Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Three Experts Talk About LD

January 20, 1997

I wrote a column about Girard Sagmiller's first hand account on what it was like to grow up with a learning disability. To find out what the experts had to say about learning disabilities, I contacted three psychologists who are nationally known for their work in this area: Frank Gresham at the School of Education, University of California at Riverside, CA; Robert Brooks at Harvard Medical School and George Nixon, a psychologist in private practice in Waco and Austin, Texas.

Accurate assesment and appropriate help. In the school system, learning disability is a term used to describe a child who has unexpectedly underachieved in the classroom, who is not mentally or emotionally disabled. In 1975, landmark federal legislation was passed with special funding to help learning disabled children have equal opportunities in our educational system.

To qualify for special help, a learning disabled child has to have a discrepancy between IQ and achievement in the classroom. A lot of the professional debate relates to what is the best discrepancy formula.

There are 13 categories of disability. Learning Disabilities (LD) is the largest with 52 percent of the total. Gresham points out that from 1977 to 1993, the diagnosis of LD increased nationally by 198 percent while mental retardation fell by 41 percent. His main point is that LD is becoming a catchall umbrella category for all underachievement. The truly learning disabled child is mixed in with a garden variety of low achievers, children with emotional and behavioral problems and mental retardation.

Decisions are made based on where the money is, availability of teachers and space, budget, and other political/legal considerations. Over identification and over labeling of LD hurts the genuine LD student.

Fifty percent of LD students also have Attention Deficit Disorder. LD children often have significant emotional and behavioral problems. Some children may have more than one problem. Gresham emphasizes that learning disability programs need to address social skill deficits, acting out behavior, attention problems and academic goals simultaneously. These problems have reciprocal effects.

He recommends programs that teach phonics skills based on direct instruction techniques. California's misguided experiment with a whole language method to address learning disabilities actually made learning more difficult. He likes the Distar reading program developed by the University of Oregon. Choral reading, choral feedback, teaching of blending skills and repetition are key components.

A more humane environment. Robert Brooks has studied the self-motivation and resilience of LD children. He analyzed the stories they wrote of their lives and experiences. Brooks is impressed with how despairing these children are. They are made to feel foolish, accused or judged when they don't understand something. LD children describe how different and ill at ease they have feel. They internalize labels of "dumb" and "stupid" and often feel like giving up.

Brooks recommends helping LD students to feel like they really belong, welcomed and special in some way. They should be greeted by name with a nice smile and recognized with nice notes of appreciation. An extra ten minutes of special attention has a big effect.

LD students need to help or contribute to the school. They need to feel competent and have their areas of strength displayed (art work, special recognition) for others to see.

LD students need to have feelings of autonomy and self-determination - to be listened to and given choices to be involved in their own education. For example, on a homework assignment of eight problems, they might be asked to do five or six of their own choices.

Brooks feels that LD children benefit by being open about their strengths and difficulties. The problem is not motivation or low intelligence. It is a hidden disability that needs accommodation and special help in the classroom along with a focus on strengths.

According to Brooks, "The least fair thing you can do is treat each child the same." These children need caring and support, not humiliation and intimidation. They need accountability and reasonable expectations. They need accurate assessments and respect for their learning style.

Rights of children. George Nixon is an outspoken advocate for children with learning disabilities. He experienced this situation as his own daughter went through the school system. He urges parents to become familiar with their rights and aggressively assert them.

The biggest mistake he sees is that parents ignore the problem and the child suffers in high school or college because their learning disability was never adequately addressed. He recommends diagnosing the problem early and treating it early. Special assistance can make a difference.

If a LD child can't do the work, find out why and address the issues. Individual education plans (IEP) need to be modified to take into account problems with discipline, impulsiveness and lack of attention. Too often these problems are dealt with punitively.

Nixon believes that LD children should be mainstreamed unless they are working on a specific skill such as spelling, math or a developmentally specialized reading program. Classroom teachers need to be aware of the IEP and make allowances for exams, audiovisual materials and for the child's style of learning. Students should have the self-confidence to call their disability to the teacher's attention when necessary.

A learning disability means a respectable difference and not a deforming handicap. It is a good message for educators, parents and for the children themselves.