Students with learning disabilities comprise the largest single category of students with special needs (U.S. Dept. of Education, 1996). The following criteria are typically used to identify these students (Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1994):

  • The student has significant difficulties in one or more specific cognitive processes.  Such difficulties are often present throughout a person’s life and are assumed to result from a specific, possibly inherited dysfunction of the brain (J. G. Light & Defries, 1995; Manis, 1996).
  • Cognitive difficulties cannot be attributed to other disabilities, such as mental retardation, an emotional or behavioral disorder, a visual impairment, or hearing loss.  For instance, many students with learning disabilities obtain average or above-average scores on an intelligence test, or at least on some of its subtests.
  • Cognitive difficulties interfere with academic achievement to such a degree that special educational services are warranted.  Students with learning disabilities invariably show poor performance in one or more specific areas of the academic curriculum but may exhibit average or above-average achievement in other subjects.

Common Characteristics  In general, students with learning disabilities are different in many more ways than they are similar (Bassett et al., 1996; Chalfant, 1989; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1994). They typically have many strengths but may face such challenges as these:

  • Difficulty sustaining attention in the face of distractions
  • Poor reading skills
  • Ineffective learning and memory strategies
  • Difficulty with tasks involving abstract reasoning
  • Poor sense of self and low motivation for academic tasks (especially if they receive no special assistance in areas of difficulty)
  • Poor motor skills
  • Poor social skills (Chapman, 1988; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000; Mercer, 1997; H. L. Swanson, 1993; Wong, 1991b)

By no means do such characteristics describe all students with learning disabilities, however. For instance, some of them are attentive in class and work diligently on assignments, and some are socially skillful and popular with peers (Heward, 2006).

Learning disabilities can manifest themselves somewhat differently in elementary and secondary school students (Lerner, 1985). At the elementary level, students with learning disabilities are apt to exhibit poor attention and motor skills and often have trouble acquiring one or more basic skills. As these students reach the upper elementary grades, they may also begin to show emotional problems, due at least partly to frustration with their repeated academic failures.

At the secondary school level, difficulties with attention and motor skills often diminish, but students may be especially susceptible to emotional problems. On top of dealing with the usual emotional issues of adolescence (e.g., dating and peer pressure), students must also deal with more stringent academic demands. Learning in secondary schools is highly dependent on reading and learning from textbooks, but the average high school student with a learning disability reads at a third- to fifth-grade level and has few, if any, effective study strategies (Alley & Deshler, 1979; E. S. Ellis & Friend, 1991). The following exercise can give you a sense of how these students might feel under such circumstances.

For many students with learning disabilities, school success may constantly seem like an uphill battle. Perhaps for this reason students with learning disabilities are often at risk for dropping out of school (Barga, 1996).

Adapting Instruction  Instructional strategies for students with learning disabilities must be tailored to students’ specific strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, several strategies should benefit many of these students: 

  • Minimize potentially distracting stimuli. Because many students with learning disabilities are easily distracted, we should minimize the presence of other stimuli likely to compete for their attention. For example, we might pull down window shades if other classes are working or playing outside, and we might ask students to keep their desks clear of objects and materials they don’t need for the tasks on which they’re working (Buchoff, 1990).
  • Use multiple modalities to present information.  Because some students with learning disabilities have trouble learning through a particular modality (e.g., through vision or hearing), we need to be flexible in the modalities we use to communicate information (e.g., Florence, Gentaz, Pascale, & Sprenger-Charolles, 2004; J. W. Wood, 1998). When teaching a student how to read and spell a particular word, for instance, we might write the word, say its letters aloud, and have the student trace or write the word while repeating its letters. And in lectures to secondary students, we might incorporate videos, graphics, and other visual materials, and we might encourage students to audiotape the lectures (J. W. Wood & Rosbe, 1985).
  • Analyze students’ errors for clues about processing difficulties. For example, a student might solve a subtraction problem this way: 85-29=64  This student may be applying an inappropriate rule—always subtract the smaller number from the larger one. Or a student who reads the sentence I drove the car as “I drove the cat” may be having trouble using context clues to decipher meaning. The following exercise can give you a taste of what error analysis might involve.
  • Teach study skills and learning strategies.  Many students with learning disabilities benefit from being taught specific strategies for performing tasks and remembering classroom subject matter (Eilam, 2001; Graham & Harris, 1996; Wilder & Williams, 2001; J. W. Wood & Rosbe, 1985). For example, we might teach them concrete strategies for taking notes and organizing homework assignments. We might give them questions to try to answer as they read a story or textbook passage. And we might teach them certain mnemonics, or memory tricks, to help them remember particular facts.
  • Provide study aids.  Students with learning disabilities often study more effectively when they have scaffolding to guide their efforts (Brigham & Scruggs, 1995; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1992). For instance, we might provide study guides, outlines, or graphics that help students identify and interconnect important concepts and ideas. We might also let students copy (or receive a duplicate of) the class notes of high-achieving classmates.  Such strategies are helpful not only for students with learning disabilities, but also for students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Almost all students can be inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive at one time or another. But those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) typically have marked deficits in these areas, as reflected in the following identification criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Barkley, 1998):

  • Inattention.  Students may have considerable difficulty focusing and maintaining attention on assigned tasks. They may have trouble listening to and following directions, may make frequent and careless mistakes, and may be easily distracted by appealing alternative activities.
  • Hyperactivity.  Students may seem to have an excess amount of energy. They are apt to be fidgety, move around the classroom at inappropriate times, or have trouble working or playing quietly.
  • Impulsivity.  Students almost invariably have trouble inhibiting inappropriate behaviors. They may blurt out answers, begin assignments prematurely, or engage in risky or destructive behaviors without thinking about potential consequences.

Students with ADHD do not necessarily show all three of these characteristics. For instance, some are inattentive without also being hyperactive, as is true for Tim in the opening case study. But all students with ADHD appear to have one characteristic in common: an inability to inhibit inappropriate thoughts, inappropriate actions, or both (Barkley, 1998; Casey, 2001). Tim, for example, is easily distracted by his thoughts and daydreams when he should be focusing on a classroom lesson.

ADHD is assumed to have a biological and possibly genetic origin (Barkley, 1998; Purdie, Hattie, & Carroll, 2002; Sabbagh, Xu, Carlson, Moses, & Lee, 2006). But once identified as having ADHD, many students can be helped through behaviorist techniques (see Chapter 9) and remediation of cognitive difficulties. For some students medication (e.g., Ritalin) is also helpful (DuPaul, Barkley, & Connor, 1998; Gulley et al., 2003; Purdie et al., 2002).

Common Characteristics  In addition to inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, students identified as having ADHD may have characteristics such as these:

  • Exceptional imagination and creativity
  • Cognitive processing difficulties and poor school achievement
  • Classroom behavior problems (e.g., disruptiveness, noncompliance with rules)
  • Difficulty interpreting and reasoning about social situations
  • Greater emotional reactivity (e.g., excitability, hostility) in interactions with peers
  • Few friendships; sometimes outright rejection by peers
  • Increased probability of using tobacco and alcohol in adolescence (Barkley, 1998; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997; Grodzinsky & Diamond, 1992; Hallowell, 1996; Lahey & Page Carlson, 1991; Landau & McAninch, 1993; E. P. Lorch et al., 1999; Milch-Reich et al., 1999; Whalen, Jamner, Henker, Delfino, & Lozano, 2002)

Some students with ADHD may also have a learning disability or an emotional or behavioral disorder, whereas others may be gifted (Barkley, 1998; Conte, 1991; R. E. Reeve, 1990). The symptoms associated with ADHD may diminish in adolescence, but to some degree they persist throughout the school years, making it difficult for students to handle the increasing demands for independence and responsible behavior that come in high school (Barkley, 1998; Claude & Firestone, 1995; E. L. Hart, Lahey, Loeber, Applegate, & Frick, 1995). Accordingly, students with ADHD are at greater-than-average risk for dropping out of school (Barkley, 1998).

Adapting Instruction  Researchers and practitioners have offered several suggestions for helping students with ADHD:

  • Modify students’ schedules and work environments. The symptoms of ADHD tend to get progressively worse as the day goes on. Ideally, then, students should have most academic subjects and challenging tasks in the morning rather than the afternoon. Furthermore, moving students’ desks away from distractions (e.g., away from the door and window but not too close to classmates) and close to the teacher, where behavior can be monitored, can enhance their attention and achievement (Barkley, 1998).
  • Teach attention-maintaining strategies.  Students with ADHD often benefit from learning concrete strategies for keeping their attention on an assigned task (Buchoff, 1990). For instance, we can ask them to keep their eyes on us when we’re giving directions or providing new information. And we can encourage them to move to a new location if their current one presents too many distracting sights or sounds.
  • Provide outlets for excess energy.  To help students control excess energy, we should intersperse quiet academic work with frequent opportunities for physical exercise (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Pfiffner & Barkley, 1998). We might also give students a settling-in time after recess or lunch—perhaps reading an excerpt from a high-interest storybook or magazine article—before asking them to engage in an activity that involves quiet concentration (Pellegrini & Horvat, 1995).
  • Help students organize and use their time effectively.  Because of their inattentiveness and hyperactivity, students with ADHD (like Tim in the opening case) often have difficulty completing daily classroom tasks. Several strategies can help these students organize themselves and use class time more effectively. We can show them how to create to-do lists and establish a daily routine that they post on their desks. We can also break large tasks into smaller ones and set a short time limit for each subtask. And we can provide a folder in which students transport homework assignments to and from school (Buchoff, 1990; Pfiffner & Barkley, 1998).