What Challenges Do Students with Learning Disabilities Face?

And how can you support them in the classroom?

Prisma Staff
January 17, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

Impacting approximately 8-10 percent of American children under the age of 18, “learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention.” According to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Development, learning disabilities “are caused by differences in the brain, most often in how it functions but also sometimes in its structure. These differences affect the way the brain processes information.”

Different from learning problems caused by intellectual and developmental disabilities, or problems with vision, hearing, motor skills or social emotional development, learning disabilities are no indication of intellectual ability.

Specific learning disabilities include:

-dyslexia (difficulty reading)

-dysgraphia (difficulty writing)

-dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers)

-apraxia of speech (difficulty speaking)

-central auditory processing disorder

-dyspraxia (difficulty with coordination) and other nonverbal learning disorders.

Many learning disabled students have coexisting conditions, including physical disabilities and developmental disabilities. For example, 30-50 percent of children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)and around 50 percent of children with autism are thought to have a learning disability.

Students with coexisting conditions face additional challenges, particularly because the  disabilities can intersect with one another in ways that make them difficult to diagnose and, in turn, treat. For example, twice exceptional students — a subset of learning disabled children — have learning deficits in some areas and gifts in other areas. These disabilities and gifts may mask one another, making it hard to identify the best course of action to allow the child to reach their full potential.

In addition to academic challenges, students with learning differences often face social obstacles. The differences in how their brain processes information may mean that their social skills lag behind their peers’, impacting their cognitive processing, language retrieval, executive functioning, and mental health.


How can you support students with learning disabilities?

The specific treatment recommendation for a learning disability is special education (although learning disabled children who have other co-existing conditions — such as physical impairments — will require a range of interventions). This doesn’t mean a less engaged or intellectually challenging education — by any means — just one that removes the obstacles caused by the disability.

The public education system will have bureaucratic procedures in place to create an individualized education plan (iep), following a formal diagnosis by a licensed professional. (These policies vary by state.) In a public school, students with learning difficulties who receive an iep will receive a variety of accommodations for learning and testing. They may be put in a separate classroom or be pulled out for small group or one-on-one interventions according to their needs (and the resources of the district’s special education services).

How does homeschooling support students with learning disabilities?

Often a learning disability diagnosis leads parents to search for alternative environments that are designed to be accommodating — rather than have their child regularly singled out for individualized instruction.

Here are ways that home-based schooling can help students with learning disabilities overcome common challenges.

1. Use adaptive technology

There’s no reason for a learning disability in one area to hinder a child’s progress in another area: For children with dyslexia, read-aloud plug-ins can enable them to pursue topics at their intellectual level; kids with dysgraphia can dictate their thoughts using voice-to-text programs.

While they’ll also need to spend dedicated time working on their areas of struggle, adaptive technology ensures that they can fully engage with other subjects that traditionally depend on reading comprehension and writing abilities.

2. Incorporate multimedia materials - for learning and assessment

Traditional education programs tend to equate academic achievement with reading and writing. Not only does this put learning disabled students at a disadvantage, it doesn’t fully mirror the communication skills and forms of literacy that students need in the real world. At Prisma, we curate libraries of books (audiobooks count!), podcasts, videos and multimedia presentations, to give learners a range of options for their research.

Then, when it comes time for students to demonstrate mastery, we mirror that same philosophy in the kinds of final projects they create: they can script and record a podcast, build a business, write fan fiction, or present a case study. These types of assessments not only demonstrate mastery of subject material, they also show off how the learner is developing core skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.

3. Let them lead the way

We’ll never get tired of saying it: one of the major benefits of home-based education is the ability to fully customize every aspect of your child’s learning. This means they can take all the time in the world to make sure they understand what they’re reading. But it’s not just about compensating for a difficulty: it also means they can dive into their passions as profoundly as they wish. Kids with learning disabilities and adhd, for example, often possess an ability to hyperfocus on their passions. Use that super power and let them self-direct their education. The more they’re intrinsically motivated to explore a topic or solve a problem, the more they’ll push themselves to do their best work.

Part of self-direction includes teaching children self-advocacy: involve them in regular conversations about how they think their learning is going — and where they want to take a different approach. In our regular feedback sessions, we have learners direct the conversation, before their parents and coaches jump in with insights of their own.

4. Manage their learning environment

In school, there are so many distractions and sensory overwhelm: fire drills, alarms, lunchroom chaos, other kids talking while the teacher is talking. You can never escape it. When you learn at home, your child can control their environment. Our Prisma learners are taught to turn down the volume during a workshop or turn off their camera for a moment, if they need less sensory input. They can get snacks when they need to eat and move around when they need to wiggle. At home, you can take a ride on your sensory swing bolted to the ceiling while attending class, no documentation required.

A shorter, more flexible school day also means you can spend more time moving your body, rather than counting down the minutes to recess.  

5. Integrate them into a community

As kids try new strategies to accommodate their disabilities and to let their strengths shine, they benefit from interaction with caring adult mentors as well as a diverse group of peers — each of whom can offer different perspectives.

In our project workshops, our students present the fruits of their labor and receive feedback from peers. Not only do they benefit in terms of self-esteem, they also see how their peers approached similar challenges in different ways, reinforcing the diverse possible approaches to any problem.

The other piece of the puzzle is one-on-one support from coaches and mentors:  someone who checks in with your child on a regular basis, providing accountability and encouragement. We hold daily support squads for learners, where they can ask their coach questions, get feedback or just do quick progress check-in.

For homeschool parents, socialization is often one of the biggest concerns: If you’re putting together a homeschooling program on your own, you’ll want to invest time in curating activities and groups that will incorporate these diverse perspectives and opportunities for connection on a regular basis. (For more, see our guide here.)

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