What’s the Big Deal About Executive Functions?

[excerpts from a forthcoming book by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy & Dr. Ruth Hughes]

Over the last 10 to 15 years educators and researchers discovered that executive skills have a profound impact not only on academic success, but also success in the workplace. In fact, researchers report that one particular executive skill, working memory, is a better predictor of academic success than an IQ score. Executive functions have been likened to the CEO of the brain or the conductor of the orchestra; these functions help control your thinking and actions.

“Working memory is a better predictor of academic success than an IQ score.”

Unfortunately, key executive functions (EF), controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain, may be delayed developmentally as much as 3 to 5 years. So parents and teachers must adopt realistic expectations that take into consideration their developmental delay in organizational skills, ability to work independently, and control emotions. As a result of these delays, many students with deficits in executive skills will need more support and supervision from both parents and teachers during middle and high school. Even after high school graduation these young adults often need continued guidance and support. Consequently, they may not be ready for college or full-time employment immediately after graduating from high school.

Key Executive Functions

First, let’s identify key executive skills that are critical to success not only in school, but in life.

  1. Working memory [this includes using “Self-Talk” to guide one’s behavior; holding information in mind, manipulating it, organizing it; managing time
  2. Getting started and finishing
  3. Analyzing, synthesizing, and summarizing
  4. Organizing, prioritizing, planning, problem solving
  5. Inhibiting behavior, shifting one thought or activity to another
  6. Self-monitoring
  7. Task monitoring
  8. Controlling emotions

Today’s challenges in executive skills in middle and high school, if unaddressed, will be tomorrow’s career challenge. When a young adult is unsuccessful in a job, deficits in executive skills are often a contributing factor. Typically the young man or woman has the skills to do the work but lacks the focus, structure, organization and persistence to finish a job in a timely manner. 

Executive skills are essential for job success. According to various studies, employers give several reasons why young adults with deficits in executive functions, ADHD, or LD may be fired from their jobs. As you might expect, the boss will be very unhappy when…

  1. An employee is consistently late to work and meetings.
  2. Written reports are incomplete.
  3. The job is not finished in a timely manner. 
  4. Sales productivity goals are not met. 
  5. The employee has difficulty getting started and completing work independently
  6. Work time is misspent on lower priority, more enjoyable work. 
  7. The employee is disorganized, loses key reports or materials

Strategies to Address Deficits in High Priority Executive Skills

Setting daily reminders that you can see or hear is especially helpful to people who struggle with executive skills, e.g., marking a calendar and reviewing it daily, color coding folders by priority, setting an alarm to designate the time to start an uninterrupted work time.

Strategies to Avoid Frequently Being Late

  • Organize all materials needed for work the night before. 
  • Put all work materials near the door to the garage or exit to the street.
  • Set wake-up alarm fifteen minutes earlier.
  • Lay out work clothes the night before.
  • Calculate commuting time to work during regular work hours and add fifteen to twenty minutes of “oops time” to allow for traffic, stopping to get gas, a delayed bus or subway, etc.
  • Set an alarm on a cell phone for ten minutes before time to leave for work. 
  • Set a second alarm that signals that it’s time to walk out the door.
  • If these strategies don’t work: Talk with the doctor if you suspect that you may have sleep problems that make it more difficult for you to fall asleep and wake up. 
  • Another possibility is to ask the boss for a change in arrival time (and a later time to leave work) to better accommodate the ADHD internal clock. 

Strategies for Difficulty Setting Priorities

  • Make a list of all task assignments.
  • Start on the tasks that are most Important & most Urgent.
  • Mark which 2-3 tasks are most important.
  • Next identify which important task is the most urgent and the due date.
  • Secondarily, identify which task is most important to your boss.
  • Post due dates on a calendar that is visible from your desk chair.
  • Make a separate list of 2-3 important tasks that must be done today.
  • Set aside uninterrupted time to work on the most Important/Urgent task.
  • If there is an important task that requires minimal time and effort, complete this task first. Clearing this task will give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to move on to a more time-consuming task.

Strategies to Avoid Missing Deadlines

  • Create a job plan beginning with the project due date and planning backward. Note all dates on a frequently reviewed calendar.
  • Consider using project management software for any long-term project.  Designate deadlines for each step of the project.
  • Use a planner (on the cell phone, computer, or paper). religiously and put warnings of all upcoming deadlines at least a couple days in advance.
  • Set alarm reminders of each due date on the phone or computer.
  • Break the task into chunks and schedule when each segment should be completed. For example, by the end of tomorrow, collect all data necessary to write the report
  • Find a sympathetic staff member who might be willing to be a mentor, someone to check in with periodically regarding progress and due dates. 

Strategies to Avoid Forgetting a Job Assignment or Deadline

  • Try the free app “Remember the Milk.” Enter each task, the due date and schedule a reminder email to be sent a day or two before it’s due.
  • Add a reminder of all due dates to a project management program, phone, computer, or a month-at-a-glance calendar and review it the first thing every morning.

Strategies to Avoid Procrastination

  • End each workday by making a list of the most important work priorities for the next day.
  • Begin each day with work on the most important tasks.  
  • Resist the temptation of taking care of less important and more enjoyable items first.
  • If the young adult has difficulty starting a task, set a timer for a short amount of time (fifteen minutes or so) as a reminder to start and suggest he or she do as much as possible within that time frame.  Most people with EF challenges will continue working once they have gotten started. This will help them work more efficiently and get him or her over the hump of starting a project.

Strategies for Managing Interruptions

  • Set aside a designated time slot to return phone calls and emails. Then mute the cell phone and don’t check any emails or answer texts until all the Important tasks are completed. Emails and texts are huge time gobblers. 
  • Use a timer on the computer or phone as a reminder to avoid any interruptions during a certain block of time. “Time Timer,” a time management app, makes the passage of time concrete and visual. For example, set the timer for a 45-minute uninterrupted work session. In addition to the visual cue of time winding down, an alarm will sound when time elapses.
  • Put a “Please do not disturb” sign on the door.

Strategies for Following and Remembering Verbal Instructions

  • After each supervisory session or staff meeting, send a brief email to the supervisor outlining an understanding of the work assignments. This will give the boss an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and also provide a written guideline for the task.
  • Write a list of specific responsibilities for each project.
  • Don’t start a new task until a list of all the components of the assignment and due dates are entered on a calendar. This will help the young adult focus on the overall project before jumping into a particular task.

Strategies to Avoid Losing things

  • Organize and de-clutter the desk; designate places for key reports, works in progress, completed work.
  • Place personal items in the same place each day; put car keys in the side pocket of a purse or in a designated bowl or box; hang keys for the work vehicle on the designated office hook.
  • Consider using a tracking device for keys, wallet, purse, phone, laptop, and any other easily lost item. There are many available that will sync with the phone or computer and send an audible signal.
  • Handle papers once, do what has to be done, and put them away in their designated spot.
  • Color-code files—for example, with red designating the most important ones.
  • Use open shelves that can be “seen” thus giving a visual reminder of important assignments. 
  • Avoid storing important documents in unmarked files in drawers and cabinets; unfortunately “out of sight, out of mind.”

Strategies to Avoid Being Easily Distracted

  • Ask to work in a quieter area with less traffic, even if it’s a file or storage room.
  • For special projects, work in an unused conference room temporarily.
  • Use a white noise machine to cover up background noise.
  • Occasionally ask to work at home to wrap up a major project.
  • Use a noise-cancelling headset.
  • Do one task at a time before starting another.

Strategies for Reading and Understanding Large Amounts of Material

  • Highlight key points in a written report.
  • Discuss key points with a colleague, particularly if the young adult has problems absorbing verbal information. 
  • Review any diagrams or drawings in the material to clarify points.
  • Use text to speech software (with headphones) to read and hear it at the same time.   

Strategies to Avoid Forgetting Names and Numbers

  • Before going to an important meeting, take a minute to review the names of key people. 
  • Practice using word associations linking the name to things that are  known—e.g., Jeff is also the name of a favorite uncle.
  • Keep a list of key phone numbers on a cell phone.
  • Make notes of key points before attending an important meeting, including important data. Be informed and prepared.

In summary, if you think the teenager or young adult has deficits in executive skills, start working with them now. Select one or two of the most important executive skill deficits and practice one or two strategies for each. Don’t expect overnight miracles, typically young people will require lots of practice and repetition so that the compensatory strategies become second nature. 

Removing Barriers for Individuals with Learning Disabilities in the Workplace

by Amy Barto

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law which prohibits discrimination solely on the basis of disabilty in employment, public services, and accommodations. In this month’s Research segment, we looked closely at the structure of this law and definitions of the key terms “disability” and “major life activities” as related to learning disabilities. We noted that the law outlines that reasonable accommodations may include, but are not limited to, redesigning equipment, assigning aides, providing written communication in alternative formats, modifying tests, redesigning services to accessibility locations, altering existing facilities, and building new facilities, but how do individuals with learning disabilities gain access to such reasonable accommodations? 

What is Reasonable?

Title I of the ADA is regulated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is designed to help people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities. Regulations apply to employers with 15 or more employees and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees [note: some state and/or local laws may require that employers with fewer employees provide reasonable accommodations]. 

The ADA defines disability (with respect to an individual) as: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a history or record of such an impairment; perceived by others as having such an impairment. The list of major life activities included in the text of the law includes speaking, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking and communicating. A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to process information. Every person with a learning disability is unique and has a different combination and degree of difficulties. These difficulties are manifested in the acquisition and use of one or more of the following areas of processing information: listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities

Employees with learning disabilities may experience various types of limitations, just as they also have various areas of strengths. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with learning disabilities need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. 

In relation to the ADA, a reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodations also include adjustments to ensure that a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities such as any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. 

In our fact sheet What Employers Should Know about Learning Disabilities, LDA shares a few examples of accommodations for the workplace:

  • Use screen-reading software, which highlights and reads aloud the information on a computer screen.
  • Allow employees to give verbal, rather than written, responses or provide speech-to-text software.
  • Allow employees to organize their workspace as best fits their strengths and ideas for organization.
  • Color-code materials, folders, labels, etc.
  • Promote the use of calendars and schedulers that provide digital reminders of meetings, deadlines, upcoming tasks, etc.
  • Provide checklists for tasks.
  • Use flowcharts to describe steps of complicated processes.
  • Allow the use of a voice-activated recorder to record verbal instructions.
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks with specific goals.
  • Teach the employee to “learn the ropes” by initially providing a job mentor.
  • Allow the use of a calculator or a talking calculator if needed.
  • Provide additional training time on new tasks or processes.

Accessing Accommodations

Each request for a reasonable accommodation must be considered on an individual basis. A key to accessing accommodations is to remember that explorers are only required to accommodate disabilities of which they are aware. To begin the process, an employee must disclose his or her disability to their manager and/or to human resources and include how that disability is impacting their work. The employer and the employee work together to identify effective accommodations. Employees often know the accommodations that may work best to remove the barriers his or her disability brings to the job; employers often know their organization’s policies, procedure and resources best. 

Providing Accommodations

Currently, there is no federal funding allocated to support agencies or businesses to provide these accommodations. However, as Josh Cunningham shares in his article in the State Legislatures Magazine (July 2020)

federal programs like the Job Accommodation Network provide free consultation for employers seeking effective and affordable workplace accommodations. The network reports that 19% of accommodations cost nothing and 50% of them cost less than $500. The U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation have numerous programs and initiatives seeking to reduce employment barriers for people with disabilities.

In 2016, the Job Accommodation Network, often known as JAN, developed their Workplace Accommodation Toolkit, an online platform with the information businesses need to create inclusive workplaces while complying with disability-related employment laws. Their Toolkit includes sample accommodation procedures, examples of policies and forms from leading U.S. businesses, training presentations, roleplay videos and best practices for creating an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities. This Toolkit provides resources for recruiters, hiring managers, and supervisors, human resource professionals, accommodation consultants, and employees with disabilities. 

More resources from LDA related to advocating and employment can be found in our resources for Adults

The Adult Learning Disability Assessment Process

If you are an adult and suspect that you have a learning disability (LD) you may be at a loss about how to obtain testing and the assessment process. This guide will walk you through a learning disability assessment process, and show you where to start looking for an assessment.

What is a learning disability assessment for adults?

An LD assessment is a gathering of relevant information about an individual’s areas of strengths and challenges to determine whether or not he or she may have a learning disability. The components of the assessment process may vary depending on which individual, clinic, or agency is conducting the assessment, but most assessments include the following:

  • Screening (informal interview, brief test, career interest inventories, and/or review of medical, school, or work histories)
  • Evaluation (formal testing for achievement, intelligence, and processing)
  • Diagnosis (a statement specifying the results of the assessment, including the type of LD identified)
  • Recommendations (for work, school, and/or daily living)

Why should someone be assessed?

Adults choose to undergo an LD assessment for a number of reasons, including:

  • Significant problems at work or school that prevent them from reaching their career and/or educational goals
  • Significant problems in daily life ( e.g., relationships, managing finances, decision-making)
  • A desire to know why they have always struggled to learn and remember information

The first step to overcoming challenges is to determine the cause of the challenges. By completing the LD assessment process, adults can obtain the information and documentation they need to formally request accommodations at work or in school, and to determine effective strategies for learning and living based on their areas of strengths.

Who can conduct an LD assessment?

Only qualified professionals can conduct LD assessments. Such professionals have been certified to select, administer, and interpret a variety of neurological, psychological, educational, and vocational assessment instruments. The professional chosen should:

  • Have experience assessing adults for LD
  • Have information about local and state services and resources
  • Be able to help adults use their assessment results to determine their legal rights and responsibilities, strategies, accommodations, and next steps to meet goals

Where can you look for adult assessments?

  • State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies have a lot of services for individuals with disabilities, and many offer adult evaluations for learning disabilities.
  • Colleges/Universities with onsite clinics for graduate student training can sometimes offer evaluations at discounted rates. 
  • A private psychologist or clinic
  • Rehabilitation Services Agencies
  • Community Mental Health Centers
  • If you’re struggling to find a place to be assessed, your LDA State Affiliate may be able to help you find a local resource.

How much does an LD assessment cost?

The cost of an LD assessment varies depending on where it is conducted geographically, type of professional who administers the assessment, and the assessment’s  comprehensiveness. The cost of the assessments typically range between $500 – $2,500.

Some insurance policies will cover the cost of the assessment. Local mental health clinics and university psychology departments sometimes offer a sliding scale fee for the assessment. Vocational Rehabilitation agencies sometimes provide LD assessments at no cost as part of their intake process for agency applicants who are accepted as new clients.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) clients who have either a history of LD OR disclose to their case managers that they think they have LD have a right to an LD assessment as part of their TANF services.

Questions to ask the qualified assessor

  • Have you tested many adults with learning disabilities before?
  • How much will the assessment cost, and what does the cost cover?
    • Can insurance cover the costs?
    • Are there other funding sources?
    • Can you provide a payment plan?
  • How long will the assessment take?
  • What will be involved in the assessment?
  • Who will have access to the assessment results?
  • Will there be a written report of the assessment?
  • Will you explain the written report to me?
  • Will the assessment give me more information about why I am having trouble with my job, school, or daily life?
  • Will you give me ideas about accommodations for my disability?
  • Will you give me information about how to self-advocate for my disability at school or work?
  • Will the report make recommendations about where I can go for further help?

Reading Instruction: Tips for Teachers

Reading is the single most important educational skill your students will learn. Understanding the organization and meaning of text and instruction in both phonics and literature is essential to helping young children read. By understanding the prerequisite skills for reading, teachers can build a solid foundation for their students to learn and succeed in school. Here are some ways to create appreciation of the written word, develop awareness of printed language, teach the alphabet, develop phonological and phonemic awareness, teach the relation of sounds and letters, teach children how to sound out words and to spell words, and help children develop fluent, reflective reading.

Create Appreciation of the Written Word

  • Share stories with children and invite them to explore a story’s magic.
  • Share informational texts and invite children to wonder about the new ideas presented.
  • Take every opportunity to point out the ways in which reading is essential to the communications of everyday life (e.g., on labels, instructions, and signs).

Develop Awareness of Printed Language and the Writing System

  • Make sure students know how books are organized. They should be taught the basics about books–that they are read from left to right and top to bottom, that print may be accompanied by pictures or graphics, that the pages are numbered, and that the purpose of reading is to gain meaning from the text and understand ideas that words convey.
  • Read to children from books with easy-to-read large print. Use stories that have predictable words in the text.
  • Use “big books” to help children notice and learn to recognize words that occur frequently, such as a, the, is, was, and you.
  • Label objects in your classroom.

Teach the Alphabet

  • A strong predictor of the ease with which a child learns to read is his or her familiarity with letters of the alphabet. This familiarity is a critical building block for learning to read.
  • It is important to go beyond knowing the names of letters. Students must also develop a sense of the purpose of letters.
  • Help them notice the letters in the print that surrounds them and that you share with them every day.
  • Engage the students in activities that will help them learn to recognize letters visually.
  • Help students learn to form the letters and encourage them to embellish their work with their names and with other first attempts at writing.

Develop the Students’ Phonological Awareness

  • In listening and speaking, we pay attention to the meaning of language rather than to its sound. To learn to read, however, students must be taught to attend to the sounds, or phonology, of language. This is necessary for them to understand how speech is represented by print. Children with learning disabilities need special help in learning to develop such phonological awareness.
  • Model and demonstrate how to break short sentences into individual words. For example, use the sentence “Frogs eat bugs,” and demonstrate with chips, cards, or other manipulatives how the sentence is made up of three words and how the order of the words matters. Using manipulatives to make sentences, play with each word and put it in order.
  • Develop students’ awareness of the sounds of individual words by asking them to clap out syllables and to listen for and generate rhymes.
  • Once children are comfortable in playing games with words, syllables, and rhymes, move onto phonemic awareness.

Develop Phonemic Awareness

  • Phonemic awareness refers to an understanding that words and syllables are comprised of a sequence of elementary speech sounds. This understanding is essential to learning to read an alphabetic language. The majority of children with reading disabilities fail to grasp this idea.
  • In teaching phonemic awareness, the focus of all activities should be on the sounds of words, not on letters or spellings.
  • Use strategies that make phonemes prominent in children’s attention and perception. For example, model specific sounds, such as /s/ in the word sat, and ask children to produce each sound in isolation and in many different words until they are comfortable with the sound and understand its nature.
  • Begin with simple words and simple challenges, e.g., listen for initial /s/ in sat, sit, sip, and sad . . . or for long /e/ in me, see, bee . . . .
  • Teach students to blend phonemes into words. Begin by identifying just one phoneme, e.g., /m/-ilk, /s/-at, working gradually toward blending all the phonemes in words, e.g., /s/-/a/-/t/.
  • Teach students to identify the separate phonemes within words, e.g., what is the first sound of soup? What is the last sound of kiss? Beginning phonemes are easier to identify than final phonemes.
  • Once students are comfortable listening for individual phonemes, teach them to break up words, into component sounds, e.g., /m/-/oo/-/s/= “moose”.
  • Create a sequence of segmenting and blending activities to help students develop an understanding of the relationship between sounds in words.
  • Provide children with more support when first teaching a task. For example, model a sound or strategy for making the sound, and have the children use the strategy to produce the sound. Model and practice several examples. Prompt the children to use the strategy during guided practice, and gradually add more examples. As the students master these skills, provide less teacher-directed instruction and more practice and challenge.
  • Make teaching phonological awareness a top priority. Opportunities to engage in phonological awareness activities should be plentiful, frequent, brief, and fun.
  • Phonemic awareness is essential for learning to read, but it is not enough by itself. It must be coupled with instruction and practice in learning the relationship between letters and sounds.

Teach the Relation of Sounds and Letters

  • Students should learn the letters of the alphabet and discriminate each letter from the other, because each stands for one or more of the sounds that occur in spoken words.
  • When presenting each letter, model its corresponding sound and have children produce the sound themselves. For children with learning disabilities, the teaching activities must be explicit and unambiguous.
  • At first, teach and work with only a few letter-sound correspondences that have high utility in many words (e.g., /m/ in man, mad, him, and ham). Postpone teaching less frequently occurring letters until students have a firm understanding of how left-to-right spellings represent first-to-last sounds (alphabetic understanding).

Teach Children How to Sound Out Words

  • After students have mastered a few letter-sound correspondences, teach them to decode words or sound them out. Begin with small, familiar words. Teach the children to sound out the letters, left to right, and blend them together, searching for the word in memory.
  • Model sounding out the word, blending the sounds together and saying the word. The ability to sound out new words allows children to identify and learn new words on their own.
  • Give children stories containing words that reflect the letter-sound patterns that have been taught, and encourage them to sound out words whenever they are uncertain.
  • Help children learn spelling conventions, such as the use of final /e/ to mark long vowels, by comparing and contrasting lots of examples.

Teach Children to Spell Words

  • Teach children to spell words by sounding their letters one by one. Model the sounding and spelling process for children as they spell.
  • Begin with short words children can sound out, because these words follow regular spelling conventions, e.g., cap, bat, and sit instead of cape, bait or sight.
  • Begin with simple words that do not contain consonant blends, e.g., ham and pan instead of slam and plan.
  • Encourage students to use spelling knowledge and strategies regularly in their own writing.
  • Introduce spelling conventions systematically. Begin with words that exemplify the most frequent and basic conventions, and provide support and practice to help students generalize from these words to others. The goal is to help them see the spelling conventions in the words.
  • Use words in which letter-sound correspondences represent their most common sounds (e.g., get instead of gem).
  • Develop a sequence and schedule of opportunities that allow children to apply and develop facility with sounds and words at their own pace. Specify what skills to assess and when to assess them so that you will know when to move on. Take into account each student’s background knowledge and pace in moving from sounding out to blending words to reading connected text.

Help Children Develop Fluent, Reflective Reading

  • Help children learn to read fluently by requiring them to read new stories and reread old stories every day.
  • Help children extend their experience with the words, language, and ideas in books by interactively reading harder texts with them and to them every day.
  • Relate information in books to other events of interest to children, such as holidays, pets, siblings, and games. Engage children in discussion of the topics.
  • In both stories and informational texts, encourage wondering. For example, “I wonder what Pooh will do now?” “How do you think the father feels ?” or “I wonder what frogs do in the winter? Do you think that’s a problem? Why?”
  • Model comprehension strategies and provide students with guided assistance.
  • Point out how titles and headings tell what a book is about.
  • Help students identify the main ideas presented in the text, as well as the supporting detail. Graphics help to reveal main ideas, and the relationship between text and graphics helps students understand what they are reading.
  • Point out unfamiliar words and explore their meaning. Revisit these words frequently and encourage students to use them in their own conversations.
  • Show children how to analyze contextual clues to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Research shows that most vocabulary growth comes from learning new words in reading.

For Further Reading:

ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education

Introducing The Hybrid Teacher: Hope for Students with LD in the General Education Classroom

Author’s note: Versions of this article have appeared in LDA Today, www.LDonline.org and is also included in serialized form in the author’s blog on The Huffington Post..

For many students with brain-based learning disabilities, the unrelenting frustration involved in taking in, processing and producing information is a rather chronic condition. The cycle of challenge and defeat is not unlike the punishment of Sisyphus, the king of Corinth who according to Greco-Roman mythology was punished in Hades by having to push a huge boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll incessantly back down. For kids with LD, there may be occasional plateaus or small ledges on which this stone can rest (summer vacations?), but most of these kids experience school as a difficult, frustrating and emotionally unsettling place. Too few know the joys that come from repeated successes; too many are beaten down very early by the implied message that they are supposed to be able to do what the other kids do, and do it as easily.


In the pre-inclusionary times of the mid-seventies and early eighties, college graduates who had trained to be special educators found work in learning centers, resource rooms or self-contained programs that were designed to meet the needs of students with Learning Disabilities. They had the time to work with a relatively small number of students and provide them with intensive, direct instruction—an approach that these newly-minted teachers had learned would be effective with these students. When well implemented, that model of service delivery worked amazingly well. Kids with learning disabilities learned. They moved through school with a feeling of competence, and many became successful, happy and productive adults. Many of us who worked in schools at this time thought that these were the “glory days” of the field of Learning Disabilities. But as it often does in special education, the pendulum of change began to swing.

The Inclusion Movement

Over the next several decades–primarily as a consequence of the inclusion movement and the ascension of high stakes testing–we have witnessed a dramatic reduction in specialized, intensive instructional programs for students with LD, and a corresponding large-scale return of students with LD and other types of disabilities to regular classes. While the intentions of the inclusion movement were admirable—a long overdue chance for handicapped individuals to experience the dignity that comes from equal opportunity–the efficacy of so-called inclusion for students with learning disabilities was, and continues to be a huge disappointment.

A majority of the teachers working in general education classrooms had been trained as “regular” teachers and not as special educators. Despite excellent training and praiseworthy teaching skills, many of these professionals find themselves insufficiently prepared or inadequately supported to meet the special needs of students with LD who have been assigned to their classes. If you doubt this, all you have to do is ask them when their boss is not listening. The public assertion that inclusion is an effective approach for students with LD is simply an updated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The failure of a general education delivery model for students with LD continues to result in long waiting lists at many excellent independent LD schools across the country. Just ask any special education director whose budgets are busted by “out-of-district” placements!

Intensive Instruction

Despite abundant research and clinical observations that students with LD require and benefit from intensive instruction, this model is not often offered in public schools. Intensive instruction is characterized by flexible teaching approaches, use of a wide variety of instructional materials and technologies, and a belief that the goal of teaching is to accelerate student progress by any means possible. This is a species of education that would be headed for extinction, were it not for the visions of a few brave souls who are breeding the few remaining specimens in an effort to increase the herd. And there is a correlation between those out-of-district placement budgets and the efforts to breathe life into an old model. (Which, incidentally, turns out to be much less expensive than the private school option. Ask special education directors how many parents would be overjoyed if the school set up a self-contained, highly specialized, well-staffed in-house LD classroom.)

Suffice it to say that I am worried. As a neuropsychologist specializing in the interaction of stress and learning disabilities, I am worried about the mental health of kids and I am worried about their families. And as a teacher educator, I worry about teachers. A lot. Thousands of good general educators are being asked to educate millions of kids who need more than they have the time or expertise to give. And don’t get me started about the over-use of inadequately trained instructional aides to solve this problem!

All is not gloom and doom. There is hope. From my perspective, one of the major contributions of inclusion which is well conceived and well supported, has been the transformation that takes place when talented and motivated regular and special educators work together as members of a collaborative team. In schools that have “done inclusion right” I have witnessed the emergence of a new breed of professional who creatively builds bridges between curriculum and kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and other conditions that can derail learning. In the paragraphs that follow, I would like to introduce you what I have come to call the Hybrid Teacher. This might not be a solution for the dearth or (death) of self-contained specialized programs in which intensive specialized instruction can take place, but perhaps it’s a way to do some damage control.

Let me use this opportunity to share the characteristics of this new breed of teacher, so that you will recognize one when you see her or him. In my view, a professional with many of the traits listed below is the closest thing I can find to a “great teacher” for kids with learning disabilities.

The Hybrid Teacher…

Understands the relationship between emotion and cognition.

Unless she’s working with a child who is known to have primary emotional disturbance, she does not assume that learning difficulties are the consequence of being upset. Rather, she understands that emotional reactions and in many cases, negative behaviors are coping mechanisms triggered by the stress generated by frustration and fear of what a child sees as inevitable failure. She does not use this understanding to excuse, or allow the student to excuse this behavior, but to help explain it and work through it or around it. She also understands that many of these negative emotions and troubling behaviors go away when students feel competent and successful.

Knows that students learn in different ways.

This does not trivialize by saying: “He’s a visual learner.” The Hybrid Teacher says things like: Because testing and my observations have confirmed that Jamilla can’t hold on to the auditory images of [sounds, syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, my voice, the voices of many kids and teachers in the cafeteria, the sequence of directions, etc. etc., etc.), I need her to understand that (1) this task is going to be difficult and (2) that she has the skills, or that I am going to teach her the skills to handle this task, and (3) that some of the other kids may not have to use these tools, but that she does, and (4) that she will be successful if she does.

Focuses on the learner first and the curriculum second.

He takes the student to a place of cognitive and psychological safety before venturing into deeper waters of new material. He reviews not what was taught yesterday, but the student’s feeling of success with that material. This teacher understands the importance of creating a positive connection to prior learning, of tapping into a student’s positive emotions about a task or a topic, and helping students recognize and reduce negative influences on learning (e.g., automatically saying or thinking: I can’t DO math!”) by practicing thought-stopping techniques and generating positive self-statements that are tied to actual successful experiences.

Demonstrates the ability to expose students to a variety of stimuli.

He also knows when students are connected emotionally and cognitively to the experience. The Hybrid Teacher also gives students the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in a variety of ways, and publicly values these alternative ways to display knowledge and skills.

Is guided and energized by finding out what facilitates effective learning and what gets in the way.

The focus of teaching is to minimize the impediments by educating the learner about his own cognitive style, modifying the curriculum without lowering standards, and creating a learning space in which students can feel safe and competent.

Praises the process that students use as often or more than the product they create.

Teachers who ask kids “how did you get that answer” generally get a scowl or a “huh?” response, which isn’t very reinforcing. When Hybrid Teachers get a blank stare in response to this question, they give the student a couple of possible choices (“because you took all the distracting things off your desk,” or “I noticed that you put on the headphones to block out the noise from the classroom.” This can generate an “Oh, yeah” response; the next time the question is asked, that student is more likely to come up with an answer that address how she figured something out. That’s the behavior of a successful learner.

Understands that it’s not about having kids work harder, but rather that they work smarter.

Hybrid Teachers ask kids what strategies they have used in the past to be successful in any kind of learning (in school or outside of school) and helps to translate that skill and recreate that positive learning experience in the classroom. We all know the student who can take apart and rebuild a computer but can’t read. The Hybrid Teacher focuses on how the student learned to do the former and uses that knowledge as a basis for specialized instruction in reading. If a child says “I remember everything I see” the Hybrid Teacher capitalizes on that strength by developing a sight word vocabulary or a symbol system that supplements weak language processing skills. This kind of “mining for assets” leads to increased success and the confidence that comes from it.

Knows that it’s important to separate skill instruction from content acquisition.

A blind student may not be able to read small print, but she can certainly learn content. Making modifications in that case is a “no-brainer.” Hybrid Teachers keep that image in mind when they work with students with visual perceptual difficulties that get in the way of fluent reading. Remember that when poor readers rely on reading to gain knowledge, they miss a lot of information. Students who have problems holding words or sounds in working memory simply cannot benefit from a lecture that’s not supported by visual cues. Remember what it’s like to know just a little Spanish when you try to understand those rapidly delivered directions to the airport in Mexico City.

Is willing to take a risk when it comes for advocating for a student with LD in her classroom.

It takes courage tell an administrator that “This kid will just not be successful without some significant supports—more than I’m able to give in this classroom even though I’m awesome.”

Examines his classroom practices to identify what works and what doesn’t.

These teachers are more likely than other teachers to want to work with another adult, ask for feedback about performance, go to professional conferences and inservice training with the needs of individual students in mind, and be willing and able to teach others what they know.

Knows how to work as a team with the student as the key member.

Building and maintaining relationships with the family takes time and a sincere desire to hear the family’s story. Giving the family the time to tell a teacher what worked and what didn’t in the past, or what the struggles are around homework, yields data that may be more important than any test score. Reaching out to physicians to get and give information if medication or health issues are involved is an important skill. Working with ancillary personnel in the school (speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.) and helping them help the teacher incorporate therapeutic interventions in the classroom is critically important.

Understands that cultural and language factors play an important role in learning.

Just because a student “speaks good English” doesn’t rule out the possibility that there is confusion between the first and second language or that delays in language processing or reading are related to the simultaneous translation that’s going on in the student’s head. Hybrid Teachers are able to read subtle but important behaviors such as eye contact or physical proximity, and accurately interpret them in the social/cultural context of the child. She knows how to differentiate a language difference from a learning disability or knows who to ask.

Is able to cover the curriculum by understanding the child.

To consider each child as a unique individual is for these teachers not just a euphemism; this belief is acted upon minute by minute, even in large and diverse classrooms. Each child is connected to the teacher by a line. For some students, it’s a gossamer spider’s thread that registers every movement of the learner; for others it’s a large ship’s cable that takes a powerful action to get it to move. The Hybrid Teacher is connected to kids and kids are connected to this teacher most of the time. This allows the teacher to be responsive to not only the student with LD, but all learners in the classroom.

The Last Word:

I know that there are other traits that distinguish this teacher. The reader can add to this list, as I will as time goes on. By the way, I forgot to mention: The Hybrid Teacher is always a twin, or has been cloned, so that one of them can sleep, eat, do research on best teaching practices and go to the toilet while the other teaches.

In all seriousness, it is a delight to watch these teachers in action. They are everywhere if you look. They may be young or old; they can be professionally trained or “natural” teachers. Parents need to seek them out, reward them, advocate for more time, money and resources to support them, praise them for their work and bring them flowers. If your child gets one of these teachers every two or three years, he or she is probably going to be ok. Administrators need to pay these people more money, praise them more, show them off more. They are the hope for children with learning disabilities in these changing and challenging times, and my experience suggests that we have reason to be hopeful. Let me know if you know one of these exquisite creatures.

For Further Reading

How Teachers Can Help Students with Learning Disabilities

Resources on Teaching and Learning

Successful Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

Author: Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.
For over 35 years Dr. Jerome (Jerry) Schultz has specialize in the neuropsychological assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and other special needs. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from The Ohio State University and holds a Ph.D. from Boston College. Having started out his professional career as a middle school special education teacher, he subsequently directed several hospital or university-based clinics for children and families. He is now on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry, and teaches psychologists and psychiatrists about students with special needs.

In addition to his clinical work and teaching, Dr. Schultz serves as an international consultant and offers professional development to schools and organizations on issues related to the neuropsychology and appropriate education of children with special needs. He is respected for his realistic, practical and supportive work with teachers who are committed to meeting the needs of children with fragile emotions and challenging behaviors. Currently, Dr. Schultz serves as the in-house mental health consultant to several large public school systems in the Boston area.

Dr. Schultz served for many years as the Expert on Learning Disabilities and ADHD at www.familyeducation.com, a website for parents and teachers, and has been a contributor to www.ldonline.org. He sits on the Editorial Advisory Board of the LDA Journal, Learning Disabilities, and is on the Advisory Board of www.insideADHD.com, and www.myEdGPS.com. His highly praised book Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It examines the relationship between stress and learning. Dr. Schultz is the Chair of the Professional Advisory Board of LDA and has been a frequent presenter and keynoter at LDA State and National Conference. Learn more about Dr. Schultz at www.jeromeschultz.com. Twitter: @docschultz, Huffington Post Blog: www.huffingtonpost.com/jerome-schultz/.

First Steps for Parents When School Problems Are Observed

If a student is having unusual difficulty in school the parent should discuss the situation with the teacher and other school personnel. Most schools have a problem-solving team which works with families in reviewing and solving problems that affect school performance before beginning a formal process of referral for special education and related services as described in IDEA. Problem-solving activities or strategies used by the regular education teacher to address the child’s difficulty may consist of changes in the physical environment, changes in instructional approaches, short-term remedial activities, peer tutoring, or behavioral management plans. Learn more about who serves on the problem-solving team and what parents need to know about problem-solving efforts.

Who serves on the problem-solving team?

Members of the problem-solving team usually include the child’s teacher, a building level administrator, guidance counselor, the school psychologist, social worker, or consultant. The special education teacher may also be included. Most schools have a problem-solving team that includes general education staff member/s.

What do parents need to know about problem-solving efforts?

  • Parents should request to participate in all meetings of the team.
  • Parents should receive ongoing information regarding the child’s progress with the strategies in place.
  • Parents should provide documentation and results of previous interventions tried.
  • Length of time interventions will be attempted prior to referral for consideration for special education and will vary widely from state to state.
  • Determine who will implement the intervention, needed materials, frequency, and setting of the interventions.
  • Date for follow-up meeting to review progress.
  • Parents can stop problem-solving at any time and request referral for consideration for special education and related services. The school must provide parents with a formal notice of their agreement or disagreement.

Learn more about working with teachers and schools to help your child succeed.

Prior to, during, or after a period of “problem-solving” efforts in the regular classroom, the child may be referred for consideration for special education and related services. At any time during this process, the parent or guardian has the legal right to request that the public school evaluate their child for special education. See LDA’s position paper on Right to Evaluation of a Child for Special Education Services.

Special Education Terms To Know

504 Plan: The 504 Plan is a plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the Rehabilitation Act and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment. These accommodations and modifications must ensure that there is no discrimination because of the child’s disability.

Accommodations: Curricular adaptations that compensate for learners’ weaknesses without modifying the curriculum.

Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD): The name given to the committee used in some states (in other states not using the term ARD, they are called IEP teams or IEP committees) that is responsible for the development and review of a child’s individualized education plan (IEP), evaluation and re-evaluation, functional behavioral analysis (FBA), and behavior intervention plan (BIP). The ARD committee meets at least once per year to review the IEP and construct a new plan for the coming year. In addition to the annual review meeting, other meetings can be called by teachers or parents whenever needed. This group is responsible for creating, implementing and maintaining the educational program from students with disabilities, as identified by IDEA.

Annual Review (AR): The yearly meeting of the individualized education program (IEP) team (or called ARD committee in some states). The AR is designed to gather all the IEP team members in one location to update one another on a student’s needs and performance by reviewing progress toward goals and looking at new data like work samples and recent testing.

Assessment: Evaluations used to identify a student’s strengths, weaknesses, and progress. These tests are designed to provide an overview of a child’s academic performance, basic cognitive functioning and/or his or her current strengths or weaknesses; they can also test hearing and vision. Assessments can consist of anything from the observations of a teacher or aide to standardized and criterion-referenced tests to complex, multi-stage procedures such as a group of teachers assembling a large portfolio of student work.

Assistive Technology (AT): Assistive technology is technology used by individuals with disabilities in order to perform functions that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Assistive technology can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, as well as hardware, software, and peripherals that assist people with disabilities in accessing computers or other information technologies.

Emotional Disturbance (ED): A mental health issue including, but not limited to, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic-depression), conduct disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and psychotic disorders.

Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): The education to which every student is entitled under IDEA. Every student is entitled to an education that is appropriate for his or her unique needs, and that is provided free of charge.

Hearing Impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Inclusion, Inclusive Classroom: The term inclusion communicates an all-embracing societal ideology. Regarding individuals with disabilities and special education, inclusion secures opportunities for students with disabilities to learn inside mainstream classrooms. Mainstream classrooms in which students with disabilities learn are known as inclusive classrooms.

Individualized Education Program (IEP): A legal document that defines special education services between the school district and the parents.

IEP Team: The team of qualified professionals made up of the parent, special education teacher, interpreter of test data, district representative, and general education teacher at a minimum. This group makes all decisions related to the instructional program of a child with special needs, including placement and services provided. In some states, this team is called the admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) team.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): A law that guarantees educational rights to all students with disabilities

Interventions: Sets of teaching procedures used by educators to help students who are struggling with a skill or lesson succeed in the classroom. 

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The environment in which students with disabilities must be educated, as mandated by The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Students with disabilities must be educated in a classroom setting that is as close to the general education setting as possible.

Modifications: Curricular adaptations that compensate for learners’ weaknesses by changing or lowering expectations or standards.

Other Health Impairment (OHI): A disability category under IDEA that lists examples of health-related conditions that may qualify a child for special education: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome.

Response to Intervention (RTI): A process used by educators to help students who are struggling with a skill or lesson. If a child does not respond to the initial interventions, more focused interventions are used to help the child master the skill. RTI strategies address both learning and behavior.

Special Education (SPED): Term used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that is defined as specially designed instruction to increase the student’s chances for success.

Specific Learning Disability (SLD): A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations. Specific learning disabilities include conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

Speech or Language Impairment (SLI): A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Transition/Transition Plan: Transition is a general term used to describe a change in a student’s school or program. A transition plan is specific to an IEP: a student who will turn 16 within the life of his or her individualized education program must have a transition goal and plan that outlines how he or she will transition to life beyond high school.

Transition Meeting: A meeting of the individualized education program (IEP) team prior to a student moving into a new program or school.

Triennial Review (Tri): An IEP review meeting that takes place every three years. During this meeting, the IEP team meets to discuss a student’s continuing eligibility for special education services. It is often combined with the IEP annual review (AR).

Right to an Evaluation of a Child for Special Education Services

Parents who are aware their child is having a difficult time with reading, mathematics, written expression or other aspects of school work might suspect that the child has a learning disability (LD), also known as specific learning disabilities, and may be in need of special education services.

Learning disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. A learning disability can cause an individual to have difficulty in specific areas of learning, including reading, writing, and mathematics. In addition, individuals with LD may have difficulty with gross motor or fine motor coordination or with social interaction. Learning disabilities can affect children and adults and impact school, family, workplace and community life. For more information see: Core Principle: What Are Learning Disabilities?

What are your legal rights to an evaluation?

As a parent, guardian or advocate, you have a legal right to request that your public school evaluate your child for special education. Federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as amended in 2004 (IDEA), gives you that legal right. States, through local school districts, must “identify, locate, and evaluate every child who may have a disability requiring special education services.” This is called “Child Find.” When there is suspicion that a child has a disability, parents and educators have a responsibility and a right to request a full, individual, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary evaluation.

Parents may request an evaluation in writing. These requests should be sent to your child’s principal or the school district’s director or coordinator of special education. Parents should retain copies of all correspondence relating to their child and follow up with the school principal on the status of the request.

Some states will not consider the parent’s letter as sufficient permission to evaluate. Instead, the state may require the parent to sign the appropriate school district form before considering an evaluation. The date of the parent’s signature on the school district form is the date used to establish the evaluation timeframe.

Here is a sample letter requesting an evaluation:


Dear (name of director or coordinator of special education):

My child (first and last name) is having a difficult time learning. I am requesting that my child be evaluated for special education services. (Child’s name) is a ___ grader in Ms./Mrs./Mr. (teacher’s name) classroom at ______________School.

I understand that any information collected during current interventions with (child’s first name) will be completed and a meeting date will be set within the timeline as required by federal law. My signature on this letter gives my consent for my child’s evaluation to begin. I look forward to hearing from you. I am available by phone (name the days and times).

Parent signature
Parent name, address, phone number

What is Response to Intervention (RTI) and how is it used in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability?

Response to Intervention, also known as RTI, is a general education pre-referral process to help children who are having difficulty learning and achieving at grade level. RTI is designed to give these students additional academic support before the school district determines if they should be referred for a comprehensive special education evaluation.

In addition to a comprehensive evaluation, IDEA states: “In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local educational agency may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures…” See 34CFR §300.307(a)(2). IDEA does not require the use of RTI but says that a local school district may use RTI as “part” of the process.

For more information on RTI, please see the Core Principles: Response to Intervention (RTI)

Do all states and school districts have the same policies for implementing RTI and conducting special education evaluations?

Every state has established its own policies, and many school districts within each state may also have different procedures. Many states and local school districts require a pre-referral process. While some schools and some states have required the use of RTI for students with suspected learning disabilities, others are requiring RTI for students suspected of having any disability.

Is there a limit on how long a child might receive interventions under an RTI process?

There are no timelines in IDEA or other federal regulations regarding how long children should receive intervention as part of RTI. The first tier in RTI is evidence-based core instruction that is provided to the entire class, while more intensive interventions are targeted toward students struggling to learn. The number of weeks to complete the interventions may vary widely.

Is there a right to an evaluation if the child is receiving RTI interventions?

Yes. Regardless of where the child is in an RTI process, the IDEA regulations give parents the right to request an evaluation for special education services at any time. The law also says that information from an RTI process must be collected before the end of the timeframe set in place by the date of the parent’s consent for a special education evaluation.

Is there a time frame for completion of the evaluation?

IDEA sets a timeframe of 60 days. However, each state may choose to set its own time frame. For example, in North Carolina the time frame is 90 days from the time the school district receives the parent’s written request. In Florida the timeframe is 60 working days. Check with the Division of Special Education in the state department of education or public instruction to find out the timeline for your state.

What should a comprehensive evaluation include?

Information from an RTI process alone does not and cannot identify a child as having a learning disability. A comprehensive evaluation for a child who is suspected of having a specific learning disability may include data collected by the teacher during the RTI progress monitoring process; but most importantly, a comprehensive evaluation should include information from educational and psychological assessments showing patterns of strengths and weaknesses and include input from parents, teachers and other education professionals.

When asked if a State could mandate RTI be used as the sole criterion to determine if a child had specific learning disabilities, the US Department of Education responded that SLD evaluation …must include a variety of assessment tools and may not use any single measure of assessment as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability, as required under 34 CFR §300.304(b). (“Questions and Answers on Response to Intervention,” January 2007)

The position of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) is that RTI should never be used to delay an evaluation for special education, deny evaluations, or place students in special education without the benefit of a comprehensive evaluation. RTI should never be used as the only assessment to determine identification and eligibility for services. RTI can never take the place of a comprehensive multidisciplinary evaluation that delves into the specific areas of concern interfering with the child’s learning.

For more information on evaluation for learning disabilities see: Core Principles: Evaluation and Identification of Learning Disabilities

What is the position of the U.S. Department of Education regarding a parent’s right to request an evaluation for children involved in an RTI process?

On January 21, 2011, a memorandum from the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education, to State Directors of Special Education stated that a Response to Intervention (RTI) process cannot be used to delay or deny an evaluation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The directive stated: “It would be inconsistent with the evaluation procedures [of IDEA for a local school district] to reject a referral and delay provision of an initial evaluation on the basis that a child has not participated in an RTI framework.”

The OSEP memo can be found here.

Do parents have rights if the school district refuses to do an evaluation or, after evaluation, concludes the child is not eligible for special education services?

If the school district refuses to do an evaluation or, after evaluating the child, concludes the child is not eligible for special education services under IDEA, parents have other rights. If they are refused an evaluation or disagree with the evaluation, parents may be entitled to an independent evaluation at the school district’s expense. Parents also have the option to pay for an evaluation by a professional of their choice.

As part of the dispute resolution process parents have the right to request mediation, filing of a state complaint, or filing for a due process hearing. When using these processes, a parent’s case may be stronger when informal methods of conflict resolution have been attempted.

IDEA requires school systems to have procedures in place to assist parents in resolving disputes through mediation, a voluntary process. Mediation allows parents and school districts to explain their positions to an impartial mediator who facilitates the discussion and assists the parties in agreeing upon legally binding solutions to the conflict. The costs of mediation are paid for by the state education agency (SEA).

The state complaint process requires a parent to file a letter with the state education agency outlining the violation of Part B of IDEA or its implementing regulations. A copy of the complaint must be furnished to the school district at the time the complaint is filed with the SEA if the violation occurred in the school district.

IDEA provides for the right to challenge a school district’s decision through a due process proceeding. A parent may request a form from the SEA to file an IDEA due process complaint. The due process proceeding has a number of steps.

  • First, there may be a meeting known as a resolution session, which offers the opportunity to discuss and resolve the issues. Parents and the school district may agree to waive the resolution session and use the mediation process instead.
  • If a resolution is reached the parties will sign a legally binding agreement. If not, the next step is to convene an impartial due process hearing.
  • The hearing process involves the right to be represented by an attorney for which the parent must pay, subpoena witnesses, present evidence, and cross examine witnesses. The hearing officer makes a decision.
  • If the parent disputes the decision of the hearing officer, the parent may proceed to court with a civil suit or to an administrative review (required in some states) and then to court.

Finally, even if the child is not eligible for special education services under IDEA, the child may be protected by other laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. LDA advocates for identifying students with learning disabilities through comprehensive evaluations.

Adopted by LDA Board of Directors February 16, 2013, Last Updated 1/9/2023

New to LD

Your chances of knowing someone with learning disabilities are very good. Did you know?

  • 2.3 million students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities (SLD) and receive services under IDEA. This represents 35% of all students receiving special education services.*
  • 75% – 80% of special education students identified as LD have their basic deficits in language and reading***
  • 60% of adults with severe literacy problems have undetected or untreated learning disabilities**

Children with learning disabilities begin school expecting to learn and be successful. If your child is having difficulty in school, she may learn differently from other kids. Parents are often the first to notice that “something doesn’t seem right.” But sometimes knowing what to do and where to find help can be confusing.

Children grow up to be adults and unfortunately learning disabilities cannot be cured or fixed; it’s a life long issue.  And some individuals don’t realize they have learning disabilities until they are adults.  With the right support and interventions, however, children and adults with learning disabilities can succeed in school and life.  Recognizing, accepting and understanding your learning disability are the first steps to success.

Defining Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more cognitive processes related to learning. The majority of children K-12 who receive special education are served under the specific learning disability (SLD) category. Approximately 80% of those children have an SLD in reading.

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and development of one or more of the following:

  • oral language (e.g., listening, speaking, understanding);
  • reading (e.g., phonetic knowledge, decoding, reading fluency, word recognition, and comprehension);
  • written language (e.g., spelling, writing fluency, and written expression); and
  • mathematics (e.g., number sense, computation, math fact fluency, and problem solving).

Learning disabilities often run in families. They should not be confused with other disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, autism, deafness, blindness, and behavioral disorders. None of these conditions are learning disabilities. Because learning disabilities cannot be seen, they often go undetected. Recognizing a learning disability is even more difficult because the severity and characteristics vary. Learn more about what a learning disability is here.

Don’t Delay

If you suspect that your child’s learning difficulties may require special assistance, please do not delay in finding information and support. The sooner you move forward the better your child’s chances for reaching his full potential.

Maybe you have wondered if you are overreacting, or if the situation will work itself out over time. The truth is, you know your child better than anybody else. And regardless of who may tell you that it’s a “phase” or “nothing to worry about,” only you know how much your child dreads Monday morning. You have watched the impact of his daily struggles on his self-confidence. Deep down, you know something isn’t right.

The good news is there are things you can do. In fact, the only “wrong” thing to do is to do nothing. If you wait to seek help for your child, frustration and a sense of failure will continue to erode your child’s self-esteem, while the window of time for meaningful intervention narrows. If you suspect you or your child has a learning problem, don’t delay in seeking help and taking action!

Parents can help children with learning disabilities achieve success by encouraging their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, understanding the educational system, working with professionals and learning about strategies for dealing with specific difficulties.

Since you are one of the best observers of your child’s development, you will be able to recognize potential problems early. But, in order to spot problems early, you’ll need to know the warning signs!

Seeing the Signs

There may be a number of reasons why your child is having a hard time. But what you are seeing could also indicate a learning disability. This does not mean your child is “slow” or less intelligent than your child’s peers. Their brain is simply wired differently for learning and your child needs to adapt strategies that make the most of your child’s abilities. The earliest possible intervention is critical to your child’s success in school.

Learn to recognize the signs of a potential learning disability. If you have observed several of these signs in your child, consider the possibility of a learning disability.

It is normal for parents to observe one of these signs in their children from time to time. But if your child consistently exhibits several of these signs, it is important for you to take action to get him the help that he needs.


Have you noticed that your child has:

  • pronunciation problems
  • difficulty finding the right word
  • difficulty making rhymes
  • trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors and shapes
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble interacting with peers
  • difficulty following directions or learning routines
  • difficulty controlling pencil, crayons, scissors
Grades K-4

Does your child:

  • have trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • confuse basic words (run, eat, want)
  • make consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d, inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
  • experience difficulty learning basic math concepts
  • have trouble learning about time
  • take a long time to learn new skills
  • have trouble remembering facts
Grades 5-8

Is your child having difficulty:

  • with reading comprehension or math skills
  • with letter sequences (soiled for solid, left for felt)
  • with prefixes, suffixes, root words and other spelling strategies
  • organizing his/her bedroom, notebook, papers, and desk
  • keeping up with papers or assignments
  • with handwriting
  • with time management
  • understanding oral discussions and expressing thoughts aloud
High School & Adults

Is your child having difficulty:

  • spelling the same word differently in a single document
  • taking on reading or writing task
  • with open-ended questions on tests
  • with memory skills
  • adapting skills from one setting to another
  • with a slow work pace
  • grasping abstract concepts
  • focusing on details
  • misreading information

It is never too early to seek help for your child, but waiting too long could be harmful. If you see several of these signs over a period of time, consider the possibility of a learning disability. Knowing what a difference early help can make will help you lose your fear and take the next steps to getting help for  your child!

Losing the Fear

It can be hard to acknowledge that your child is having difficulty in school let alone a potential learning disability. Perhaps you have worried that by calling attention to your child’s learning problems he might be labeled “slow” or a “discipline problem,” or sent to the wrong class.

What many parents and their children don’t realize is that most kids with learning disabilities are just as intelligent as their peers. Their brains are simply wired differently for learning. They need to be taught in ways that are best adapted to how they process information.

And, scientists and researchers are learning more every day about learning disabilities. Their research provides hope and direction. From research we now know that:

Receiving help in the early grades greatly improves the chances for these kids to adapt learning strategies that will enable them to succeed in school. Among children who struggle with basic reading and language skills the most common learning problems 75% of those who do not receive help until the third grade will struggle with reading throughout their lives. But if those same kids receive appropriate help by the first grade, fully 90% of them will achieve normal reading ability.

By identifying what is causing your child’s learning problems, you are one step closer to getting the help you both need. Your child can still have hope for a wonderful future if given the proper tools and learning strategies.

Getting Help

Though the process of getting help may seem overwhelming, finding support for your child and for yourself is easier than you might think. In most cases, talking with your child’s teacher should be the first step.

Share your concerns with your child’s teacher and ask about her observations of your child’s performance, interactions with his peers, etc. Together you may come up with strategies to try in the classroom and at home to support your child’s learning needs.

Most teachers want to help and will work with you to try and meet your child’s learning needs. If you feel it may be necessary, your child’s teacher can also help to arrange a full evaluation of how well your child is performing in school.

Also, be sure your child has had a thorough physical examination by a medical doctor or nurse practitioner to assure that there are no major health problems that might be interfering with learning. Be especially certain to have eyes and ears checked for correctable vision and hearing problems.

Useful tips when meeting with your child’s teacher:

  • Write down any questions you have before entering the meeting. These questions should be geared toward gaining greater understanding of your child’s problems and how to address them in the school setting.
  • Review records of previous conferences and educational decisions before attending conferences and be prepared to share them with school personnel.
  • Be ready to share your observations about your child’s academic progress. Listen well and participate in the meeting with an open mind, knowing that you are all there to facilitate school success for your child.
  • Keep careful and detailed notes at the meeting. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you do not understand something that was said.
  • Ask for information on the curriculum and how students’ work is evaluated, so that you know how to gauge your child’s progress.
  • Appreciate that teachers must juggle the unique needs of many students. Work with school personnel to come up with strategies that are practical, given the realities of the school and the classroom.
  • Acknowledge that the major motivation for success must come from your child. Work with teachers to keep expectations high and to nurture an enthusiasm for learning.
  • Agree on how you and the teacher will make follow-up contacts to review progress.

Now that you know the first step to take, there are several more steps you can take to find support and make sure your child gets the right kind of help!

Take Action

The most important thing you must determine is the source of your child’s learning problem. Time is of the essence if your child does, in fact, have a learning disability, “wait and see” almost always means “wait and fail.” If you act early, you will gain the peace of mind that comes with knowing what is causing your child’s learning difficulties. You also will be helping to ensure that she overcomes her struggles and enjoys success in school.

In addition to working with your child’s teacher, here are additional steps you should take:

Collect information on your child’s performance.  Keep notes, copies of your child’s assignments, and any correspondence from your child’s school regarding your child’s performance in a folder so that you can document any patterns. At the same time, it is also important to observe your child’s strengths and interests, encouraging and rewarding your child for the things he does well.

Monitor your child’s progress.  Watch your child’s progress to be sure that your child’s needs are being met. Keep your child’s education folder up to date, adding new samples of schoolwork and test results. If your child is not making progress, discuss your observations with school personnel and work together to make changes. You may need to ask for a comprehensive educational evaluation to determine if your child may be eligible for special education services.

Learn as much as you can. The more you understand about the way your child learns and the help that’s available, the better equipped you will be to help your child succeed. If it turns out that your child does have a learning disability, you also need to be aware of your rights and protections under the law.

Join with others who care. By joining with other parents and professionals you can increase awareness of the issue, dispel popular misconceptions, help establish educational systems that provide for the needs of children with learning disabilities, and get support for yourself. Locate the LDA Chapter near you today!

Enjoy your child and encourage an interest in learning. You can encourage your child’s interests outside the classroom and create a home environment that supports the way your child learns. Rather than focusing solely on your child’s deficiencies, emphasize and reward your child’s strengths.

Visit our Parents area for additional information on how to help your child and help yourself!


* National Center for Education Statistics
**National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center
***National Institutes of Health

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