What is a learning disability? Who has one? How is it identified and treated? The idea of learning deficits in school children originated before the turn of the century, when research consisted primarily of speculations on possible neurological correlates of reading and writing problems. Implied in this research is the notion that a localized area of the brain is responsible for a particular function or behavior. Although there are certain functions that are identified in some of the more primitive areas of the brain, recent research indicates that the brain is much more flexible and adaptive in its functioning than the previous neurological studies had indicated. Research efforts in the '60's focused on a more diagnostic- prescriptive teaching model. In what has been termed the "psychoeducational approach", attempts were made to isolate specific characteristics of a child-- particularly deficits in auditory and visual information processing skills. These deficits, it was postulated, underlie the learning problem, facilitate its diagnosis and guide the plan for treatment.
In 1963, a proponent of the psychoeducational approach, Samuel Kirk, introduced the term, "learning disabilities." The term implies that there are children who are not "able" to receive, process, and/or express information in a manner comparable with their peers. The difficulty they may have listening, speaking, reading, writing or performing math calculations results in a severe discrepancy between their expected and actual levels of achievement. Interest in investigating the education process was facilitated by federal funding from within the Department of Health Education and Welfare. In 1964, The Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, a vigorous parent-action group, was formed. It has been instrumental in lobbying for government funding of programs which advance the study and treatment of learning disabilities.
Thus, learning disabilities became a field with its own network of researchers, educators, concerned parents and funding. Originally, most of the professional concern regarding learning disabilities was for reading difficulties. It is estimated that over two-thirds of all children referred for learning disabilities have a reading deficiency. Regarding the management of reading and other learning disabilities, in the '70's and '80's, New York State legislators revised laws, regulations and guidelines for local school districts. As a result, a concept evolved within the schools called, "special education", for identifying, evaluating and educating these children. It placed increased emphasis on the role of parents in the education process through periodic evaluation and planning meetings.
Despite the individual efforts of outstanding educators who have used innovative teaching and communication skills, to produce rewarding changes in learning disabled children, there have been some difficulties with the notion of learning disabilities. Traditionally, there has been little agreement among professionals as to: (a) the exact types of problems to which the term refers, (b) their causes, (c) the relative effectiveness of different approaches and, (d) who should do the remediation. In part, these difficulties may be due to the fact that most studies of the learning process have been "objective." In objective approaches, people study those who have the problem. However, new approaches have emerged which explore the subjective learning process. Here, the emphasis is on studying those people with effective and creative solutions.
Most research in learning deficiencies-- from early biological and genetic explorations through the more recent psycho-educational work-- has been objective: Attempts were made to understand how something works by noticing when it's not working! For example, a reading deficiency presupposes the phrase, "expected performance level." We generate age-appropriate reading levels, identify those who fail to meet the criterion, assume this is a function of some internal-- even genetic-- deficiency, and then design a program for treating it. Traditional methods of treating "dyslexia", a term which refers to a variety of reading disabilities, have evolved from studying those who demonstrate dyslexia.
In contrast, more subjective approaches focus on teaching these children to read by studying and reproducing the effective learning strategies of those who already read well! The key to producing effective change in those who have difficulty learning may be to find out how specifically a desired outcome does work. Have you ever wondered why it takes a child, who can speak at age three-- in some cases, bilingually-- five or more years to learn to read what he already can say?