What is Specific Learning Disability?

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Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Navigating the landscape of learning disabilities can be complex, and one term that often surfaces is “Specific Learning Disability” (SLD). Let’s unravel the intricacies of SLD, and explore what it is, its various types, common signs, and strategies for support. Thirty years of working with children with learning disabilities has given me a wealth of knowledge on this topic that I’d like to share with you. 

Specific Learning Disability Definition

What is a Specific Learning Disability? Experts define Specific Learning Disabilities as a complex neurological condition that prevents the seamless acquisition, processing, and expression of information, particularly in academic or functional aspects. 

This condition is characterized by unique challenges that impede the typical learning process. However, it is noteworthy that kids with SLD often demonstrate normal intellectual abilities in areas unrelated to the specific skill set affected.

Common areas affected include, but are not limited to reading, writing, mathematics, and language-based tasks. Despite the impediments in these targeted domains, individuals with SLD frequently exhibit proficiency in other cognitive abilities, reinforcing the specificity of this condition (McDowell, 2018).

The challenges posed by SLD extend beyond the academic sphere as it also influences an individual's daily life and functioning. Difficulties may arise in organizing information, time management, and the utilization of strategies to overcome their learning deficiency.

Types of Specific Learning Disabilities

Different SLD categories represent a specific area of learning difficulty. Here’s a list of learning disabilities that fall under Specific Learning Disabilities: 

  • Dyslexia: Specific learning disorder in reading, spelling, and writing
  • Dyscalculia: Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics and difficulty with mathematical concepts and computations
  • Dysgraphia: Inability to write
  • Dyspraxia: Coordination and motor skill difficulties
  • Auditory Processing Disorder: Challenges in processing auditory information

Difference between Learning Disability and Specific Learning Disability

The terms learning disability and specific learning disability are often used interchangeably, but there can be some subtle distinctions in how they are defined and applied. In general, both terms refer to conditions that affect a person's ability to acquire, process, or express information efficiently, particularly in the context of learning. However, the use of these terms may vary depending on regional and educational contexts. Here's a general distinction:

Learning Disability (LD)

  • The learning disability description is an inclusive umbrella that encompasses a variety of conditions affecting learning.
  • It can be used as a general category to describe difficulties in learning that may not be specific to a particular skill set.
  • Learning disabilities can manifest itself in various ways, including challenges in reading, writing, mathematics, attention, memory, and executive functioning.
  • An LD disability can refer to a more overarching difficulty in the learning process, and it might not always specify the exact nature of the challenges.

Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

  • The term “specific learning disability” is more precise and refers to a particular type of LD that is specific to certain academic or functional skills.
  • SLD is often used to describe a more narrowly defined set of challenges, such as dyslexia (difficulty in reading), dyscalculia (difficulty in mathematics), or dysgraphia (difficulty in writing).
  • SLD learning difficulties are specific to one or more areas, while other cognitive abilities may remain intact.

In educational settings, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan is often developed specifically for students with SLD to provide targeted support.

Identifying Common Signs

Understanding the signs of general learning difficulties and disabilities is paramount for early intervention, as it lays the foundation for implementing targeted support strategies that can significantly improve an individual's learning experience. When assessing for potential SLD, it is essential to consider a range of observable behaviors and academic disability. Here are some specific learning disability characteristics:

1. Reading Difficulties

Keep a keen eye on challenges related to reading, such as difficulty in decoding words, slow reading pace, poor comprehension, or persistent spelling errors. Individuals with SLD in reading may struggle with recognizing and understanding written words, impacting their overall academic performance.

2. Writing Challenges

Identify difficulties in written expression, including poor handwriting, learning problems with grammar and syntax, and struggles with organizing thoughts coherently on paper. Individuals with SLD in writing may find it arduous to convey their ideas effectively in written form.

3. Mathematical Struggles

Pay attention to challenges in mathematical concepts, problem-solving, and basic arithmetic. Individuals with SLD in mathematics may exhibit difficulties with understanding and applying mathematical principles, leading to lower proficiency in this academic domain.

4. Language Processing Issues

Observe difficulties in verbal communication, such as challenges in expressing thoughts verbally, understanding spoken instructions, or acquiring new vocabulary. SLD in language processing can hinder effective communication and comprehension.

5. Memory Deficits

Note any struggles with short-term or working memory, as individuals with SLD may encounter difficulties in remembering and recalling information. This learning deficit can impact various aspects of their academic performance. 

6. Organization and Time Management Problems

Keep an eye out for challenges in organizing tasks, managing time effectively, and following through with assignments. SLD can manifest in difficulties with planning and executing tasks, both in academic and daily life settings.

7. Inconsistent Academic Performance

Recognize patterns of inconsistency in academic achievement, where individuals may excel in certain subjects but struggle significantly in others. This inconsistency can be indicative of specific learning disorders, as it often affects specific skill sets rather than overall intelligence.

8. Frustration and Low Self-Esteem

Be attuned to emotional indicators, such as heightened frustration, avoidance of academic tasks, and a decline in self-esteem. Having SLD means struggling with emotional challenges stemming from persistent academic difficulties, and these signs can provide important clues for early identification.

How a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) Affects Students

Strategies for Support

In terms of SLD in education, IEP holds significant weight, especially when it comes to supporting learning disabled students. Children with specific learning differences will benefit from the following:

  • Early Intervention: Timely identification and intervention enhance success.
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs): Tailored plans for academic support.
  • Multisensory Approaches: Engage multiple senses for effective learning.
  • Assistive Technologies: Leverage tools like text-to-speech or speech recognition.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Foster a supportive environment, emphasizing strengths.

Individualized Education Program for Special Learning Disabilities (IEP SLD) 

An SLD IEP is a meticulously tailored document crafted to address the specific and diverse needs of learning-disabled students with educational disabilities. It serves as a comprehensive roadmap that not only acknowledges the unique challenges each student faces but also outlines a strategic framework for delivering specialized learning, support, and resources (Hoover et al., 2018). 

At its core, an IEP is not merely a bureaucratic requirement but a dynamic and student-centered tool that strives to guarantee an inclusive educational experience for every individual, irrespective of their challenges, fostering an environment where success becomes an achievable reality.

The significance of an IEP lies in its ability to transcend a one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing that students identifying as disabled exhibit a spectrum of strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. 

By engaging in a collaborative process that involves educators, parents, specialists, and, where applicable, the LD students themselves, an IEP becomes a living document that encapsulates a holistic understanding of the student's academic, social and emotional needs

This collaborative effort ensures that the plan is not only tailored to the current educational landscape but is also flexible enough to adapt to the evolving needs of the student as they progress through their academic journey.

Crucially, an IEP functions as a safeguard for educational equity and access. It goes beyond the identification of challenges by delineating specific accommodations, modifications, and support services that the student is entitled to receive. 

This legal framework not only reinforces the commitment to providing a level playing field for all students but also empowers parents and guardians as advocates for their children's rights within the educational system. 

An IEP is a powerful instrument that transforms learning disabilities and education challenges into opportunities. It ensures that students with disabilities not only have a seat at the educational table but also receive the tailored support necessary to thrive academically and personally.

Managing Learning Disabilities

SLD in special education is a significant category that necessitates targeted interventions and support to address specific challenges in academic or functional areas. Here are the steps in identifying a student with learning disabilities for an accurate SLD diagnosis:

  1. Referral for Assessment: SLD teachers, parents, or guardians may initiate the process by expressing concerns and requesting an assessment for the student.
  2. Comprehensive Evaluation: A team of education professionals conducts a thorough assessment, considering academic performance, behavior, and other relevant factors.
  3. Determining Eligibility: The team determines whether the student meets the criteria for LD special education services under an IEP.
  4. Developing the IEP: If deemed eligible, an IEP is developed, outlining specific goals, accommodations, and support services tailored to the student's needs.

Benefits of an IEP for Learning Disabilities

Benefits of an IEP for Learning Disabilities

The cornerstone of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) lies in its ability to deliver customized support tailored to the unique learning needs of each student who is learning with a disability. These personalized plans are crafted collaboratively by educators, parents, and specialists, considering the child’s strengths, challenges, and preferred learning styles. 

As an IEP addresses specific areas of difficulty, it serves as a roadmap for educators to implement strategies and accommodations that enhance the student's learning experience. This personalized approach fosters an inclusive and supportive educational environment. Ultimately, it optimizes the student's potential for academic success.

An IEP not only serves as a comprehensive guide for educational strategies but also acts as a legal document that affords crucial protections to students with learning disabilities. It assures the accommodations and services the student is entitled to receive, ensuring that their educational experience aligns with the principles of fairness and equity. 

The legal framework surrounding the IEP establishes a commitment to meeting the unique needs of each student, safeguarding their right to access education on equal terms with their peers. This legal protection is instrumental in preventing discrimination and advocating for the educational rights of children and teens with learning disabilities.

Regular Review and Adjustments

One of the dynamic features of an IEP is its adaptability. Regular review sessions are integral components of the IEP process, allowing for ongoing assessment and adjustments to the educational disability plan. These reviews involve collaborative discussions among educators, parents, and relevant specialists to evaluate the effectiveness of the current strategies and accommodations. 

As students with learning disabilities may experience shifts in their needs over time, this periodic reassessment ensures that the IEP remains responsive and relevant. Staying attuned to the evolving requirements of the student allows educators to make timely adjustments and provide a continuous and responsive framework that evolves with the child’s progress, challenges, and learning impairments.

A specific learning disorder has unique challenges that require personalized approaches. Understanding learning disabilities, increasing awareness, and embracing supportive strategies can help empower kids with SLD to thrive academically and beyond.

What is a learning disability?

A general learning disability is a neurological condition that affects the way an individual processes, acquires, retains, or expresses information. Learning disabilities are not indicative of a lack of intelligence or motivation but an impairment that interferes with the typical learning process.

What defines a learning disability?

The definition of a learning disability is characterized by the significant discrepancy between an individual's potential and their actual performance in specific domains, such as reading, writing, mathematics, or language skills.

What is SLD Learning Disability?

SLD stands for Specific Learning Disability. An SLD disability is characterized by difficulties in specific academic or functional skills while leaving other areas of cognitive functioning intact.

What are the specific learning disabilities?

Specific Learning Disabilities encompass conditions like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, each affecting specific academic or functional skills. Other types include Auditory Processing Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Language Processing Disorder, and Visual Processing Disorder, all impacting various cognitive abilities.

What are the 7 main types of learning disabilities?

Here’s the main types of specific learning disability list: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, auditory processing disorder, nonverbal learning disability, language processing disorder, and visual processing disorder. 

What is meant by disability?

Disability refers to a condition or impairment that may limit a person's ability to perform daily activities, participate fully in social and community life, or engage in work or educational opportunities, relative to individuals without such conditions. Disabilities can be physical, sensory, cognitive, or developmental in nature, and they may be temporary or permanent.

Do learning disabilities go away?

Learning disabilities themselves do not go away, as they are neurological conditions that affect the way individuals acquire, process, or express information. However, with appropriate support, interventions and accommodations, children with learning disabilities can develop strategies to overcome challenges and improve their academic and functional skills.

Is a learning disability a developmental disability?

Learning disabilities and developmental disabilities involve challenges in cognitive functioning but they differ in scope and manifestation. A learning disability is specific to difficulties in acquiring, processing, or expressing information in academic or functional areas, typically emerging in childhood and affecting specific skill sets like reading or math. In contrast, developmental disabilities encompass a broader range of conditions affecting overall physical, cognitive, language, or behavioral development, often presenting early in life and impacting various aspects of an individual's functioning.

What is a learning difference?

A learning difference refers to variations in the way individuals process information and learn, without necessarily implying a deficit or disability. It acknowledges that people have diverse learning styles, strengths, and preferences.

What is SLD in special education?

Special education and learning disabilities go together. Specific learning disability causes problems in acquiring, processing or expressing information in certain academic or functional areas. SLD education is recognized as a distinct category under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the United States.

What is a language learning disability?

A language learning disability (LLD) is also known as a language-based learning disability. Experts define learning disability or disorder of this type as the difficulty in acquiring, processing, or expressing language in verbal and written forms.

What is the medical term that means inability to speak?

The medical term that refers to the inability to speak is aphasia. Developmental aphasia is a language disorder that may cause a person's inability to learn, communicate, speak, understand speech, read, and write.

What are the causes of specific learning difficulties?

Specific learning difficulties (SLD) have multifactorial causes, including genetic, neurobiological, prenatal, perinatal, and environmental factors. Genetic predisposition, differences in brain structure and function, and environmental influences can contribute to the development of learning difficulties.

What learning disability is most common in children and teens?

Dyslexia and dyscalculia are the two most common learning disabilities in children and teens. These conditions may also occur along with ADHD, autism, and AuDHD. 

What does learning differences mean?

Learning differences is a term used to describe natural variations in the ways individuals learn and process information. Unlike the term learning disability, which often implies a neurological condition that may impact academic functioning, learning differences emphasize diversity in learning styles, strengths, and preferences among individuals.


Hoover, J. J., Erickson, J. R., Patton, J. R., Sacco, D. M., & Tran, L. M. (2018). Examining IEPs of English Learners with Learning Disabilities for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 34(1), 14–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/ldrp.12183

McDowell, M. (2018). Specific learning disability. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 54(10), 1077–1083. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpc.14168

Dr. Roseann is a mental health expert in Learning Disabilities who frequently is in the media:

  • Business Insider Your kids could get the coronavirus when they go back to school. These are the risks and benefits to weigh before sending them.
  • CBS (Video) Learning From Home During Quarantine
  • CBS (Video) Student Learning Resources Quarantine 
  • CT FOX61 (Video)  Homeschooling Tips During Quarantine

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Licensed Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including The Mel Robbins Show, CBS, NBC, PIX11 NYC, Today, FORBES, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Women’s Day, Healthline, CNET, Parade Magazine and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.

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She coined the terms, “Re-entry panic syndrome” and “eco-anxiety” and is a frequent contributor to media on mental health. 

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge has three decades of experience in working with children, teens and their families with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, concussion, dyslexia and learning disability, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and mood disorder, Lyme Disease, and PANS/PANDAS using science-backed natural mental health solutions such as supplements, magnesium, nutrition, QEEG Brain maps, neurofeedback, PEMF, psychotherapy and other non-medication approaches. 

She is the author of three bestselling books, It’s Gonna Be OK!: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, The Teletherapy Toolkit, and Brain Under Attack. Dr. Roseann is known for offering a message of hope through science-endorsed methods that promote a calm brain. 

Her trademarked BrainBehaviorResetⓇ Program and It’s Gonna be OK!Ⓡ Podcast has been a cornerstone for thousands of parents facing mental health, behavioral or neurodevelopmental challenges.

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health, Neurotastic™Brain Formulas and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional (CIMHP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF).

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