When is a learning problem a PROBLEM? – New Criteria for Learning Disabilities

By George Tucker, PhD
Child Psychologist 

boy school unhappy 300x199 copy When is a learning problem a PROBLEM?   New Criteria for Learning DisabilitiesA recent article by Edward Schultz in LDA News-briefs concerns new definitions of learning disabilities that must be recognized through the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).

This article describes why severe discrepancies between ability and achievement (see below) are no longer required to qualify your child for an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) at school, and the author discusses new methods of determining who can profit from special classes or special teaching methods.

PL 94-142, the original law regarding special teaching and classes for students with handicapping conditions, appeared in the 1970’s.  The law was aimed at helping physically challenged students, e.g., those requiring a wheelchair to get around, or those who lacked the muscular control to produce good penmanship, gain access to the comprehensive public school.

However, enterprising educators, psychologists, and others in the helping professions soon realized that there were many students who had no physical challenges, but they did have learning challenges such as dyslexia or poor auditory processing.

Initially, such learning challenged students gained access to the Special Education classrooms with ease.  Generally, these classes were legally mandated to have no more than eight students per teacher.

However, as the number of students in Special Education classes swelled, the money to fund the classes did not.  Schools were faced with the dilemma of limiting the enrollment in Special Education classes in order to maintain the 8:1 ratios without an increase in the funding.  Since physical challenges were more blatant, the most expeditious way of limiting the number of students with learning challenges was to make the definition of what constituted a learning challenge very strict.

For example, in the past, a Sophomore with average intellectual ability would have been required to read on a second to third-grade level in order to qualify for an IEP.  This was the school district’s way of saying that the student’s learning problem met their criterion for a PROBLEM, and that the PROBLEM required special teachers or teaching methods in order to be resolved.  This generated an IEP and placement in a Resource Specialist Classroom or setting outside the general or comprehensive classroom.

After such a strict criterion was used to control the number of students admitted to Special Education classes, only the squeakiest wheels received any grease.  Parents who had their children evaluated by the school district were often told that their children did not qualify for Special Education services because their child did not meet the stringent, and arbitrary, criteria for a learning disability that the severe discrepancy standard had set.

According to Schultz, IDEA included three important new guidelines in identifying students with learning disabilities

  • Guideline One:  A severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is not required in determining a learning disability.
  • Guideline Two:  The use of a process based on the student’s response to research-based intervention must be permitted.
  • Guideline Three:  The use of other alternative research-based methods may be permitted in defining a learning disability.

The author then goes on to present how one such approach, identifying processing deficits, can be used to identify a learning disability in a student who does not have a severe discrepancy between ability and achievement.  That is, under the older, strict rules, the student would not qualify for an IEP.  Under IDEA, this student would qualify for Special Education services.

As a parent, you should be aware of the fact that your child may have been a false negative under the old criteria.  That is, you may have been informed that your child did not qualify for Special Education services because the school district was not aware of IDEA.  If this is the case, you should request another evaluation using the IDEA critera.

If your child is one of those who may have fallen through the cracks, it would help to know some of the factors that are involved in assessing processing deficits.

First, the author presents the concepts of fluid versus crystallized intelligence.  The former refers to how a student performs on a novel task that cannot be performed automatically.  This is often referred to as “thinking on one’s feet” or “on the fly.”

Crystallized intelligence refers to knowledge that has been acquired over time, and it includes mostly language-based information and information that may be recited automatically, such as formal school learning or procedural knowledge, such as how to go through the lunch line at school.

Specific interventions can be generated for deficits in either kind of intelligence.  For example, instruction in problem-solving strategies can often be used to help those with fluid intelligence problems become better at their performance on tasks that they have not seen before.  Teaching ways of relating new information to prior knowledge can help those with deficits in crystallized intelligence.

Other cognitive processes discussed by the author include deficits in the areas of short-term memory and long-term storage and retrieval.

For short-term memory problems, the intervention would be to shorten the instructions to the student, supply them with memory strategies, or repeating the instructions several times.

For long-term storage or retrieval problems, the intervention would be to provide organizers, memory cues, additional practice and additional time for the recall.

Likewise, classroom accommodations for additional test time and note-taking assistance could be the ideal intervention for a student who has a deficit in how quickly they process the information.

In brief, then, legislation passed in the 1970’s regarding help for children with learning challenges is being reevaluated in light of over thirty years of evidence-based practice and new developments in intellectual, cognitive, and educational testing.  In the months to come, this column will explore more specific ways of helping you as a parent to become more knowledgeable about these developments and more competent in getting the help from your public school that your child both needs and deserves.

In the meantime, if you do not wish to wait for the bureaucracy to help your child, there are many tools at your disposal.  These tools range from little or no cost to extremely expensive interventions.

For example, one site developed by neuro-scientists at Stanford and UCSF provides Scientific Brain Training When is a learning problem a PROBLEM?   New Criteria for Learning Disabilities, which provides a 30 day free trial and provides an excellent resource for strategies with processing deficits.

Speech and language pathologists provide tremendous help for many with auditory processing disorders. Reading problems effect all learning yet a program using phonemic awareness combined with intensive systematic phonics instruction can provide significant improvement.  Reading Horizons provides several programs that are fun , effective and use methods backed by educational and neurological research.  They can easily be implemented at home.  They are affordable and guaranteed to significantly boost reading achievement.