Article on “Learning Disabilities” for Campus

Aarti Gandhi

Director, Sir Jacob Sassoon High School, Byculla, Mumbai

The Indian educational framework has a system of automatic promotion to next class irrespective of marks obtained by the students. This no retention‘ along with a 35% marks in each subject leads the students to a class which may be above their ability level thus widening the discrepancy between the actual performance and the expected performance at that class.

The students go through mental trauma which becomes apparent in their academic and non-academic lives. They may drop out of school. These students need academic competence, adequate classroom survival skills, defined as non-academic behaviours such as attending class daily, arriving promptly at class, being prepared for daily lessons, meeting assignment deadlines, addressing teachers appropriately and following written and oral work.

These are smart and intelligent people but have difficulty with academics such as reading, writing, spelling and mathematics, leading to emotional and behaviour problems that leave teachers and parents puzzled. This invisible barrier that comes in the way of their learning is known as learning disability. A learning disability cuts across all ages and socio-economic classes. It is not a type of mental retardation as sometimes mistakenly believed, in fact, they have average or above average intelligence.

Students with learning disabilities will continue to be in regular schools. They constitute 10%-12% of the school going population. When education has become the right of every child, we have an obligation to ensure that every child of school going age must receive education in a manner that he is receptive to. Since it is noticed that teachers of primary and secondary schools generally do not have the techniques of teaching such children, this gap must be bridged. This demands the development of appropriate techniques of detection and intervention for such children who face learning problems in regular schools. Teaching strategies/remedial education can help the teachers to teach children so that they can learn to the best of their ability.

The American Special Education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2002) defines a specific learning disability:

“… a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. However, learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

It is important to keep in mind two important facts hidden in the definition.

1. The learning disabled students show a discrepancy between achievement and intelligence. A discrepancy is any difference between two findings. To explain simply, a student placed at class IX happens to function to function at class V or VI level in reading, he has definite need for support in reading.

2. Handicaps such as mental retardation, visual and hearing impairment and emotional/ behavioural disorders must be ruled out.When a learning disability happens in the presence of factors such as low socio-economic environment, inadequate exposure to language, or lack of educational opportunities and other sensory handicapping conditions then it is considered a secondary condition. You must always remember that a primary learning disability does not include organic, sensory-type impairments.

Characteristics of a Child with Learning Disabilities (LD)

This is a child who:

  • is intelligent but fails at school
  • writes ‗on ‘for ‗no‘, ‗was ‘for ‗saw‘, ‗14‘for ‗41‘
  • hears the barking of a dog at distance but does not hear what the teachers say.
  • remembers the sequence of TV serials but does not remember mathematical tables
  • is confused by ―yesterday, ―today, ―tomorrow.

has mood swings

  • is disorganized and messy
  • is poor at time management
  • is enthusiastic about finishing particular task in academics but it comes out all wrong.
  • omits, adds, or skip words while reading
  • can do mathematical calculations in his mind but cannot put down on paper.
  • is not able to sustain attention on a given task for a specific duration of time
  • others think that he/she is stupid‘, or ‗idiot‘

The Learning Process

In order to understand why students fail, you need to understand how learning takes place. Research has shown that in human beings, there is a relationship between information processing and functioning of the system that enables a student to learn.

Teachers have the responsibility to ensure that every student in their class learns. This information will enable teachers to understand the different stages of the ―Learning Process‖ so that they may identify the deficit in a particular area of learning. The focus here is on identifying the error pattern in a student‘s performance and correct it so that he can improve in the specific area of difficulty in academics.

Learning requires the integration of processes called sensation, attention, perception, imagery, symbolization and conceptualization. A breakdown at any of these levels will have an impact on a student‘s information processing skill leading to failure. Careful diagnosis and subsequent remediation programmes need to be carried out if one wants to assist a student with learning disabilities to learn.

Causes Of Learning Disability

Factors that affect the brain are many and varied, and include the effect of damage resulting from, toxic substances such as drugs, alcohol, certain minerals, early deprivation, poor nutrition and oxygen starvation. These can affect in the prenatal, perinatal and postnatal stages.

Unfortunately, no single factor or group of factors has been identified as directly causing Learning Disability. Since no clearly defined causes have been identified therefore it is important to focus on associated factors leading to the said disability. However, the following have been cited as the many different causes related to a learning disability.

Prenatal, Natal factors

Learning disability results from a minimal brain damage or neurological dysfunction. If any injury happens to the foetus between the fourth and the fourteenth week of gestation, the most critical period for the development of the nervous system, it may be the likely cause of learning disability. Another theory suggests that it could be due to the maturational delay within the neurological system.

Research has shown that a group of children with reading difficulties were products of pregnancies with complications such as toxaemia, bleeding, pre-maturity and low birth weight. Rh-incompatibility, maternal endocrine disorder, maternal age, reproductive readiness, prolonged labour, radiation, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, accidents and anoxia were also reported to be conditions leading to learning disability (LD).

Postnatal Factors

Children who experienced post-birth trauma, head injury, lead poisoning, causing neurological damage, seizures, chronic ear infections, intracranial infections such as encephalitis or meningitis and those who inhale or ingest neurotoxins, severe malnutrition and conditions producing a sustained fever may also be the factors.

Genetic factors

These seem to be strong familiar factors. It is not uncommon for a parent to report that they or a close family member had learning problems. Genetic factors seem to operate in large number of cases. There are more boys than girls who have learning disability. The ratio being 4:1.

Biochemical factors

Chemicals play an important role as they have a direct impact in the brain. Certain metabolic factors such as hypoglycaemia, hypothyroidism is reported to be found in some children with learning disabilities. Researchers believe that there is some relationship between the chemicals such as serotonin/ dopamine and hyperactivity which is closely associated with learning disability. It is also believed that food colouring and preservatives found in the food items cause attention problems.

Psychological factors

Children who are emotionally disturbed or are traumatized may exhibit the symptoms of learning disabilities.

Children having learning disabilities tend to develop psychological problems as secondary symptoms as they are aware of the disabilities.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Nutrition plays a very important role in the growing years of a child‘s life. Severe malnutrition causes poor biochemical functioning in the brain thus leading to delayed maturation. Maintaining a proper balanced diet will help the child to be alert and acquire basic academic skills. Pregnant mothers too must understand the importance nutrition and provide adequate nutrition for the developing foetus.

Experiential deprivation

Children coming from economically and culturally backward homes may exhibit some characteristics of learning disabilities as they are not exposed to adequate sensory, linguistic and cognitive activities. For example a child who has never seen/ held a story book in hand or has never been to a school will definitely have deficit in basic academic skills. Parents who are illiterate are not in a position to help their children with academics. It is also quite possible that the school children go to does not have trained teachers and are not able to teach in the manner children learn. They move too fast with the subject thus not giving the learner enough time to assimilate information.

The importance of early identification and Intervention.

Learning disability in a child becomes apparent when he enters primary school. A child in class 2, 3 and 4 is expected read fluently, be good at expressive writing, copy from the blackboard without any difficulty and do class appropriate math. He needs to be good at abstract thinking and be able to recall from memory whenever required.

As the child moves to higher classes the difficulty is more as then the instructions are less on basic skills and more on content information. This is why it is very important to identify and start with an intervention programme at the earliest otherwise the academic gap will continue to increase with time. This may lead to emotional problems and also low self-esteem causing him great anxiety and finally to drop out of school.

Unfortunately in our result oriented society, parents take a long to accept that there is something wrong with their child. The teachers are not able to help either because they do not have much information on the subject. All they do is to complain to the parents that their child is intelligent but is lazy and does not pay attention in class. The parents either stop him from all extracurricular activities or subject him to long hours of tuitions.

Even though some teachers are able to detect the problem but in the absence of training, they are handicapped to start any remedial programme. Besides, there are constraint of time, large number of students and the urgency to complete the syllabus in the stipulated time. Many a time‘s the teacher‘s rigid style of teaching and evaluation can further add to the problem.

For example, with a child who has tremendous difficulty with writing, expecting him to answer all questions in the given time is not realistic. She instead can ask him to give 50% answers orally and rest can be in objective mode. Giving the child extra time will also help. The question paper may be read out to the student who has difficulty with reading.

The head of the school must give freedom to its teachers to use their discretion in assessing/evaluating the child. The school must make available the alternate means of learning such as computers, calculators, tape recorders and a scribe. The school should have a positive attitude towards learning disabilities, provide orientation on the subject. The focus should be on evaluating his knowledge and not the so called method.


Aarti Gandhi

Director, Sir Jacob Sassoon High School, Byculla, Mumbai