Learning Disability: Definition Please!

By Judy Trimble posted 02-28-2011 23:23

Do you ever leave a workshop feeling like everything you've been doing and everything you've been taught is wrong? My head is still spinning from the Virginia Berninger workshop "Evidence-Based, Instructionally Relevant Differential Diagnosis of Specific Learning Disabilities" (even the title leaves me a bit dizzy) I attended. I signed up for the workshop because, after seven years of practice as a school psychologist, I'm still unsure of how exactly we're supposed to go about determining if someone has a learning disability. Oh, I know the whole discrepancy + processing disorder/RTI model, but I've always been a bit skeptical about how we determine these "processing disorders" and what connection they have to academic difficulties. Timmy lost interest during the Auditory Cohesion test of the TAPS, so he has an "auditory processing disorder". Sally couldn't rotate the designs on the TVPS, so she has a "visual processing disorder". The connection to these tests and reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic has always seemed a bit tenuous to me.

Dr. Berninger, who is the author of the Process Assessment of the Learner II test, had a lot to say about the role of educators in the diagnosis of specific learning disabilities, and, more specifically, about the diagnosis of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and language learning disabilities. One of her major concerns is that parents are going to private clinics and education centers to get diagnoses of and treatment for learning disabilities, because too many school districts are either not recognizing the "realness" of disorders like dyslexia, or they're not giving the relevant  assessments to determine these disabilities.

Berninger's view of a learning disability is very specific. In her view, children who have learning disabilities are average or above average in all the developmental domains, but  have great difficulty with reading, writing, or math.

I have to confess that some of the children that my IEP teams have found eligible for special education services under SLD don't meet the Berninger criteria for an SLD. Many of the children that we serve in special education don't really have severe impairments in reading, writing, or math. They're just struggling mightily with state standards, the pace of instruction, and the complexity of the curriculum. Some of these kiddos are what I call "Three Strikes" kids - they have low to low-average ability, they're poorly motivated, and home support is limited. So then as a school psychologist, I'm faced with the dilemma: Do I qualify kids who don't really have SLD's, or do I watch them slowly check out of school? I know RTI is the buzzword of the day, but I work in schools that have very limited resources and ever-increasing class sizes (while teachers, principals, and specialists are under ever-increasing pressure to get those standardized test scores up). I would love to be able to say that we can meet the needs of these children in regular education, but the truth is that many of these children would fall through the cracks without special education services.

But I guess it's the nature of these workshops to generate as many questions as answers...

1 comment


03-02-2011 11:46

You're not alone Judy. We've been struggling with this topic for who knows how long. Zirkel & Thomas (2009) note (referencing Kavale, 2000) that SLD has been, "a long-standing source of controversy, conflict, and crisis," regardless of the fact that SLD makes up the bulk of both student identification numbers and research sources.
For whatever it's worth to you, our state organization (and my district) have been working on an integrated model that utilizes a basic RtI implementation (called IIPM in our district) coupled with a cognitive process, hypothesis driven, comprehensive evaluation. You can find some of the materials on the OSPA website at:
Additional materials around the district model are found at:
I've been to a Berninger (two day) conference as well so I know what you're talking about. I can't say I entirely agree on all points from a research basis, but when she saw a brief outline of our model, she was impressed. Our goal was to not "fix" the SLD problem, but move the discussion and day-to-day outcomes in the right direction. If there was a "perfect" model, we all would have come to that conclusion and be using it right now. It just isn't the case. For my part, I believe we should struggle a bit with SLD identification. These are important decisions with implications for children's life outcomes, and we shouldn't treat it like a simple math subtraction problem any more.