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How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

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Learning disabilities are often identified when a child begins to attend school. Educators may use a process called "response to intervention" (RTI) to help identify children with learning disabilities. Specialized testing is required to make a clear diagnosis, however.

RTI

RTI usually involves the following1:

  • Monitoring all students’ progress closely to identify possible learning problems
  • Providing a child identified as having problems with help on different levels, or tiers
  • Moving this youngster through the tiers as appropriate, increasing educational assistance if the child does not show progress

Students who are struggling in school can also have individual evaluations. An evaluation can2:

  • Identify whether a child has a learning disability
  • Determine a child’s eligibility under federal law for special education services
  • Help construct an individualized education plan (IEP) that outlines supports for a youngster who qualifies for special education services
  • Establish a benchmark for measuring the child’s educational progress

A full evaluation for a learning disability includes the following3:

  • A medical examination, including a neurological exam, to identify or rule out other possible causes of the child’s difficulties, including emotional disorders, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and brain diseases
  • Exploration of the youngster’s developmental, social, and school performance
  • A discussion of family history
  • Academic achievement testing and psychological assessment

Usually, several specialists work as a team to perform an evaluation. The team may include a psychologist, special education expert, and speech-language pathologist (SLP). Many schools also have reading specialists on staff who can help diagnosis a reading disability.4

Role of School Psychologists

School psychologists are trained in both education and psychology. They can help to identify students with learning disabilities and can diagnose the learning disability. They can also help the student with the disability, parents, and teachers come up with plans that improve learning.5

Role of SLPs

All SLPs are trained in diagnosing and treating speech- and language-related disorders. A SLP can provide a complete language evaluation as well as an assessment of the child’s ability to organize his or her thoughts and possessions. The SLP may evaluate various age-appropriate learning-related skills in the child, such as understanding directions, manipulating sounds, and reading and writing.6


  1. National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Response to intervention. Retrieved June 26, 2012, from http://nichcy.org/schools-administrators/rti#elements External Web Site Policy [top]
  2. Learning Disabilities Association of America. (2001). Evaluation: What does it mean for your child? Retrieved June 17, 2012, from http://www.ldaamerica.us/aboutld/parents/assessment/evaluation.asp External Web Site Policy [top]
  3. National Library of Medicine. (2010). Developmental reading disorder. Retrieved June 15, 2012, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001406.htm [top]
  4. International Reading Association. (2010) Teaching all children to read: The roles of a reading specialist. A position statement of the International Reading Association. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/position-statements-and-resolutions/ps1040_specialist.pdf External Web Site Policy (PDF - 86 KB) [top]
  5. National Association of School Psychologists. (n.d.) What is a school psychologist? Retrieved August 30, 2012, from http://www.nasponline.org/about_sp/whatis.aspx External Web Site Policy [top]
  6. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Language-based learning disabilities. Retrieved June 15, 2012, from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/LBLD.htm External Web Site Policy [top]

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Last Updated Date: 11/30/2012
Last Reviewed Date: 02/28/2014
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