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Symptoms of Learning Disabilities

Rick Lavoie discusses the wide variety of behavioral symptoms associated with Learning Disabilities.

Learning disabilities are a generic set of disorders that have a wide array of behavioral manifestations. Below is listed a sampling of these specific disorders and their symptoms. When considering these symptoms, it is important to remain mindful of the following:

  • No one will have all these symptoms.
  • Among LD populations, some symptoms are more common than others.
  • All people have at least two or three of these problems to some degree.
  • The number of symptoms seen in a particular child does not give an indication as to whether the disability is mild or severe. It is important to consider whether the behaviors are chronic and appear in clusters.

Short Attention Spans

An inability to focus and maintain attention to the task-at-hand can cause marked difficulty for the child, particularly in the classroom setting. The child with a limited attention span is often labeled “lazy,” “forgetful,” “disorganized,” or “unmotivated.”

Low Frustration Tolerance

Students with a low threshold for frustration will have marked difficulty dealing with long-term or complex assignments. They become easily impatient with repetitive drill work and have severe reactions to even simple exposures to failure and frustration. Their classroom performance and behavior often causes authority figures to view them as “high strung,” “unmotivated,” or “disturbed.”


Students who are insatiable require and demand immediate gratification. They are sometimes referred to as “M ‘n’ M kids” … me, now, and more! They are often dissatisfied with the responses of adults. They can be extraordinarily persistent in regard to their needs and often appear to be distracted by their constant “appetite” for things and attention. They are extraordinarily “future oriented” and are chronically restless. They have little tolerance for boredom and will often “stir up trouble” to avoid boredom and create a significant level of intensity. They have a perpetual hunger for new and novel activities.
Dr. Mel Levine of the University of North Carolina draws the following useful parallel: “Imagine that you are a nine year old who has been told that a brand new bicycle will be awaiting you when you arrive home. How difficult would it be to effectively focus your attention and activity during that school day? The insatiable child faces that degree of distraction and need all day, every day!” These students are often mislabeled “troublemakers,” “spoiled,” or “disrespectful.”


The distractible child is at the opposite end of the “Attention Spectrum” from the child with no attention span. While the latter child pays attention to nothing … the distractible child pays attention to everything. This child is unable to focus his energies and attention on the task-at-hand because he is constantly diverted by the visual, auditory, or social stimuli in his environment. This causes the child to “fall behind” and lose track of the flow of a classroom discussion or demonstration. Often times, this child is accused of being purposely disruptive and disinterested.

Low Self-Esteem

Caregivers would do well to remember a simple but profound fact: “Children go to school for a living … that’s their job!” Therefore, it is quite understandable that students with learning disabilities also have difficulty with self-esteem. They have experienced innumerable failures and frustrations in school and social situations. They have also been deprived of success in these settings and have formed few meaningful relationships with adults or peers. The constant negative feedback that they receive reinforces their feelings of being “different” or “inferior.” They view themselves as failures and see their futures as bleak. This low self-esteem can result in anger, depression, and self-imposed isolation. Self-destructive behaviors can also occur. The child with low self-esteem is often labeled as “a loner,” “withdrawn,” “lazy,” or “unmotivated.”

Learned Helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness was introduced by Martin Seligman to explain the response of animals and humans when exposed to a number of trials in which they were unable to influence the outcome. When subjects learn that there is no relationship between what they do and their ability to impact the environment or reach their goal, they give up and respond passively. This perceived inability to influence a situation has a tendency to generalize to other situations. For example, a student who experiences repeated failure in learning to read (despite tremendous effort) begins to feel that failure is also inevitable in other settings (math, cub scouts, etc.).
Learned helplessness often leads to low self-esteem, lethargy, indifference, reduction in persistence, and reduced levels of performance. These students are mistakenly perceived as “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “disinterested.”

Sequencing Deficits

Many students with learning disabilities have marked difficulty perceiving or following the established sequences of basic tasks. As a result, they often appear confused and use ineffective strategies to approach assignments and experiences.
Adults will often complain that this child is “haphazard” or “disorganized.”

Memory Deficits

School-aged children with learning disabilities often have marked deficiencies in long-term and short-term memory. They have great difficulty remembering and following simple directions or instructions.
Short-term memory is the ability to retain information for a brief period of time by concentrating on it. We use short-term memory constantly for such basic tasks as remembering names in social situations, using the telephone, following directions, or running errands.
Long-term memory is the process of effectively storing information for use at a later time.
Children with memory deficits face tremendous difficulty in classroom and social settings. These deficits impact negatively upon their ability to comprehend, spell, follow instructions, or complete assignments.
The child with a memory deficit is often labeled as “scattered,” “disorganized,” or “unmotivated.”


Students with hyperactivity manifest rapid, erratic, excessive, and purposeless bodily movement. They are often fidgety, restless, and highly unpredictable. Their inability to participate appropriately in classroom or leisure activities often results in social rejection.

Anxiety Disorders

Some studies indicate that 20% of children with learning disabilities also suffer some form of anxiety disorder (e.g., phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). These children can become overwhelmed with worry and feelings of dread. It is important to note the difference between anxiety and depression. Basically, depressed people worry about the past … anxious people worry about the future.
Students with anxiety problems invest tremendous amounts of energy in preoccupation with upcoming events. They tend to have catastrophic thought patterns wherein they imagine and assume that the future is fraught with danger and obstacles.
Anxiety disorders are physiological in nature and are often accompanied by observable physical symptoms (e.g., sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, and nausea).
These students will often develop highly-ritualized compulsive behaviors wherein they develop abnormal focus upon one action or idea (e.g., constantly checking a previously locked door, fear of germs, etc.) These students are often rejected or isolated as a result of these unusual behaviors.

Deficient Motor Skills

Children with learning disabilities often have difficulty completing simple motoric tasks, despite their concomitant abilities in the area of gross motor skills. Their difficulty with tasks such as using scissors, pens, or combination locks often result in their being labeled “immature,” “babyish,” or “uncooperative.”

Other Common Symptoms

In addition to the skill deficits listed above, examine the subskill disorders that are also common among children and adolescents with learning disabilities:

  • poor performance on group tests
  • difficulty discriminating size, shape, color
  • difficulty with temporal (time) concepts
  • distorted concept of body image
  • reversals in writing and reading
  • general awkwardness
  • poor visual-motor coordination
  • slowness in completing work
  • poor organizational skills
  • easily confused by directions, instruction
  • difficulty with abstract reasoning or problem solving
  • disorganized thinking
  • impulsive behavior ; lack of reflective thought prior to action
  • excessive movement during sleep
  • poor peer relationships
  • overly excitable during group play
  • poor social judgment
  • inappropriate, unselective, and often excessive display of affection
  • lags in developmental milestones (e.g., motor, language)
  • behavior often inappropriate for situation
  • failure to see consequences of actions
  • overly gullible; easily led by peers
  • excessive variation in mood and responsiveness
  • poor adjustment to environmental changes
  • overly distractible; difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty making decisions
  • lack of hand preference or mixed dominance

When the symptomology and deficiencies inherent in learning disabilities are considered, it is easy to perceive the following realities of the relationship between learning disabilities and behavior management:

  • The symptomology of learning disabilities has a significant impact upon the day-to-day behavior of the child in all settings.
  • The neurologically-based actions and behaviors of these students can often be misinterpreted, misdiagnosed, and misunderstood.
When the Chips Are Down
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