Your Child’s Learning Disabilities

By Loriann Hoff Oberlin 

When your child heads off to school, you’re glad yet sad to see your little one grow up and filled with hope for all the learning that lies ahead.  Pride wells up as your son or daughter brings home colorful art­work and successfully accom­plished assignments that suggest progress.  This might go on for months, some­times years into a child’s education until a report card doesn’t resemble the last one, e-mail or phone messages from the teacher alert you to a problem.  You listen to what you’re told but you say, “This isn’t my child.  It doesn’t fit.”

This scenario, which thousands of us parents experience, comes as a surprise though some realize as early as preschool that their child has difficulty with daily living or learning.

“Our son’s toddlerhood was hell,” says Nancy in Minneapolis of her now 17-year-old son with an extreme case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  “We strip­ped the house to a level of four feet and duct-taped the fireplace shut.  No drapes; he’d swing from them. Broken windows, holes in the sheetrock.  It was awful.”  If anything that could be taken apart was left out, it was disassembled, even a wrapped gift left on the counter for three minutes. 

Mary Ann O’Neill of Montgomery County, Maryland saw problems with her son Kris as young as 18 months.  He had trouble falling and staying asleep.  A developmental neuro­lo­gist did some intelligence testing and seemed impressed by Kris’s block tower.  The unspoken message:  He’d grow out of it.  “The last week of kindergarten, the teachers dropped a bombshell on me,” Mary Ann says.  Kris hadn’t been paying attention nor com­pleting much class work.  Angry that they’d waited to alert her, Mary Ann observed and videotaped her son at school, yet her pediatrician didn’t see any cause for alarm.  Kris would mature.  But first grade was a disaster.  On the positive side, it led to the diagnosis of ADHD,

These parents saw signs early.  Other children progress until they hit an impasse, when the work becomes more challenging.  My own son Alex hit such an impasse in fourth grade as the work required more mental stamina and fully developed skills such as hand­writing. Both of my children have had learning difficulties diagnosed at different ages.  Alex was born three months premature with developmental delays termed cere­bral palsy only at age seven.  Always naturally curious, he loved to learn and was full of words (hey…he’s my boy!) so I thought the only deficits were in muscle tone, strength, and gross motor delays. Yet in fourth grade, I heard repeated complaints about his inability to get started with tasks. “He says he’s thinking about it,” his teacher complained. Others labeled him a behavior problem. But when his step-dad and I heard Mel Levine, M.D. lecture, describing kids who couldn’t get the messages down to their fingers, it fit my son.  It also fit with what two neurologists had described — one at the National Institutes of Health (where Alex partici­pated in a research study) and one at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.  My son really was thinking hard about what he was being asked to do.  With newly diagnosed learning disabilities and fine motor problems, things teachers and class­mates considered simple seemed to him like unending challenges, leaving him equally frustrated.

Mel Levine, M.D., author of A Mind At a Time and an authority regarding learning develop­­ment, says that children who have a tough time making connections in the class­room often claim “school is boring.”  While teachers might label refusal to com­plete work as a behavior problem, neurologists, psychologists, and others assert that these expres­sions are often reactive, not primary.  Children who appear as defiant, unmoti­va­ted, the class clown or tough character sometimes do so to mask their humiliation.  Too embar­ras­sed to admit they aren’t “getting it” or that their brains are wired a bit differ­ent­ly, these kids struggle until someone unravels the problem.  Dr. Levine says he’s never met a child who really doesn’t want to impress adults with a job well done.

Every child wants desperately to succeed. Levine founded a nonprofit institute called All Kinds of Minds.  His work echoes this title because the key is finding a child’s strengths, not merely his weaknesses.  Everyone has a unique neuro­developmental profile, and it’s not a fixed entity throughout life.  In fact, many adults discover their own learning difficulties through diagnosis of their child.  Some people have speech or articulation disorders.  Others have disorders of expressive language or written expression.  Some have difficulty with receptive language, dyslexia, or ADHD.  There are visual, auditory, sensory integration and memory disorders.  In short: Different circuitry for each child.

Learning disabilities (LDs) are not a reflection of lower intelligence — not at all.  Some children with LDs are quite gifted in certain areas.  Kris, for instance, scored very high on gifted/talented (GT) testing in the second grade.  As we’ll discover in subsequent articles in this series, that can be a real blessing when parents begin the arduous task of advocating for their children in the school setting. 

Loriann Hoff Oberlin is a Maryland-based writer and author specializing in parenting, relationships, and health writing.  Reach her through her website


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