Learning Disabilities

“Everyone’s smart! You just need to find out at what!”

Edward M. Hallowell

Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities are typically diagnosed when there is a fundamental impairment in a student’s ability to learn, despite having the basic intellectual capabilities and adequate instructional opportunities to be able to do so. At this point in time, the specific underlying causes of learning disabilities are not fully understood. However, most research suggests that learning disabilities are most likely related to some underlying key differences in brain development. There is also evidence to suggest that there may be genetic influences involved in learning disabilities. For instance, it can be fairly common to see evidence of learning difficulties in immediate or extended family members.

Learning is a very complex process and involves many complicated steps in terms of brain processes and neuropsychological functioning. Generally speaking, being able to learn certain concepts or skills depends on the ability to accurately take in information and understand it (INPUT processes) and to adequately express and demonstrate the understanding of information (OUTPUT processes).

Consider some of the brain-related INPUT and OUTPUT processing steps that are involved in READING:

  • First, reading requires that one must have adequate visual perceptual abilities in order to discriminate the different letters.
  • From there, one must be able to make appropriate associations between meanings of letters/symbols (visual-perceptual information) with sounds (auditory-verbal information), which also involves fundamental hearing and language development skills.
  • Adequate sequencing abilities are also necessary to learn how individual letters form together in a particular order to create meaningful words.
  • Words need to be understood with their appropriate associations, which can rely on basic learning and memory abilities.
  • Reading comprehension then involves further processes of higher order language skills, adequate ability to focus and sustain attention and the ability to remember information as you are reading it (working memory skills).

Even with this highly oversimplified demonstration of some of the basic cognitive processes involved in reading, it is easy to see how a breakdown in any one of these processes could contribute to considerable reading challenges. Considering some of the complex processes that are involved in learning how to write and to do math problems, it is easy to see that there are many processing steps in which difficulties could arise and affect one’s ability to learn in these academic areas as well.

Other cognitive factors that can impact various aspects of learning include the following:


What is working memory?

Working memory refers to the ability to store and manipulate information (visual, verbal, & spatial) in the mind over short periods of time.

Why is working memory important for learning?

Working memory is crucial for learning because it allows an individual to hold onto information while engaging in another task. In the classroom, children are often required to think about multiple pieces of information simultaneously. For example, working memory is needed to follow multi-step instructions to write down notes while listening to the teacher, and to keep track of relevant information over time. Working memory is vital to many different learning activities that occur in classrooms. Individuals with less efficient working memory have more difficulty completing complex tasks, they often show more distractibility and forgetfulness, and they require more frequent re-direction, prompting, and re-teaching than others. Children with working memory challenges are often described as being inattentive, “daydreamers”, or as children who have difficulty focusing.

What do working memory challenges look like in the classroom?

If your child has a weakness with working memory, you may see this in the classroom:

  • Difficulty keeping up and effectively using what they know during classroom instruction
  • Difficulty remembering steps/procedures or instructions for a task
  • Difficulty staying on task
  • Poor attention to detail
  • Difficulty independently starting or completing a task
  • Difficulty retaining factual information (e.g., new vocabulary, mathematical procedures) for different subject areas
  • Difficulty keeping track of personal belongings

What is processing speed?

Processing speed is part of intelligence and is measured by different tests of cognitive ability. It refers to how quickly an individual can take in visual or verbal information, make sense of it, and respond. Processing speed examines an individual’s cognitive proficiency and is measured using simple, repetitive cognitive tasks that are timed.

Why is processing speed important for learning?

Children who have slower processing speed have difficulty taking in and using information efficiently. These children often struggle with performing tasks quickly, both at school and at home. What might be an automatic process for one child (e.g. completing simple arithmetic), may take a child with slower processing considerable more time and effort. Slow processing speed impacts learning for children of all ages. Younger children may have more difficulty learning the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics whereas older children are likely to have more difficulty performing tasks quickly and accurately. Slow processing speed is often misidentified in the classroom as signs of laziness or disinterest.

Children with slow processing speed often become frustrated, anxious, and discouraged in the classroom. They often become aware that they are noticeably slower than their peers in completing tasks, and may become self-conscious and experience feelings of inferiority.

If your child has slow processing speed, you may see this in the classroom:

  • A reduced ability to automatically or fluently perform learned tasks
  • Difficulty recording verbal information into written notes
  • Difficulty with timed tasks
  • Difficulty scanning visual information such as letters, numbers, words, symbols, patterns, and/or pictures
  • Difficulty reading and comprehending words and text
  • Difficulty solving simple mathematical questions in their mind
  • Difficulty starting and completing homework
  • Difficulty completing written projects that require detail and complex thoughts
  • Difficulty managing large amounts of information
  • Difficulty shifting back and forth between different tasks

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning includes abilities to quickly process information, organize, plan, problem solve, and self-monitor and regulate one’s behaviour. More simply put, executive functioning is “self-regulation to achieve goals”. Executive functions allow an individual to anticipate outcomes, initiate and complete tasks, adapt to changing situations, and persevere when faced with challenges.

Why is executive functioning important for learning?

Executive functioning is like the conductor of an orchestra. An orchestra is made up of many different types of instruments, and each instrument is played separately. It is the conductor’s job to integrate and organize the instruments to achieve a musical goal. The conductor may face unexpected changes, for example, he may have to adjust the loudness and intensity of the different instruments to account for the acoustics in an auditorium. Similar to this, executive functioning allows a person to monitor and guide their behaviour to reach goals and adapt to the demands of their environment. Executive functioning skills are imperative for the successful attainment and efficient use of academic skills. Although executive function skills are not explicitly taught in school, children are expected to integrate multiple executive functioning skills (e.g., inhibiting, shifting, emotional control, initiating, working memory, planning/organizing, monitoring) in order to successfully complete different academic tasks. As children progress from elementary to junior high and high school, the demands of executive functioning skills increase significantly. Executive functioning skills impact not only academic achievement, but also social behavior, and emotional well-being.

If your child has difficulties with their executive function skills, you may observe one or more of the following:

  • Difficulty with organization
  • Difficulty with focus
  • Difficulty adapting flexibly to different situations
  • Difficulty getting started and finishing work
  • Difficulty completing long-term projects
  • Difficulty being on time
  • Difficulty controlling emotions
  • Difficulty planning for the future

As this brief explanation demonstrates, a thorough psychoeducational assessment requires the consideration of many different abilities that could potentially be affecting a student’s learning profile. Because of Dr. Kincade’s extensive background and training in neuropsychology and understanding of the brain, our team at Evolve is uniquely capable of investigating the different types of processes that could influence a student’s ability to learn. As a result of our ability to evaluate particular types of thinking skills, we are able to provide more specific feedback about the potential underlying difficulties and can therefore target interventions in more precise ways.

Currently, formal diagnosis of learning disabilities can be done when criteria is met as it is set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). According to the DSM-5, there are currently 3 major types of specifically recognized Learning Disorders:

  • Reading Disorder
  • Disorder of Written Expression
  • Mathematics Disorder

Interestingly, people are often surprised to learn that DYSLEXIA is not a formally recognized learning disorder according to DSM-5 criteria. Many different types of symptoms of “dyslexia” have been offered over the years. However, it is important to note that at its core, the word “dyslexia” simply means “poor” or “weak” (dys-) “reading” (-lexia). Of course, many people with reading challenges have similar challenges with writing due to some of the commonalities in learning fundamental literacy skills. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find some people who have diagnoses of both Reading and Writing Disorders.