by Nancy Robinson, Barbara Keogh & Ochan Kusuma-Powell
The answer to this question is a complex one, due to the many issues that have arisen regarding the definition of learning disabilities. How to define LD has been an issue since the category was formally recognized by federal legislation in the US and there continues to be inconsistencies in how to implement the definition. In American and international schools overseas, there has been increasing awareness of the presence of students who experience unexpected difficulties in acquiring basic academic skills, although they clearly possess the intellectual wherewithal to succeed in their academic work.
Past and Current Definitions
LD is defined along two major dimensions. The first is unexpected underachievement, usually operationalized as an ability-achievement discrepancy. The second is the exclusion of underachievement due primarily to sensory or physical conditions, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
The term learning disabilities was first proposed by Samuel Kirk in 1962 and targeted children " . . . who have disorders in development in language, speech, reading, and associated communication skills needed for social interaction." Kirk specifically excluded children with sensory and physical conditions and those with generalized mental retardation. Kirk's definition inferred an "in-child" neurological basis for the learning problems, an emphasis that was ultimately incorporated into the definition by the US Office of Education and ultimately incorporated in Public Law 94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.The definition remains essentially the same in the current Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), reauthorized by the US Congress in 1998. That definition is as follows:
The term 'children with specific learning disabilities' means those children who have a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. Such disorders include such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
Part of the difficulty with such a definition is that it specifies more what LD is not than what LD is, leading to inconsistent operational decisions which vary geographically and over time. A student classified as LD in one state or school district could be considered retarded in another, slow learning in another and not eligible for any special services in still another. How to assess ability as part of the LD definition is particularly troublesome when applied to individuals from different linguistic or cultural groups. Indeed, it is sometimes recommended that standardized intelligence tests should not be used to determine the ability component of the LD discrepancy equation for students from culturally or linguistically different backgrounds.
The heterogeneity of individuals and problems caught in the broad LD definitional net has led to increased efforts to target clearly defined subgroups, e.g. those with specific problems in reading acquisition, reading comprehension, writing, arithmetic computation, or arithmetic reasoning. There is also increased interest in the expression of learning disabilities in different developmental periods and in sorting out various neurobiological, linguistic, and experiential contributions of LD.
Implications for International Schools
Rather than continue arguments about "the definition" and how to operationalize it, it is important to view LD in the context of international schools, schools not restricted by US Office of Education regulations. Definitions and operational criteria determining identification of individuals as LD must be relevant to the overseas school, to the purposes of the identification, and to the services available, as the nature of the learning disability should direct remediation. These general guidelines are recommended:
- Consider assessment and identification as ongoing processes. The severity of learning problems may vary with the student's age, experience, and responses to instruction.
- Ensure that students' learning problems are not related to visual, hearing, or other physical or sensory conditions.
- Ensure that students' learning problems are not due to learning delays related to learning English as a second language . Distinguishing underlying learning disabilities from a slow but essentially normal pace of acquiring English as a second language is one of the most difficult but prevalent diagnostic questions faced in overseas schools.
- Do not wait for formal identification of students as LD to begin interventions. Be proactive in providing extra and targeted interventions as problems become recognized. If left unattended, minor problems often cause students to fall further and further behind.
- Be flexible. Do not limit identification to narrowly defined psychometric criteria using only standardized tests. Assessments should include observations, teachers' and parents' perceptions, and students' own views of their learning problems.
- Look for ability profiles which are inconsistent, e.g. good vocabulary, poor reasoning; good long term memory, poor short term memory.
- Analyze students' functional skills in basic academic subjects in order to identify specific aspects of learning problems, e.g. problems in mastery of the alphabetic code, in arithmetic computation, or in spelling.
- Look for achievement profiles which are inconsistent across subject matter areas, e.g. good in math, poor in reading; good in arithmetic reasoning, poor arithmetic computation.
- Determine if the learning problems are situationally specific or if they appear in many situations, e.g. school and home, in one-to-one or large group instruction.
- Pay special attention to children who seem highly capable yet exhibit behaviors suggesting they are disinterested or unorganized. The "bright but lazy" student may have an unrecognized learning disability. This may be evidenced by poor basic skills which interfere with achievement and the enjoyment of learning.
- Be sensitive to other problems that are often associated with or result from students' learning disabilities. These include attentional disorders, depression, anxiety, and low self-concept, all of which may confound or exacerbate a learning disability.
- Seek diagnostic help from external resources if these are not available in your school; such resources include medical and psychological experts in the community, use of visiting professionals, and professionals in other overseas schools.
- Define the services available for students with LD in your school, and consider these needs in hiring teachers and staff as well as in decisions about admission of students. Be sure that your school develops admission policies that open doors to students with LD whom you expect to be able to serve appropriately, but be aware that some students may need more intensive services than you can offer.
- Interpret the nature and severity of students' learning problems within the context of their particular language and cultural backgrounds, and against the nature of the instructional program offered. How much of the learning problem is in the student and how much has to do with a lack of fit between student and program?
Defining a field such as learning disabilities is only a first step. Specialized training in the diagnosis and educational responses to learning disabilities is needed and desirable, and should be one of the goals of overseas schools. However, dedicated teachers who know their students and are keen observers can often target problems, make appropriate classroom adjustments, and help students develop new strategies to strengthen their skills and minimize their learning problems. Good teaching is good diagnosis.
 Some ESL students with long histories of exposure to poor English language models may share symptoms of children with language disorders, e.g. using telegraphic speech, having limited vocabularies, or may be unable to employ or understand multiple word meanings, but their difficulties do not have a neuropsychological basis. There are, of course, students who are both ESL and who have language disorders.