Learning disabilities in young children

First of all, let me say that OISE should revoke Chris Spence’s PhD degree in light of the revelations of plagiarism in his PhD thesis (and throughout his career…). On behalf of fellow students at OISE who actually do their own work, it will be a disgrace if his degree is not revoked.

Moving right along…I want to start a discussion about learning disabilities. At the moment, I am taking a course in learning disabilities at OISE. Our prof, Todd Cunningham, has a learning disability himself and not only does he give us a first hand understanding of his struggles, but he entertains us with the humorous take on some aspects of his learning disability (such as how his limited working memory works against him in arguments with his wife!).

At the outset of the course, we began to discuss definitions and assessment. Straightforward, you might think. Not so. Living in Ontario and exposed to the province’s policy of defining a learning disability as a (1.5 to 2.0 standard deviation) gap between potential/IQ and and achievement, it was a shock to learn that most other provinces do not have as strict a definition. The trend across the country (in line with recent research findings) is to shift to a model of academic and functional deficits as a way to determine whether students should receive additional support.

Why does the definition matter? Being diagnosed with a learning disability (LD) could have a negative side effect if the child feels stigmatized in some way. On the positive side, however, what the diagnosis does mean is that the child receives the needed support within the public school system, including an IEP (individual education plan), and accommodations and supports such as extra time on tests, one-on-one reading assistance, or assistive technology. Having students who are lagging behind yet do not qualify for support because their “gap” is not large enough does not appear to make sense from the point of view of the struggling student.

Taking reading as an example, it has been shown that children lagging behind in reading skills during the early years follow exactly the same learning pathway whether they have a learning disability or whether they are just slow at learning to read. This finding, plus other research in the same vein, is a reason for broadening the definition of learning disabilities to one proposed by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. This definition is not limited to but includes the following component:

“Learning disabilities are suggested by unexpected academic under-achievement or achievement which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support.” (Kozey & Siegel, 2008, p. 163)

So, what do we do? Offering help to children during the early years, as early as kindergarten, has been shown to be extremely beneficial and in some cases, to remove the learning obstacle entirely. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans show that early intervention has been successful in improving the functioning of the affected areas of the brain – a permanent improvement. At the present time, Ontario schools rarely test for learning disabilities before grade 3.

More to come on what teachers can do…

Kozey, M. & Siegel, L.S. (2008). Definitions of learning disabilities in Canadian provinces and territories. Canadian Psychology, 49, 162-171.




About Teri Courchene

Instructor at U of T School of Continuing Studies, Math tutor. Education: CSC, MEd (OISE), AMI Montessori Diploma (FME), MA Economics (Queen's), BA Economics (UWO)
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