Unbabbled: Learning Disabilities

Explaining Learning Disabilities with Libby Hall

Do you have a child who tries hard to follow instructions, concentrate and do well in school, yet despite their best efforts, continues to struggle and fall behind? This child may have a learning disability/disorder, which affects how they receive and process information. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1 in 10 schoolchildren are affected by a learning disorder.


Learning disabilities and some associated diagnoses include:

  • Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP)
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyslexia
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit
  • Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
This episode, we speak with veteran educator, Libby Hall, to discuss the basics of learning disabilities. During our chat, Libby helps us understand what a learning disability is, lists the different types of LD diagnoses, and provides common warning signs that parents and educators can look for. Additionally, she gives advice on what parents can do if they have concerns and offers at-home activities to promote early learning.

About Libby

Libby Hall, MEd, CALP is a veteran educator of more two decades. She has worked in special education, gifted, English Language Learning, early childhood and general elementary classrooms. She has completed extensive coursework in treating children with dyslexia. Libby is currently a lead teacher at The Parish School, where she specializes in children who have communication delays and learning differences. Libby has partnered with Children’s Learning Institute in Houston to develop educator trainings and is a regionally recognized speaker.

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Stephanie (00:05):

Hello and welcome to Unbabbled, a podcast that navigates the world of special education, communication delays and learning differences. We are your hosts, Stephanie Landis and Meredith Krimmel and we're certified speech language pathologist who spend our days at The Parish School in Houston helping children find their voices and connect with the world around them. On this week's episode of Unbabbled, we sit down with veteran educator Libby hall to discuss the basics of learning disabilities. The beat has experienced working in a variety of classroom settings including early childhood elementary, general education and special education. She's a regionally recognized speaker and has completed extensive coursework in treating children with dyslexia. Libby is currently a lead teacher at The Parish School in Houston, Texas. During our chat, Libby defines what a learning disability is, gives examples of common learning disabilities, provides red flags and discusses what parents can do if they have concerns. Libby also gives examples of simple activities parents can do at home to promote early learning. Welcome, Libby to our podcast today. We're so excited to have you here speaking about learning disabilities.

Libby (01:11):

Thank you so much.

Stephanie (01:12):

Thank you for being here. Let's start off with telling people a little bit more about you and your background and experience.

Libby (01:20):

I started teaching in the mid nineties and I have been in the classroom ever since. I have taught a realm of age groups from early childhood through sixth grade. I have worked with children who are twice exceptional. They may be gifted and talented and have a learning difference or learning disability. I have worked at the university level, um, at the university of Nevada, Las Vegas, working with pre service teachers and I have been fortunate to work in the public and private school settings and I have been at The Parish School for 15 years.

Stephanie (02:04):

Well, we'll jump right into the meat of it. Can you explain to us what a learning disability is?

Libby (02:10):

A learning disability as it's defined is a disorder and one or more of the psychological processes or functions of the brain. A learning disability can be a range of differences, like an inability to listen and understand spoken word, reading, writing, spelling or mathematics.

Stephanie (02:35):

Anything that neurologically impacts your ability to learn academic side?

Libby (02:42):

Yes. A person with a learning disability has an average to above average IQ and given that you would think that the person would be able to learn relatively well in a typical setting but there is a discrepancy and that they're not achieving where they would be expected to achieve.

Meredith (03:08):

And what are some red flags that would kind of alert you that a child might have a learning disability?

Libby (03:15):

There are many red flags and some of them, most of them start very early on. First of all, genetics is a big piece of it. Many parents recall that they had a difficult time learning and they may not have had services but maybe they were pulled out for reading or math when they were younger and now they're noticing that their child is having the same complications. A child who is speaking late is a red flag. A child who often mixes letters and numbers and they have a hard time differentiating between words and whole sentences. A child might not acquire a vocabulary very easily and a lot of children with learning disabilities or that have not been diagnosed yet. You, you may hear them say a lot of things like, Oh, can I have that thing over there? Let's do that thing we did last weekend. So they're, they're not using vocabulary or they want to say, Oh, let's watch that show and stuff. So when you're hearing lots of things and stuff, we really need to stop and ask your child what, what thing, what stuff are you talking about? So that you can really start to help them develop more vocabulary.

Meredith (04:42):

So it sounds like a lot of these red flags can be noticed pretty early on. Like in the preschool years?

Libby (04:47):

Preschool years, definitely kids that have a hard time learning nursery rhymes that they just don't really come naturally. That's early rhyming and rhyming games are red flags.

Stephanie (04:59):

What I hear you saying is that a lot of things that parents might naturally be looking for is, Oh well my child memorize the alphabet, or my child knows three colors. But you seem to be leaning a lot more to rhyming and learning and vocabulary and other red flags that might not be what the typical parent might be looking for. Are there any other things that fall outside the realm of in the early years of identifying letters and shapes that parents can be on the lookout for?

Libby (05:30):

Shapes is tricky because of the visual piece of it, but a lot of problem solving as well. Understanding how to put a tower together or they keep building the same tower and it keeps falling over. Can they apply what they know? Can they start to figure out and strategize how to make something balanced per se. And there's even more research showing children who are very finicky eaters and have low nutrition can greatly impact the neurological processes. And the just in that growing brain, I, I often heard parents tell me, Oh my kid, I knew that they were, they were exceptional because they went right from scooting to walking and they never crawled. And before I became a parent I thought, well I guess that that's okay. I, I wasn't sure. Well it turns out that not crawling really is a red flag. And again, it's a red flag for some, it's not a red flag for all. I don't want to generalize and say for a child is went from scooting to crawling, they have a learning disability, but the actual act of crawling builds your upper body strength and that actually builds stamina and the neck for sitting in school. It also exercises the neurological patterns of and crossing what we called crossing the mid line. So when you're crawling you have to, you know, remember it's you know, right left, right, left and moving multiple body parts simultaneously is actually building pathways in the brain. Interesting. So if your child doesn't crawl, is it recommended that you go back and teach them to crawl? Do you know? It is. It is.

Meredith (07:20):

According to the pediatricians that I've spoken to, if a parent is noticing these red flags, it sounds like maybe as early as six months to a year, I'm assuming you can't diagnose a learning disorder or disability that early.

Libby (07:34):

So what are some things that parents can do if they start seeing some of these red flags? First and foremost would be to communicate with your pediatrician. And so the pediatrician can monitor and they'll, there will be a monitoring for probably three to six months, which is a really long time when kids are little. But there is a legal mandate called child find and it mandates that school districts identify all students with disabilities between birth and 21 years who may be eligible for special education services. Now school districts can't send people door to door looking for people who have disabilities. And so it's a, it's a partnership, but many parents are unaware of that. And if they're, if you suspect that there may be something different, I always tell people, you know, go with your gut and you would go to your local school district offices and tell them that you believe that because of X, Y and Z, that you feel that there may be an issue. Your pediatrician feels that there may be an issue and so an evaluation would take place.

Stephanie (08:57):

So we've been talking about a lot of younger children and looking young, which is fantastic. We love early intervention. But what age do you find that most children end up being identified?

Libby (09:07):

There's two different thoughts here. Most children are identified as having a learning disability in about second grade or first grade because learning takes time for our brains as they're growing and what's happening physiologically within our body and neurologically does not necessarily match what the government is seeing as appropriate for that age. So take for example, three or four years ago when common core and when Texas came through with their new standards, there was a shift. And really what was taught in first grade is now most of what's expected in kindergarten. Um, and the reason for that is because it's typical now that kids go to preschool. It's typical that kids are learning at a much younger age than they used to be. However, it doesn't mean that neurologically that their brain is really ready to be reading. I mean, I know what I was learning in kindergarten. I remember learning colors and like naming colors and shapes and a lot of play. And now we expect children to leave kindergarten reading and doing simple addition and subtraction.

Meredith (10:36):

So developmentally, when is it appropriate to expect your child to be reading?

Libby (10:41):

Nowadays it's expected that children are really reading by the end of kindergarten and almost by the age of four or five that they, that your child would be able to read a patterned text with lots of picture cues. Like I see the ball, I see the dog, I, so if an adult reads the first page that the child can pick up on the pattern and use picture clues and be able to read that story, which is part of reading, but really by mid-first grade, um, they're looking at early to early chapter books.

Stephanie (11:21):

So with the state standards changing and the government related standards changing and kids being expected to do more things younger and that not always being developmentally appropriate. Right. Um, should parents be concerned and is it just a red flag if by the end of kindergarten they're still struggling a little bit with learning to read or are there other indicators than just that, that there would be difficulty there that might be an underlying learning disability?

Libby (11:47):

The state standards changed really to match what's happening in our, so kids are learning colors and numbers and shapes with you know, the Osmo for iPad and ABC mouse and all these things. So kids are having more exposure. So by some standards they are growing with the times and maybe neurologically kids are growing and they are able to learn things earlier because the brain was ready and we just didn't know, which is not to say that's true for every person. So if a child is not reading by the end of kindergarten, I would tell all parents to take a breath because not every child learns in the same way and that, I'm not saying that as a scapegoat, but some kids haven't had as much exposure. The sitting down at the kitchen table and having dinner and conversation is pretty rare. So that vocabulary enrichment people travel less and people are more prone to looking at phones and iPads. And again, those are important parts of our culture, but they're not being directly taught. If a child is not reading at the end of kindergarten, there are so many early interventions that you can do at home to help compensate and catch up. Reading to your kids before bed is huge. Playing rhyming games in the, in the car having real conversation. My rule in my house is is to put a basket of bread basket on the table and since we're trying to be carb free, the bread isn't in there but the phones go in there with my teenagers and so whoever goes and reaches for their phone first has to do the dishes. So that's a really great rule for families as well. The Apple watches have to go in there too. So by enriching your child with experiences in the car, driving, talking about where you're going and what you're buying and if I need to go to the get money, where do I, where do I get that from? I mean pretty much you can say Walmart or target and you can get any answer, but you know that there are specialty stores and talk about categories. I mean all those, those, those pieces build into language, build into life experiences and those life experiences build into reading comprehension and reading comprehension builds into an appreciation of literature and, and then the process can begin from there.

Stephanie (14:50):

So we've been speaking a lot about reading. Are there other areas that children could have a learning disability in besides reading?

Libby (14:56):

Yes, yes and well, 80% of learning disabilities are related to reading. And so that's why that's such a big part of it.

Meredith (15:07):

So what about red flags for children who might have a learning disorder in math?

Libby (15:14):

One of the earliest, um, ways that we look for, um, if there's an issue going on with math, one is can your child do one-to-one correspondence with counting? In other words, if you put down five cars, can they touch each one and say one, two, three, four, five? Or are they just counting and moving their finger? If I put out three M&Ms that are far apart and then three M&Ms below that are closer together and I count them one, two, three, and now here's three more, one, two, three. What has, what row has more and when a child looks and sees that the row that's longer has more, then I know that they'd haven't developed yet, that real, that sense of numeracy. So that would be a red flag as well. A red flag if you can still trick your kid in kindergarten by saying that they want to cookies and you want them to have one and you break it in half and say, okay, now you can have two and they're satisfied. That's not a good, that's a concern.

Meredith (16:28):

So we talked about math and reading. Are there other areas of academic development that a child might have a disability in?

Libby (16:35):

Well, writing and spelling really they kind of fit together.

Stephanie (16:41):

And you need solid reading skills and vocabulary skills and understanding of language to be able to, to write and correct. A lot of the reading requires the spelling and understanding of the rules of how to put words together.

Libby (16:57):

Right. And writing in particular is very challenging because if we're, if we're speaking, I mean writing is the spoken word and when you're writing, not only do you have to think about a complete idea, the writer has to think about holding the pencil, how they hold the pencil, penmanship handwriting and word spacing and then capitalization and punctuation. So there are so many pieces and I am also, I'm neglecting to say the pure phonics of spelling, all of those pieces are, are all coming together at the same time. So if a child has attention issues or executive functioning difficulties and the just the organization of all of those skills happening simultaneously is quite a challenge. And one other thing that's a red flag, and this is really for teachers, boys are typically diagnosed earlier than girls because if a boy is not understanding, and again this is stereotyping, this is, this is what just, this is just the research that they're typically more active and they're finding other things to do. So seeing that there might be an issue is a little bit easier to see.

Meredith (18:33):

Yeah. Teachers notice when there's more activity, right? Yes, sure. Being a squeaky wheel, they might not be saying, Hey, I don't get it, but they're not masking it by smiling and nodding.

Libby (18:44):

Right, right. Whereas typically, um, girls, most girls usually aren't diagnosed until the end of second or third grade because they've been quiet. And what teacher with 25 kids in the room doesn't love the quiet kid. Right. But the quiet kid can be having a real problem.

Stephanie (19:11):

You bringing up executive functioning and attention issues. Are there other diagnoses such as maybe attention deficit disorder that often kind of go hand in hand with learning disabilities that might affect a child's ability to learn?

Libby (19:29):

Absolutely. Attention, sensory processing issues, which seems to be an epidemic really. I'm in this era where they, you know, the tags on their shirt bother them so much that they can't focus in school because they're uncomfortable in the clothing that they're wearing. Language disorders obviously because what is at the root of reading and writing language vocabulary, executive functioning skills when we're talking about your child's ability to plan, to process, to follow a model. Autism. Children, not all children with autism have a learning disability. They have a learning difference, but they tend to mirror each other as far as strategies and what they need.

Meredith (20:26):

Speaking of strategies, you mentioned some really great advice earlier about things you could do in the car and reading before bedtime with mostly younger children. Do you have any strategies or tips for parents at home with maybe more school aged children of what they could do if they have a learning disability?

Libby (20:42):

Yes. Again, that you need to be able to have real conversations with with your kids, and I am so guilty of this myself, but the power of cash, the power of children earning an allowance is huge. Even if your child is earning 5 cents a day, they're learning coins, they're learning value. Then you know we can, when we have five, then we can exchange it for a nickel. Nickels can exchange for dimes, dimes for dollars. So building in the financial literacy from an early age is really, really important. How many times do we order for our kids in restaurants? I'm saying this as a parent because I was very guilty of that until someone said, when my son was in middle school, well, can he order himself? And I thought, Hmm, probably so we need to get back to that being the norm of your child picks something and they order it themselves instead of the kid's menu being just for play. You should be looking, having them look, this is the fun stuff, but where does it see where the food is? Even if they can't read it, they should be able to look and figure out, Oh, well there's a list here, so this must be what the choices are. Kids should be ordering from them themselves and restaurants. Kids should be able to participate in cooking activities, cleaning and organizing. All of those skills really helped to enrich a child's neurological system.

Stephanie (22:33):

Yeah, great advice. I love that about cleaning and organizing because that also helps with problem solving and executive functioning skills and figuring out how first things first, what do we need to do? Time management, all of those things that are extremely important to be able to organize yourself to learn.

Libby (22:52):

Right. I really try to talk through that with my students and with my own children and say, I have this list. I have so many things to do today. This looks overwhelming. I think I'm going to prioritize this and I, I show them how I color code things or make lists for, Oh I guess I could do this on Sunday so that kids can start to see how we, how we organize instead of just swiping on our phone.

Meredith (23:22):

I love that you talked about narrating, essentially narrating what you're doing because that is such a great strategy from birth that we can do for our children. We narrate language for them. Oh, I'm going to the kitchen and I'm getting out the cup. And you know, it's great for language development but also continuing that through to show organizational skills, IQ, executive function skills. It sounds like narrating is an important or an important strategy through your child's life.

Libby (23:48):

It is. It is. And especially the building and math. When you're setting a table, you know, we're having eight people over for dinner, you know, how many plates do we need, you know, and then can you count by two is putting them out, well everyone's going to need two forks and there's eight people that everyone needs two forks. I wonder how many forks that will be?

Stephanie (24:07):

You mentioned that parents can get assessments done through the school system or early intervention through child find where other places parents can go to receive assessments?

Libby (24:18):

There are many other places that parents may want to go because of the wait time. Um, I know that when we, when our child is sick, we want an immediate answer and these answers are not going to be immediate, but some families choose to go directly to a speech language pathologist office and they can find a speech language pathologist through their, their medical insurance or through recommendations of friends. And the speech path can do some early language testing. And, uh, in addition, there are a plethora of educational psychologists in the City of Houston that can do educational or psych educational assessments.

Stephanie (25:08):

So the parents would be on the lookout for somebody who could complete a psychoeducational assessment?

Libby (25:13):

Yes, and a psychoeducational assessment is a little bit different than a pure educational assessment. An educational assessment will help us understand a child's where a child's potential is, where their strengths are and where they're functioning. Academically. A neuro psychologist or a neuropsychological exam will help lend answers to you know, what their, what skills are strong, what skills need attention. Again, a basic potential educational potential which can vary from year to year and can increase. And it also can look at other areas like attention, look for genetic soft signs, um, or any other learning issue like hearing or visual motor issues that may come up more of the medical side of it. Yes. Or if there's any underlying medical things that might be correct. Correct.

Stephanie (26:25):

If a parent does have some of these concerns you mentioned going to the pediatrician or school, how does a parent bring that up? Do they first go to their teacher? Do they first go to their pediatrician? What would their first step be?

Libby (26:37):

My recommendation would be communicate, communicate, communicate, speaking with other is extremely valuable and going to birthday parties and also looking at what are the other kids doing. I think that personal awareness is important. And then, you know, speaking with your pediatrician, meeting with your child's teacher, you know, I see this at home, what do you see? Is this something I should be worried about? Can be scary to have to tell a parent. I think there's something going on. But I don't think I've ever had that conversation with a parent when they didn't say, I kind of thought something was different.

Meredith (27:21):

I can speak from personal experience about talking to both your pediatrician and the teacher because sometimes teachers see things in students that we as parents don't see at home, whether it's that they do something at school that they don't do at home or they don't do something at school that they are doing at home. So it's, I think it's, you made a great point. It's important to talk to multiple people who see your child in different settings, right?

Libby (27:43):

Well and if they're, if they anxiety piece is up at school and not at home, you're not going to see it at home.

Meredith (27:49):

Are there any myths or misconceptions related to learning disabilities that you would like to tell people about? There's so many that I'm going to try to, I'll try to limit them. One is that kids who write their numbers backwards have a disability and or have a learning disability. It is considered typical through the end of second grade to write numbers backwards. So if your child is still mixing B's and D's, it's okay. It's something you want to, you know, work with them on. But it's not cause for alarm. There's a myth that a learning disability is a, is a sight problem that kids see. They're reading words backwards. That it, there are more boys that have learning disabilities than girls is a myth. Um, it's probably pretty even actually, it just, the diagnoses haven't surfaced yet. And I think one of a big piece for me is that a learning disability and or any learning difference is a life sentence. It is not, I didn't learn to read until about the beginning of third grade and I have multiple degrees. So, um, you can learn, you can learn to strategize, you learn differently, your neurological pathways are beautiful as they are and it's important that you understand that it's not a life sentence and that kids can learn and they will learn.

Meredith (29:36):

And that intervention works!

Libby (29:37):

Intervention works.

Stephanie (29:39):

I think one of the biggest misconceptions I see is that kids with learning disabilities get labeled as lazy sometimes.

Libby (29:48):

Yes, that's true. I mean there's also that along with that myth of I can discipline [inaudible], we can discipline our way out of this and you can't discipline your way out of learning being difficult. It's not something that should be punished. Right? It's something that needs a strategy.

Stephanie (30:07):

After parents have an assessment, what are the type of diagnoses that may come out of an assessment?

Libby (30:12):

When a child goes for an assessment and the parents hear that their child has a learning disability, there could be many areas where they are, where they're struggling or maybe just a few, maybe just one specific learning disabilities and include, and I always want to say discalcula, which I pronounced and correctly, it's discalcula which is a disability and understanding numbers number sense, dysgraphia, which is a disorder of spelling and written language. Dyslexia is probably the most common right now. About 80% of kids with learning disabilities have dyslexia, which is a disorder in understanding reading and putting all the pieces of reading together, a language processing disorder, a visual perception disorder. ADHD is a learning disability, but it's not a learning disability that would allow a child to have special education services, but it is a is is an impairment that is still protected for services under the 504 federal act? Yes.

Stephanie (31:34):

As every ADHD could have a learning disability with it, but not every person with ADHD has a learning disability?

Libby (31:42):

Correct.

Stephanie (31:44):

So at the end of every podcast we ask all of our guests. One final question and it is if you had any advice to give to our listeners, whether it's specifically to parents or educators or both, and it can be specifically on this topic or just great life advice that you want to pass on, what would your one piece of advice be?

Libby (32:03):

My one piece of advice would be, well there's, I guess there's two. As a parent I would say trust your gut as a teacher. I think it's important that we know that we can't all be the bougainvillea vines that you just throw on the ground and that they grow. Um, some vines are a bit trickier to grow. They grow a little slower, they need more direction. Their stems twist along the ground to get tangled in the miracles. Some of the leaves are brown and wither as the vines attach themselves to a rock instead of to the wall where you wanted them, but with the right interventions or the right soil, someone to untangle some of those vines, and sometimes to give that vine the direct path, like the lattice that a vine will grow and can be just as sturdy as that Bougainville.

Stephanie (33:09):

Yeah, I love that. Beautiful, great advice. Well, thank you so much for giving us your time and we enjoyed talking with you today.

Meredith (33:16):

Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to the Unbabbled podcast. For more information on today's episode, please see our episode description. For more information on The Parish School, visit parish school.org and if you're not already, don't forget to subscribe to the Unbabbled Podcast on your app of choice. And if you like what you're hearing, be sure to leave a rating and review a special thank you to Stig Daniels, Amy Tanner, Amanda Arnold, and Stella Limuel for their hard work behind the scenes. Thanks again for listening.