Learning differences are the unique and individual ways in which some people process new information. In the United States, one in five students has a learning difference, meaning they experience challenges with organization, memory, or attention, especially in academics, such as reading, writing, and math.
While everyone in the population may struggle with these skills at some point or another, students with learning differences experience these difficulties throughout their educational development, and they can last an entire lifetime. However, accessing research-based, differentiated, and multi-sensory instruction can make a difference.
What Does it Mean to Have a Learning Difference?
The terms “difference,” “disability,” and “difficulty” are often used interchangeably, but there are some cases where these terms can have separate, legal meanings. For example, “specific learning disabilities” is a formal disability category under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that covers a specific group of learning challenges, but not necessarily all students who learn “differently.” Another example: while ADHD can cause difficulty in learning environments, it does not necessarily qualify as a learning disability (depending on its impact on one’s life). We are using the term learning differences to apply to students who are at risk for being marginalized in the learning process due to chrematistics such as those listed below. No matter the term, it’s important to remember that students with learning differences
are capable of academic excellence and can learn with strategic, diversified teaching techniques.
Examples of Learning Differences:
Learning differences can mean various things to different people, and the need for tutoring or other types of instruction depends on how the condition affects a student’s life and education. Below are several of the most common differences.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a learning difference common in children who don’t maintain focus for long periods and often enjoy physical activity over mundane mental tasks. Students with ADHD are often perceived as inattentive or forgetful since they are easily distracted, and their minds move quickly. They tend to benefit from learning breaks and time to move around, positive reinforcement, and the reminder that they can do the task at hand. We see ADHD differently in boys and girls, as well as in children and adults, so paying close attention to each individual is best to understand what works for them.
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability or difference in the ability to process the phonological component of language, which leads to trouble decoding and fluently reading words. Students with dyslexia are also often misunderstood. They may possess remarkable academic abilities, but there’s usually a discrepancy between their potential and the work seen by a teacher or parent. These students see words differently, often with the letters jumping around or blending as they read. These children may not feel strong in spelling, reading comprehension, pronunciation, or note-taking. These skills are related to organization, classification, and categorization. Students with dyslexia may feel behind their peers as they try to keep up, even if their understanding and intelligence levels are exceptional.
Dyscalculia involves difficulty in understanding and executing arithmetic; students may excel in other areas of mathematics like geometry that are more logic-based than formula-based, but need some help when it comes to sequential processing. They may confuse basic math signs, numbers, appointment times, or budgets. The challenges of dyscalculia can often lead to poor self-esteem in math, even if they have a high comprehension of the basis behind it.
Dyspraxia, a difficulty characterized by trouble with math or math-related exercises, has more physical attributes than dyslexia or dyscalculia. Students with dyspraxia may feel awkward both physically and socially, and they may have trouble with pronunciation, expressing themselves, and distinguishing sounds. They may find writing, organizing, following instructions, and managing information difficult in school.
Dysgraphia is characterized by difficulty with the action of writing, specifically, leading students to battle with their writing assignments. Spelling, word spacing, and translating thoughts through writing are tricky for children with dysgraphia. They may also struggle with the physical qualities of writing, holding the utensil differently than others, or experiencing a cramped wrist.
Executive Function Difficulties
Students who experience executive function difficulties have trouble starting and completing tasks. They frequently need help prioritizing and struggle to remember information they just learned, which makes it hard to follow directions, switch tasks, organize thoughts, keep track of belongings, or manage time. Students with executive function difficulties often need help with managing homework assignments and following instructions. Again, this learning difference has nothing to do with a student’s intelligence and everything to do with how they process information.
Receptive Language Disorder
Students who have a difficultly processing verbal information and following multiple steps when given auditorily follow into this group. These students struggle with the meaning of language and how to respond in many cases. This does not always have to be linked to a hearing loss or intelligence.
Written Expression Disorder
Students who have written expression disorder struggle to get their thoughts onto paper. They often have difficultly with the structure of writing, grammar and punctuation. They become quickly overwhelmed with “simple” writing tasks and required help to break down into a more manageable task. This disorder is often mis labeled as Dysgraphia, but the main difference is handwriting. With Dysgraphia child struggle with legibility and endurance for handwriting task with written expression disorder they have fair to good handwriting but can’t organize good ideas and thoughts onto the paper.
Studies using brain scans have shown differences in how the brain functions and is structured. Experts also believe that genetics plays a role. Learning and thinking differences tend to run in families.
The biggest myth might be that people who learn and think differently aren’t smart. Learning and thinking differences aren’t related to intelligence. People who have them are as smart as other people. And they have strengths, talents, and interests that can help them work on challenges.