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Ways to Better Identify and Support Students with "Invisible" Learning Disabilities

Aaron is the subject of several conversations during team meetings at his busy middle school near Washington, DC, but they never go much beyond expressions of exasperation.

Both personal interactions and testing shows he is very bright, but he just can’t stay organized or focused and has a very difficult time with math. He is not a significant behavior issue, but occupies increasing amounts of the teachers’ time to keep him focused on lectures and make sure he does class work and homework.

“I don’t know what we can do with him, but he really worries me,” says one teacher who has worked closely with Aaron to bring up his science grade. “He can do the work, but he seems to be dropping further and further behind.”

She has good reason to worry. Aaron has attention issues – probably if tested he could be diagnosed with a learning disability or impairment involving ADHD. He might even suffer from another lesser-known disability, dyscalulia, which makes it hard for some students to understand and perform in math.

But unfortunately, odds are he won’t be diagnosed or get enough support, and it is unlikely he will succeed without it.

In a new report last month the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCDL) finds that one-in-five students have learning disabilities, but only about one third of them are diagnosed and given plans that help them. It also notes these students are far more likely to create behavior problems, fail in school, never attend college, and be involved in crime. One third repeat a grade and many of them drop out.

“Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers and with the right support can achieve at high levels, but a lack of early or effective interventions leads too many kids on a downward spiral,” says Mimi Corcoran, president of NCLD.

Kathleen Laundy, a therapist in Old Saybrook, CT, a college professor and author of a book on mental health teams in schools, says that while schools have put more emphasis on evaluating and accommodating these students, there is much more that must be done for those whose disabilities are not obvious or not easy to pinpoint.

“Children with disabilities like these often don’t get the attention that is given to those with more profound disabilities such as speech and hearing, mobility challenges and strong developmental delays,” says Laundy, who has been deeply involved in efforts nationwide to get support for children with learning disabilities. “It can be challenging for general education teachers to recognize and know how best to address the more subtle learning challenges of children with attention issues, for instance, because their challenges are often invisible, particularly if the student has not been fully evaluated and parents have not been involved in the process.”

The NCLD report describes new brain science that helps diagnose issues like ADHD, dyslexia, or a cluster of disabilities, such as dyscalculia or related dysgraphia, which involves trouble with writing. However, it notes, often schools and parents are not aware of the disabilities or assume these students are lazy. The NCLD research also found it is common for them to believe students with these disabilities will grow out of them, though they often don’t.

“It isn’t that these students can’t be diagnosed and helped; new research is deepening our understanding of the differences in brain structure and function in children with learning and attention issues,” the report notes. “Brain scans and other tools are even helping researchers measure the impact that instructional interventions have on children who learn differently, including those with dyslexia, ADHD, and other issues.”

But the report finds despite advances in research, many students aren’t identified and helped. Laundy and the NCLD report offer three similar remedies.

1) Get the word out. Schools need to provide more information about all learning disabilities, especially those more difficult to detect, Laundy says, including the mechanism for helping these students such as independent education plans and 504 plans.

The training might include information about the brain science and the ways that the school identifies, tests, and provides accommodations to these students. It should help educators understand their own biases and the incorrect information they may retain about students with these more subtle learning disabilities. They should be dissuaded from notions that their problems aren’t as severe as some, that they will outgrow the problem, that they are simply incapable of challenging work, or are lazy. (The study showed 43 percent of parents thought students would outgrow the problems; 33 percent of teachers thought that students with learning disabilities were just lazy.)

2) Develop structures. They need systems in place to identify less obvious learning disabilities and they should use outside resources.

“Teachers and administrators have often been trained in specialty areas, and have not received sufficient systems training to work collaboratively with other health and education specialists who can evaluate and plan for students with attention difficulties, for instance,” says Laundy. She says schools should put energy behind systems they probably have in place but are often too busy or distracted to implement, and find ways to tap into experts to help.

NCDL recommends a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) to help schools with early intervention and accurate identification. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers funding to develop this type of decision-making framework, the report says, which “uses data from frequent progress monitoring to help educators quickly respond to students’ needs and provide targeted instruction and support.” It also recommends use of outside specialists.

It notes that universal screening bolsters teachers’ observations by assessing all students, not just the ones showing outward signs of struggling.

3) Follow up. Every educator knows that it is difficult at a busy school to conscientiously identify these students, implement useful procedures to assess them, develop accommodations, and then follow up to see that strategies are implemented and adjusted when necessary. The last steps, however, are often the most critical.

“Helping students understand how they learn and practicing how to ask for accommodations are essential for success,” the report notes.

Often even more energy must be devoted to implementing accommodations, adjusting strategies so the student can succeed but also helping them develop new skills, Laundy says

“Too often, sustainability is the challenge,” she says.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at