Learning Disorders

Learning Disorders

What are learning disorders?

Learning disorders stem from neurological differences in the brain, resulting in obstacles in reading, writing, organizing, recalling, or reasoning. They can also affect one’s attention, social skills, or coordination. Learning disorders are usually discovered after a child has started school and begins experiencing difficulty progressing in one or more subjects. The child may not demonstrate similar skill levels in a particular area compared to peers of a similar age or grade, despite having received similar levels of instruction. These learning difficulties sometimes present as a “gap” between a child’s potential and his or her achievement in school.

To find out more about learning disorders, click on the links below.

What are the different types of learning disorders?
What are the symptoms of learning disorders?
Does having a learning disorder mean my child is less intelligent?
Who is affected by learning disorders?
How are learning disorders diagnosed? Whom do I see?
How are learning disorders managed or treated?
What is offered at Columbia University Irving Medical Center?
Where can I find other help or resources?
References and Resources

What are the different types of learning disorders?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5; APA, 2013) outlines three subtypes of learning disorders, collectively named specific learning disorder (SLD). If a child meets criteria for a SLD, the severity level (mild, moderate, or severe) is also noted. The subtypes are:

  • SLD with impairment in reading—a reading disorder characterized by difficulty sounding out words accurately, reading fluently, and/or grasping the meaning of what one has read. This is sometimes known as dyslexia.
  • SLD with impairment in written expression—a writing disorder that may include difficulties with spelling and/or written expression, such as poor paragraph organization, or grammatical and punctuation errors in one’s writing. Writing impairments may be related to underlying difficulties with language and/or difficulties with handwriting. The latter is sometimes described as fine-motor or graphomotor coordination, which is required to produce written work. Difficulties with handwriting and the graphomotor aspects of writing are also sometimes known as dysgraphia.
  • SLD with impairment in mathematics—a math disorder that may impede one’s number sense (e.g., the magnitude of numbers, their relationships with one another), fluent calculation, and/or math reasoning. It may affect one’s comprehension of mathematical symbols and/or the concept of time. This is also sometimes known as dyscalculia.

There are other types of learning disabilities, noted by clinicians and educators, that are currently being studied to further clarify clinical presentation and prevalence. These include:

  • Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD)—a disorder characterized by a discrepancy between a person’s high verbal skills and weaker non-verbal processing of information, like facial expressions, body language, coordination, social interactions, or spatial planning. For more information, please visit the NVLD Project website.
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)—a disorder characterized by difficulty hearing even though no measurable hearing loss exists. APD impairs an individual’s ability to block out background noise as well as decipher the order of sounds, where they are coming from, how to make sense of them, and how they differ from similar noises. For more information, please see Understanding Auditory Processing Disorders in Children, from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
  • Language Processing Disorder (LPD)—a type of APD in which an individual has trouble associating meaning with the sounds that form words. Unlike APD, which affects the interpretation of all sounds, LPD only affects the interpretation of language. For more information, please see Language Processing Disorder from the Learning Disabilities Association of America website.

What are the symptoms of learning disorders?

It is vitally important to note that almost every child—with or without a disorder—faces challenges at various stages of development. It is equally important to note that children with learning disorders may show a variety of symptoms depending upon their particular learning challenges. Moreover, even if two children have the same learning disorder, they may not share all of the same symptoms. There can be many root causes of learning difficulties or challenges, including other medical issues, other disorders, or even social-emotional concerns based on something happening at home or in school. It is only when the symptoms mentioned below appear consistently and in the aggregate (more than one symptom) over a period of time that a professional might diagnose a learning disorder.

An individual may present with one or more of the following symptoms to receive a diagnosis of SLD by a qualified healthcare professional:

Symptoms of a specific learning disorder include (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Errors in grammar and punctuation when writing
  • Underdeveloped paragraph organization or clarity
  • Inaccuracies with spelling
  • Inaccurate, slow, or effortful word reading
  • Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read
  • Difficulty with the concept of time
  • Challenges mastering basic math procedures, such as addition, subtraction, or multiplication
  • Challenges with mathematical reasoning, including difficulty understanding and completing mathematical word problems

Does having a learning disorder mean my child is less intelligent?

Some people might confuse a learning disorder with a lack of academic motivation or intelligence. This is simply not true. Children with learning differences are often just as bright as their classmates, but their brains process and receive information differently.

Who is affected by learning disorders?

It is estimated that approximately 5–15 percent of school-age children in the United States have learning disabilities.[1] There is no definitive answer as to what causes learning disorders. In some cases, research indicates that learning differences come from inherited differences in brain structure that are present even at birth. Other factors, such as alcohol or drug use during pregnancy, malnutrition, exposure to toxins, or poor intellectual support in early childhood can lead to the development of learning disabilities as well. When a person develops difficulties learning or acquiring new information later in life, it is likely due to traumatic brain injury or natural brain deterioration (for example, dementia).

A student’s learning disorders can also affect his or her family, social relationships, and teacher’s methods of encouragement. As a result education may need to be adjusted to suit the child’s specific needs.  Whereas some disorders are evident within the first few weeks of a child’s life, the development of a child with learning disabilities can appear typical until elementary school. At this age it normally becomes evident that there is an inability to keep up with peers as children begin to struggle with the frustration of achieving an academic goal. In some cases, some children with SLD will show earlier signs of the disorder, such as language delays or motor coordination weaknesses, during toddler and preschool years. When these difficulties are identified in early development, it is important to access early intervention to prevent greater difficulties.

How are learning disorders diagnosed? Whom do I see?

Learning disorders typically become evident during early elementary school.

Whether you, as a parent, have noticed some symptoms yourself, or others (such as teachers) have raised concerns, there are several options you may pursue to determine your child’s learning needs. A thorough evaluation is crucial to assess your child’s strengths and weaknesses in order to support his or her academic and social-emotional growth. A complete evaluation typically includes an analysis of students’ performance inside and outside of the classroom, exploration of family, developmental, academic, and medical history, as well as assessment of neurocognitive skills associated with learning. If a child’s learning disorder is not identified until much later, such as during adolescence, a documented history of learning difficulties must be present through parent and teacher report, or school academic records.

When there is a concern of a learning disorder, there are many options to seek professional guidance and determine the necessary steps:

  • Parents may share their concerns with the child’s pediatrician or family doctor, who may subsequently recommend speaking with certain school personnel or outside providers to complete a comprehensive evaluation. Pediatricians may support families by writing a letter on the child’s behalf to submit to the school requesting an evaluation for the child.
  • Parents may also speak directly to school personnel to request an evaluation from a school psychologist. This could take place via an in-person meeting, but it is recommended that parents themselves write a letter outlining their specific observations and concerns.
  • Parents may contact outside providers, such as a psychologist and/or neuropsychologist, to complete an evaluation.
  • Whether completed at school or via an outside provider, these evaluations are designed to test for the presence of a range of disorders that may impact learning and make recommendations regarding remediation and intervention.

How are learning disorders managed or treated?

There are many resources and coping strategies that children with learning disorders can utilize to find success inside and outside of the classroom. The earlier the child gets help, the more likely it is that he or she will be able to successfully manage the disorder.  Intervention techniques depend on an individual’s unique circumstances, so each person may require something different. In school-based environments, children are often first provided with at-risk services and interventions, such as Response To Intervention (RTI).[2] RTI is a multi-tiered approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and/or behavior needs. When RTI is applied correctly, a student is provided with additional resources to address the learning need, and then progress is monitored over time to determine whether more intensive intervention or evaluation is needed. Some children qualify for special education services provided in public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). To qualify for special education services, a child will most likely have completed the aforementioned evaluation process.  If a student qualifies for special education services, he or she should receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is uniquely tailored to that child’s needs.  IEP’s include goals for the child, plans for services, descriptions of classroom setting and accommodations, and specialists who will work with the child.

Recommendations/Interventions often made for children with learning disorders:

  1. Special teaching techniques may include:
    • Immediate feedback
    • Multisensory learning experiences
    • Phonics training
  2. Specialized classroom placement and/or small group work for specific subjects:
    • Reduced student/teacher ratio
  3. Services and intervention:
    • Occupational therapy (exercises that focus on efficient execution of daily tasks and fine-motor coordination)
    • Speech/language therapy
  4. Classroom modifications:
    • Extra time on tests
    • Taped tests so students can hear instead of read questions
    • Having directions read aloud
  5. Technology use:
    • Word processing applications
    • Spell-check features
    • Computer “games” that provide fast drills and incentivize children to continue practicing
  6. Special accommodations:
    • Oral exams
    • Scribe for note-taking
    • Videotaped instead of written reports
  7. Reduced need for writing:
    • Preprinted study guides and notes
  8. Quiet learning environment:
    • Quiet areas for tests and silent reading
  9.  Advanced alerts:
    • Alerting child to upcoming fire drills and assemblies that may otherwise surprise a child sensitive to noise
  10. Visual learning:
    • Drawing word problems
    • Using colored pencils to organize tasks
  11. Memory aids:
    • Rhymes and music to remember concepts

What is offered at Columbia University Irving Medical Center?

Neuropsychologists at ColumbiaDoctors specialize in evaluating children and adolescents of all ages who are struggling at home or at school. We provide comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations to clarify diagnostic questions, including learning, attention, developmental, and/or social difficulties, as well as identify the types of support needed.

PROMISE at Columbia provides comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations and educational advocacy to children with various learning needs, who also come from low- income families. PROMISE at Columbia has a multidisciplinary approach including the following:

  • Evaluate: Identify the exact nature of each child’s learning disability.
  • Recommend: Define the services the child needs in order to learn.
  • Advocate: Ensure recommended services are provided by schools.
  • Guide: Help parents to understand and address their child’s needs.
  • Train: Develop professionals to effectively treat children with SLD.
  • Research: Examine brain function and structure to better understand neural correlates of learning disabilities in youth.

Where can I find other help or resources?

Please visit our Resources by Topic or Concern page, as well as the Center for Parent Information and Resources to learn about local parent groups designed to educate and support families. Parents are also encouraged to visit the website Understood, a free and comprehensive online resource to support parents of kids with learning and attention issues and The NVLD Project, a resource for families to learn more about non-verbal learning disabilities. Also, see the additional references and resources below.

References and Resources

  1. What Is Specific Learning Disorder? (from the American Psychiatric Association)
  2. Understanding Auditory Processing Disorders in Children (from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association)
  3. Learning Disabilities and Disorders: Types of Learning Disorders and Their Signs (from HelpGuide.org)
  4. Learning Disabilities Association of America: Support and Resources for Parents
  5. Types of Learning Disabilities (from the Learning Disabilities Association of America)
  6. LD Online: The educators’ guide to learning disabilities and ADHD
  7. How many people are affected by/at risk for learning disabilities? (from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development)
  8. How are learning disabilities diagnosed? (from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development)
  9. What are the treatments for learning disabilities? (from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development)
  10. The NVLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disability) Project
  11. Understood: For learning and attention issues

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, p. 70

[2] Bradley, R., Danielson, L., & Doolittle, J. (2005). Response to intervention. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(6), 485-486.


Lindsay Hardy, PsyD, is a clinical child and adolescent psychologist and neuropsychologist. Dr. Hardy was the DeHirsch-Robinson Clinical/Research Fellow at PROMISE at Columbia and an Instructor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.  

Meghan Tomb, PhD, is a child and adolescent psychologist and neuropsychologist. She specializes in comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations of children, adolescents, and young adults with learning, language, attention/executive function, and developmental disabilities. Dr. Tomb is an Assistant Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Associate Clinical Director of the PROMISE Program at Columbia, and a neuropsychologist at ColumbiaDoctor's Neuropsychological Evaluation Service.