Aquinas Learning

ALJ Vol. 2, Issue 2, March 2019

Articles from the latest edition of the Aquinas Learning Journal.

Learning Disabilities: Perspective from a Mom, Former Mentor and Educational Therapist

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The words “learning disability” conjures up many different ideas in a person’s mind. It is a label that is used frequently among parents and teachers, but what does it really mean?  

It does not mean kids who are lazy or kids who are not bright. In fact, most people with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence. Many are gifted in several areas of study – math, fine arts, science and other academic fields. The list of famous people with a diagnosed learning disability is long, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Leonardo Da Vinci to name a few. However, their tremendous strengths are offset by noticeable weaknesses—an inability to read or write, memory problems, and difficulty understanding what is heard or seen. These difficulties do not stem from a physical problem with the eyes or ears, but rather from the basic neurological functioning of the brain.

 Every human brain is created with a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Each person has certain gifts as well as areas of difficulty that require outside explanation and extra effort to understand.

 A learning disability is an area of weakness or inefficiency in brain function that significantly hinders the ability to learn or to function in life. It is a pattern of neurological dysfunction in the brain that causes a person to have difficulty correctly receiving information coming into the brain (perception), correctly processing that information once it is received (cognition/thinking), or satisfactorily responding to the information once it has been processed (written and verbal expression, visual-motor coordination, memory, etc.).

 Students with learning disabilities experience an imbalance in their own ability levels. They are very good at some things, very poor at others and feel the tension between what they can and cannot do. Frustration is a hallmark of a student with learning disabilities. Typically, such students will either be failing in one or more academic areas or be expending excessive amounts of energy to succeed. Also, they are also highly inconsistent, able to do a task one day and unable the next.

 Any parent who is concerned that their child may have a learning disability should make note of the areas of concern they see in their child, but also take note of his strengths. Write them down.  

Here are some areas of concern to make note of:

Between the ages of 5-7:

  • Difficulty recognizing letters and number

  • Difficulty following 2-step directions

  • Difficulty holding a pencil with the thumb and index finger

  • Difficulty answering “before” and “after” questions

  • Difficulty recognizing left and right

  • Difficulty pronouncing some sounds or words

  • Difficulty recognizing and identifying geometric shapes

Between the ages of 8 and up:

  • Struggles with reading fluently and understanding what he has read

  • Can’t remember math facts

  • Gets frustrated and spends an unreasonable amount of time on school work

  • Not aware of time

  • Difficulty organizing personal space and time

  • Difficulty following 3-step directions

  • Difficulty writing legibly

  • Difficulty spelling

  • Difficulty solving problems

If three or more of these identifiers exist, it may be time to consider seeking some advice from a professional and getting an educational assessment for your child. When I began homeschooling 26 years ago, everything I read took the “wait and see” approach on suspicions of a learning disability. Today, studies show that early identification of learning disorders in children is key to overcoming potential struggles or failure. If a learning disability is diagnosed, with the proper intervention for a student, he or she can gain the skills needed to become independent learners for a lifetime.  

 Learning disabilities are diagnosed through a battery of formal and informal psycho-educational tests that measure and compare a student’s potential with his actual performance. Depending on the age of the child, a full psycho-educational battery may not be necessary. There are informal tests that can be administered by an educational therapist to screen a young child to assess his or her vulnerability to learning struggles. For children 8 and above, there are several avenues to consider for testing. One can go to their local public school and obtain a free educational evaluation. The benefit here is that the evaluation is free. However, the turn-around time, from the actual assessment to the results of the testing, can be quite long, depending on your school district. Another source for an assessment is to have it done privately. Ask your pediatrician for a possible referral to a specialist. Also, keep in mind that some health insurance companies will cover the assessment. 

Once the assessment is complete, if it is determined that your child does have a learning disability, it is time to seek help for your student. There are two forms of help: compensatory or direct intervention. The first and most common is compensation—helping students work around their deficit area by utilizing their strengths. This usually takes the form of tutoring. The second approach, which is utilized by educational therapy, is direct intervention. Educational therapy addresses the underlying causes of “why” a student is not learning. Teaching students how to learn allows them to eventually be successful on their own as independent learners. The second approach of educational therapy has proven to be the most beneficial in the long run. Students are trained to view themselves as competent, confident learners as they develop clear, efficient thinking tools that enable them to overcome specific learning weaknesses. Remember—tutoring shows students what to learn. Educational therapy shows students how to learn. There is a big difference.

The best advice I can give any parent who is concerned that their child has a learning disability is not to be afraid and become paralyzed by fear. Act on your instincts and seek help now. It is imperative to the future success of your child so that he/she can live out the vocation God intends for him. You are not alone. There is support available for you and your child, but you must seek it out.

 --Maria Cunningham, PCET, CDT, approaches the spectrum of learning disability issues from both a parent and professional perspective. She is former Aquinas Learning mentor for three years when AL first began, and four of her children attended AL for five years. Two of her children have diagnosed learning disabilities. Maria has been a professional certified educational therapist for 8 years and works with kids with learning disabilities of all kinds, many with dyslexia. Maria also offers informal and formal testing determined by the individual needs of the student.  She is happy to answer questions or recommend specialists in the Northern Virginia area and can be reached at

 Resources for further study:

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Rosario Reilly