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Recognizing Learning Disabilities in School Age Students: The Importance of a School-Based Team

Lois R. Favre, Ed.D.
Erin Ax, Ph.D. 

A learning disability, simply put, is the inability to grasp information after having been given every opportunity to learn it. Beginning in this way to define learning disability ensures that we consider effective instruction, differentiation, and multiple routes of access to information before labeling a student as having a disability. That said however, determining whether a student has a learning disability is never an easy or simple task. Recognizing a learning disability is also not straightforward, as many of the so-called telltale signs of a disability are those same signs that struggling learners or even beginning learners (who do not have a learning disability) exhibit.

A learning disability is a neurologically based disorder where the nerve-cell connections in the brain do not function properly. Because information that should be sent to a specific target in the brain is not making it there, learning differences or learning disabilities arise. These are typically recognized as unexpected under-achievement in students who are of average or above average intelligence.

Diagnosing a student with a learning disability is a difficult task that should not be taken lightly. In a school setting, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the school use a Response to Intervention (RTI) model to determine the student’s learning needs. Many national and professional organizations support the use of an RTI model as the best way to determine whether a student has a learning disability. RTI requires schools to have evidence-based core curriculum and instruction in place for all students. All students should be screened three times each year to determine academic performance compared to same-grade peers. Students are identified for extra or different academic support based on screening data. If, through data analysis, a student in academic support continues to struggle despite specific individual instructional planning, that student may have a learning disability. The RTI model focuses on appropriate instruction and interventions matched to each individual student’s needs. Students with specific learning needs or a learning disability should be provided with targeted, skill-based instruction. 

Though learning disabilities are difficult to identify at any age, however, learning disabilities are very difficult to identify in young children. Learning disabilities are more apparent in school-age students. 


Signs of Learning Disability—School Age

Is the student struggling in school?

  • If yes, what is the student’s school history? Report card grades?

    • Does the student read on grade level?

    • Does the student write on grade level? What are his or her writing skills compared to peers?

    • Does the student grasp math concepts on grade level? What are his or her writing skills compared to peers?

  • If yes, is the student working with a learning or academic specialist on specific targeted reading, writing, or math skills?

    • For how long?

    • What are the results of additional or specific targeted intervention?

  • If no, the student most likely does not have a learning disability but may need short-term intervention or assistance to grasp new or difficult concepts.

The most common learning disabilities are in reading, math or writing with reading learning disabilities accounting for about 70-80% of all learning disability classifications.

Possible signs of reading problems/disability. Remember that poor or inadequate reading instruction must be ruled out.

  • Difficulty with phonemic awareness

  • Difficulty with accurate word recognition

  • Difficulty with fluent word recognition

  • Difficulty with word decoding

  • Difficulty with reading rate of fluency

  • Difficulty with oral reading with expression (prosody)

  • Difficulty with reading comprehension


Possible signs of writing disability (dysgraphia).

  • Awkward grip

  • Difficulty forming letters

  • Disconnect between words and their meaning

  • Difficulty putting words to paper or getting started with writing assignments and difficulty generating ideas

  • Fine motor difficulties making writing difficult or illegible

  • Slow and difficult writing process causing mental fatigue when writing


Possible signs of math disability (dyscalculia).

  • Difficulty with or slow to retrieve basic mathematical facts

  • Difficulty sequencing steps

  • Difficulty remembering mathematical signs and symbols

  • Difficulty remembering rules and formulas and/or patterns

  • Trouble with organizing problems on the page

  • Trouble with processing what needs to be done to solve a problem



Often, other signs and symptoms exist alongside learning differences. These may include, but are not limited to, cognitive processing delays; speech/language delays; gross/fine motor concerns; problems with memory, attention, and organization; and difficulty in social situations. These issues alone, without an impact on learning, will not solely determine that a student has a learning disability and may be handled outside the special education arena. For the student who is determined to have a learning disability, these co-existing conditions should be considered and addressed as part of the plan for improvement for the student—the Individualized Educational Program or IEP.

Cognitive processing delays are evident when students (1) have difficulty acquiring skills taught and following directions (especially more than one in a series of steps) and (2) have difficulty with directionality and/or sometimes with sequencing events. Speech and language processing delays are noted in problems with spoken language, listening, and speaking. They can also be evidenced in receptive language, or the ability to understand the spoken word. Cognitive skills and speech and language skills are generally acquired developmentally, and care should be taken in ensuring that there is truly an issue that is preventing learning.

Motor planning issues manifest themselves (1) in the inability to properly grasp a pencil or utensil and (2) in a difficulty with coordination and/or difficulty in learning a new motor activity or sport. Motor issues sometimes also cause problems in thinking through a movement, and then in getting the body to move in the way it needs to in order to complete that movement.

Problems with memory, attention, and organization sometimes go hand in hand. Issues with knowing something today, and then not knowing it tomorrow for the test (over time) might be a symptom. Attentional issues are noted when a student is unable to complete work, does not appear to be paying attention with focus and clarity, and is unable to stay on task to complete assignments.

Social skills delays are noted in (1) the inability to read faces, to get along with others, to read the nuances of social situations, and to respond appropriately and (2) the inability to forge a strong social network so vital in school performance, development of self-esteem, or self-efficacy.

In preparation for determining the best course of action for a student deemed to have a learning disability, good school-based teams begin to build a program based on student strengths, as all students have strengths. For each area of weakness identified in a student with a learning disability, careful review will determine those areas in which that same student shines. For example, some students with written language issues show a strength in mathematical computation, other students with difficulty with organization show a great ability to memorize, while still others with difficulty in reading show great strength in their ability to communicate verbally. Often, finding and celebrating those strengths mean the difference between success and failure for these students with learning differences.


Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is the Superintendent of Schools for the Bridgehampton Union Free School District on the south fork of Long Island. She is a national and international presenter on differentiated instruction, behavior management, and well-published in the area of differentiation of instruction through attention to student learning styles. Before going to Bridgehampton she served in other districts in the capacity of Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Curriculum and Pupil Personnel Services Director. She is an Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities: From Prevailing Theories to Validated Practices.


Erin Ax, Ph.D. is a nationally certified school psychologist. Erin obtained her doctorate in school psychology from the University of South Florida where she collaborated with reading first schools and the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). Currently based in New York City, Erin works as an independent consultant assisting schools in implementing and refining a Response to Intervention (RtI) model. Erin has presented at numerous conferences and has served as adjunct faculty in the Masters of Education Programs at Hunter College and Pace University and the Doctoral Program in Educational Psychology at CUNY.

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