What Is a Learning Disability in Children? - Definition, Types & Characteristics

Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you'll learn to define learning disabilities in general, as well as learn about specific characteristics of the various types of learning disabilities. Following completion of this lesson, you'll have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.


Learning disabilities are disorders of the central nervous system that significantly impact functioning in one or more areas of learning. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV), learning disabilities can exist as disorders of reading, math, or written expression.

Learning disabilities result in significantly lower levels of achievement in one or more of the above-mentioned academic areas when compared to one's overall cognitive abilities. For example, let's say that Sam is a third grader. Sam has an average overall IQ, but struggles to read at his grade level. He does just fine with his math, writing, and other assignments, really anything that doesn't require reading. He struggles to read books that first graders are reading, and when he is finished reading, he really can't tell you what the story was about. Now, you can't assume right off the bat that Sam has a learning disability because his reading troubles could be attributed to a variety of other factors, but based on the fact that his reading abilities seem to be significantly lower than his overall abilities, it is certainly worthy of further investigation.

IQ tests and achievement tests are the tools most often used to diagnose learning disabilities. IQ tests give an indication of one's overall cognitive abilities, while achievement tests measure abilities in specific academic areas like reading, writing, and math. By making comparisons between the overall abilities and academic abilities, clinicians can identify which academic areas are significantly impacted and also what specific aspect of reading, writing, or math is impaired. It isn't uncommon for someone with a learning disability to have an overall average or above average level of intelligence. So, using Sam as an example, his IQ test scores might show that his overall abilities are average or above average, but his reading achievement scores will likely show that Sam functions well below what someone with his IQ typically functions.

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