Identifying Learning Disorders in Children
Dr. Mirisse Foroughe, Ph.D., C. Psych. !
Learning disorders (LDs) are a reality for many school-aged children. It is estimated that
between 5 and 10% of Canadians have an LD, while approximately 20% of children in
the school system are identified with some sort of exceptionality that impacts their
learning. Although exceptionalities such as developmental disabilities and intellectual
disabilities indicate that the individual’s potential to learn is lower than others the same
age, LDs indicate that a person is just as capable of learning but that there are differences
in how they take in, store, or use information and this impacts their learning in a
For example, 10 year-old Michael is just as intelligent as other children his age, but he
has difficulty processing and storing auditory information- meaning that he often forgets
what he hears. However, Michael is much stronger at remembering what he sees or even
what he has a chance to “code” with a visual picture. Determining this learning profile
allowed Michael to receive more visual aids in the classroom, and to learn the memory
strategies that work for him. In order for his learning profile to be discovered, Michael
required a psycho-educational assessment.
A psycho-educational assessment is a comprehensive examination of a person’s
functioning in areas that impact the learning or education process. These almost always
1. Measure of Intelligence: A comprehensive test to look at the child’s cognitive or
intellectual abilities- how capable are they of learning? How well can they think, reason,
and solve problems? Is there a difference in how well they learn using language versus
visual-perceptual abilities? How quickly and accurately do they process information?
And finally, how well can they remember (process, store, and recall) simple information
they have just learned? Even within this one measure, there is a lot that is discovered
about the child’s capacities. This test is also often used to determine if a child is
“GIFTED”, and requires special learning opportunities at school.
2. Measure of Academic Achievement: A multi-subject test assessing a child’s level of
functioning in math computations, math problem solving, reading, reading
comprehension, decoding new words, spelling, written expression, listening
comprehension, and more. The results help us to know exactly where the child is
compared to other children the same age. Sometimes, the results are very different than
their report cards would predict, because they are being seen in a quiet, one-on-one
setting. If there is big enough gap between the academic and intelligence scores, the
child is considered to be “under-achieving”.
3. Measures of processing. In order to be considered a learning
disorder, we also need to find a processing deficit to explain the
under-achievement. This means that something in the learning
process is being blocked or reduced in quality. Processing deficits
can include things like not remembering things well, having
trouble paying attention, needing more time to process
information, and understanding more than you can express orally
and/or in writing.
Sometimes, parents or teachers assume that the child is lazy, unfocused, or lacks
It is very common for children with Learning Disabilities to
have been labeled this way prior to the assessment and
identification process. Some children with undiagnosed
learning disabilities can become so frustrated in the classroom
and doing homework that they avoid school work, stop trying,
and lose interest in school. At times, their behaviour can
mirror attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or anxiety
disorder, as they do everything in their power to get away
from the frustration that comes with academic work. As these
children grow older, they may start to hang with the “wrong
crowd”, looking for a sense of belonging and validation this
way, as they are not feeling successful in school. Parent-child
relationships also may become strained, as parents grow more
and more disappointed in their child for not achieving when
they know intuitively how intelligent their child is. And keep
in mind, the child with an LD is intelligent. This is a
requirement for a diagnosis of an LD: average or above-average intellectual ability. So
we need to ensure that parents, educators and other professionals realize how bright the
child is, and most importantly that the child feels capable themselves.
In a way, the psycho-educational assessment is very much like a key that unlocks the
mystery of the child’s underachievement, helps them to understand how they learn best,
and opens doors for the child and family to receive much-needed accommodations
(changes in the way they learn or are assessed at school) and modifications (changes to
the level they are learning at). Other times, it just helps the child, family, and teacher to
understand the learning profile and make small changes that help the child learn the way
that works for them. Whether a child needs these small accommodations or something
more, it all starts with a psycho-educational assessment.
If there have been concerns about your child being lazy, unmotivated, or unfocused at
school, there may actually be a learning disorder getting in the way of their success.
Public schools can provide psycho-educational assessments to children, although waiting
lists are often quite long. You can help by discussing the possibility of an assessment with
the school. If you don’t want to wait, or the school has many children with greater needs
on their wait list , you can find private psychologists in your area through the Ontario
Psychological Association’s free referral service at 416-961-0069/toll-free at
1-800-268-0069 or you can access the online service at https://opa.knowledge4you.ca/
In an upcoming blog, we will review the criteria for identification as gifted
learner in “How can I know if my child is gifted?”
Your Kindercare team psychologist,
Dr. Mirisse Foroughe, C. Psych.