Identifying Learning Disabilities in Children

Identifying Learning Disorders in Children

Learning problems affect about 20% of all school-aged students.

Learning problems affect about 20% of all school-aged students.


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

significant way. 

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


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.