that offers elementary and middle school teachers new methods for recognizing, understanding and managing students with differences in learning,” says Mary-Dean Barringer, the national director of Schools Attuned.

The approach consists of breaking learning down into eight neurodevelopmental constructs, and enabling educators to understand the role of these constructs in building the foundation for learning. It also explores how students’ passions and strengths can be used to overcome weaknesses. Since 1999, 3,000 teachers from across the country have taken part in the program.

“This is an approach to a child’s struggle that comes from a sense of optimism, as opposed to a search for a deficit,” Barringer emphasizes. “We’re building an alliance of hope between teachers and parents.”

Another promising development in dealing with learning disorders is the Learning Camp, located near Vail, Colorado.

Like most parents, camp founder Ann Cathcart was completely unprepared when her son Tucker was diagnosed with dyslexia. Unable to find a summer camp designed for learning-challenged children, she decided to start her own residential camp. Children come for three weeks, no more than 40 at a time, and spend every morning with teachers in very small groups, practicing reading, writing and math. At lunchtime, they put the books away and go rock climbing, swimming, river rafting, horseback riding or hiking.

“Our whole intention is to build self-esteem in the child with learning differences,” Cathcart says. The campers spend a lot of time talking about what it means to learn differently, how that affects their lives, and how to best be ready for the coming school year, when children might make fun of them.

We talk openly about these issues around the campfire, which is, of course, another non-threatening place. And one of the best things is that the children see that they are not alone,” she adds.

Cathcart’s proudest achievement is the campers who return summer after summer, some from as far away as

Tokyo, Hong Kong and Kenya, as well as from right down the street in Colorado.

Advice to Parents

Experts agree on the importance of building self-esteem. Sally Smith, founder of the Lab School of Washington, D.C., which is internationally recognized for its innovative programs for children and adults with learning disabilities, is emphatic: “I always remind parents about the ‘abilities’ in the word ‘disabilities.’ A lot of these kids have a number of abilities and they are very much related to the disabilities.”

“Take, for example, the child who loves dance and art, but doesn’t love drama or storytelling,” Smith says. “That child really doesn’t like to talk, and may have language problems, just like the child who doesn’t like to be read to may have auditory problems. A lot of our kids are visual thinkers – they are not good in the world of words, but they can do amazing things with space. They become architects and artists.”


Smith urges parents to find something that their child can do that nobody else in the family can do, so that she can be the expert, and can teach others.

Wendorf also advises parents to build on their child’s strengths, even as they work with teachers to address the learning issue.

“LD does not define the person,” he says. “This is a child with a learning disability, not an ‘LD kid.’ If the school says your child is LD, you should say, ‘But that doesn’t really explain to me why he’s having trouble reading.’ Find out exactly what the problem is.”

Parents have the responsibility to become knowledgeable about learning issues, Wendorf says, so that they can be good advocates for their youngsters. Cathcart adds that it’s important to get your child’s school on your “team” and build from there. She urges parents to realize that they are not alone, and that there are some wonderful professional organizations (see Resources) and a wide support network for children who learn differently.

Learn More:

  • Common Warning Signs of Learning Disabilities

  • Learning Disabilities Defined helps you cut through the jargon

  • Learning Disability Resources: Web sites, books and organizations

    From United Parenting Publications, March 2002.
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