Inside: SLD Specific Learning Disability is one of the IDEA eligibility categories. Here’s what you need to know about characteristics of SLD, examples and definitions.

Nearly half of all disabled children are in the category of SLD, per the US Department of Education.

Yet, despite it being common, I find that the category itself is largely misunderstood by both parents and teachers. There are many myths and misinformation about the SLD category.

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Some of these examples: That ADHD should be under SLD on an IEP and not OHI (parents often feel like the school is trying to pull one over on them); that all learning disabled children have dyslexia, and that schools are not permitted to use the term dyslexia or the names of specific intervention programs on IEPs.


I will attempt to address all of these questions and more. For the purposes of this article, learning disability and learning disorder may be used interchangeably.

What is SLD?

SLD stands for Specific Learning Disability. It is a term used to describe a condition in which a student has difficulty learning and processing information in specific areas such as reading, writing, or math, despite having normal intelligence and the absence of other factors that could explain their learning difficulties, such as sensory impairment or emotional disturbance.

A specific learning disability is a neurobiological condition that affects the way the brain processes information. It is a type of learning difficulty that is not related to intelligence, motivation, or environmental factors.

Children with SLDs may have difficulty with specific skills such as reading, writing, spelling, math, listening, or speaking.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a specific learning disability is one of the 13 categories of disability that qualify a student for special education services.

In order to be eligible for special education services, the student must meet certain criteria for a specific learning disability, as determined through a formal evaluation process by a qualified professional, such as a school psychologist.

Next, I want to address the stigmas associated with learning disabilities.

students working on math word problem goals
Many students with learning disabilities thrive with the right supports.

Learning Disability Stigma

SLD means specific learning disability. Stigma associated with this term is a common assumption that children with learning disabilities can’t learn. Not true.

In fact, most usually have average or above average intelligence. Instead, try using the newer phrase “learning differences,” which offers a more accurate snapshot that captures the essence of learning disabilities.

When equipped with the appropriate supports and interventions, students with learning disabilities can thrive academically.

And, the reverse is true. When students are continually starved of the right supports, it wears on their psychological well-being. It is not uncommon for a child to have a learning disability, and then develop emotional disturbance-like behaviors due to lack of supports.

In fact, a University of Toronto study revealed that Adults with learning disabilities still had 46 percent higher odds of having attempted suicide than their peers without learning problems, even when a wide range of other risk factors was taken into account.

To determine the appropriate learning interventions and programs, sufficient evaluations must be done. Decent evaluations will give you solid baselines of your child’s ability. From there, the team should develop goals and interventions.

It’s important to note because I hear about this problem often: Accommodations do not teach. Too many times, a school IEP team will just add the laundry list of accommodations that they use for all learning disabled students.

Including things like:

  • Extra Time for Assignments/Tests
  • Quiet Room or Different Setting for tests
  • Preferred Classroom Placement (desk closer to teacher)
  • Small Group Instruction (but same curriculum as everyone else)
  • NONE of these things will teach a dyslexic child how to read.

Without specific interventions, that are evidence-based to treat your child’s specific condition, progress will be very limited.

Effective interventions involve systematic, intensive, individualized instruction that may improve the learning difficulties and/or help the individual use strategies to compensate for their disorder.

Education for a person with learning disabilities often involves multi-sensory teaching. But multi-sensory alone is usually not enough.

Research has shown that the most effective treatments for a reading disorder are structured, targeted strategies that address phonological awareness, decoding skills, comprehension, and fluency.

Treatments for writing problems are in two general areas: the process of writing itself and the process of composing written expression.

Early intervention is key for people with learning disabilities. If problems are identified early, intervention can be more effective, and children can avoid going through extended problems with schoolwork and related low self-esteem.

girl throwing her books
When properly supported, most learning disabled people can attend college and be meaningfully employed.

IDEA Definition Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

Definition per IDEA : Statute/Regs Main Â» Regulations Â» Part B Â» Subpart A Â» Section 300.8 Â» c Â» 1

(10) Specific learning disability—

(i) General. Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

(ii) Disorders not included. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

That last clause helps to distinguish learning disabilities from the other 13 disability categories specified by IDEA.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there are eight specific categories of specific learning disabilities (SLD) that may qualify a student for special education services. These categories include:

  1. Reading fluency: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to read accurately, quickly, and with proper expression.
  2. Reading comprehension: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to understand what they read, including understanding vocabulary, sentence structure, and text organization.
  3. Math calculation: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to solve basic math problems, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
  4. Math reasoning: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to understand and apply math concepts, including problem-solving, critical thinking, and abstract reasoning.
  5. Written expression: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to communicate effectively through written language, including spelling, grammar, and organization.
  6. Listening comprehension: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to understand and process spoken language, including following directions and retaining information.
  7. Oral expression: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to communicate effectively through spoken language, including pronunciation, grammar, and organization.
  8. Basic reading skills: A learning disability that affects a student’s ability to understand basic reading skills, including letter recognition, phonemic awareness, and decoding.

It’s important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and a student may have difficulties in multiple areas.

Additionally, the identification of a specific learning disability requires a formal evaluation by a qualified professional, such as a school psychologist, and the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address the student’s specific needs.

Preferential seating is a common 504 plan accommodation.
Preferential seating is a common accommodation for learning disabilities.

Specific Learning Disability Characteristics

The symptoms of learning disabilities are a diverse set of characteristics that affect development and achievement. Some of these symptoms can be found in all children at some time during their development.

However, a person with learning disabilities has a cluster of these symptoms which do not disappear as s/he grows older.

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Signs that a child might have a learning disability tend to appear in elementary school. For example, difficulty learning the alphabet, problems with following directions, trouble transforming thoughts into written words and misreading math problems are all possible indicators of a specific learning disability.

If your child is exhibiting difficulty with school work, or you think their achievement does not match their ability, you may want to have them evaluated. Here are some other characteristics to look for.

  • short attention span
  • poor memory
  • difficulty following directions
  • inability to discriminate between/among letters, numerals, or sounds
  • poor reading and/or writing ability
  • eye-hand coordination problems; poorly coordinated,
  • difficulties with sequencing
  • disorganization
  • difficulty reading (e.g., inaccurate, slow and only with much effort)
  • difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read
  • difficulty with spelling
  • difficulty with written expression (e.g., problems with grammar, punctuation or organization)
  • difficulty understanding number concepts, number facts or calculation
  • difficulty with mathematical reasoning (e.g., applying math concepts or solving math problems)
  • sensory difficulties
  • inconsistent performance or behavior
  • responds inappropriately
  • easily distracted, restless, impulsive
  • says one thing, means another
  • difficult to discipline
  • doesn’t adjust well to change
  • difficulty listening and remembering
  • difficulty telling time and knowing right from left
  • difficulty sounding out words
  • reverses letters (though you can have dyslexia without this characteristic!)
  • places letters in an incorrect sequence
  • difficulty understanding words or concepts
  • delayed speech development

Types of Learning Disabilities

Many clinicians refer to the “4Ds” of learning disabilities, though dyspraxia doesn’t always fit in this category. But, due to their similar spelling and names, parents can get them confused so I’m going to include it.

However, a child with dyspraxia may be under the Speech category of IDEA disabilities.

Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia

As my friend Judi and I often say, “{name of disability} rarely travels alone.” It is quite common for a person to have more than one learning disability, or have one of the 4Ds in addition to ADHD. This is why effective, targeted evaluations are critical.

Dyspraxia is a disorder that is characterized by difficulty in muscle control, which causes problems with movement and coordination, language and speech, and can affect learning.

Dyslexia is a term that refers to difficulty with reading. People with dyslexia have difficulty connecting letters they see on a page with the sounds they make. As a result, reading becomes slow and difficult, and not fun because they struggle and don’t have success with it.

Problems in reading often begin even before learning to read, for example when children have trouble breaking down spoken words into syllables and recognizing words that rhyme. Preschoolers may not be able to recognize and write letters as well as their peers. People with dyslexia may have difficulty with accuracy and spelling as well.

People with dyslexia, including adolescents and adults, often try to avoid activities involving reading when they can (reading for pleasure, reading instructions). They often gravitate to other mediums such as pictures, video, or audio.

Dysgraphia is a term used to describe difficulties with putting one’s thoughts on to paper. Problems with writing can include difficulties with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting.

Dyscalculia is a term used to describe difficulties learning number-related concepts or using the symbols and functions to perform math calculations. Problems with math can include difficulties with number sense, memorizing math facts, math calculations, math reasoning, and math problem-solving.

Causes of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in a manner which affects one or more cognitive processes related to learning.

These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level executive functioning skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention.

It is important to remember that learning disabilities do not just affect a child at school. Friendships, jobs, and extra-curricular activities are likely to also be affected.

Since difficulties with reading, writing and/or math are frequently recognized more easily in the school setting, most people are diagnosed during that time.

But that is not always the case. Since many learning disabilities have a genetic component, an undiagnosed parent may not recognize the learning disability in their child. After all, the child acts and behaves much like they did.

And, many parents who went undiagnosed have the inner belief that school is supposed to be difficult and not enjoyable. So they don’t see anything peculiar with a child struggling in school because they did too.

Some individuals do not receive an evaluation until they are in post-secondary education or adults in the workforce.

Other individuals with learning disabilities may never receive an evaluation and go through life, never knowing why they have difficulties with academics and why they may be having problems in their jobs or in relationships with family and friends.

Most people who were diagnosed as adults will tell you that they felt a sense of relief. Finally, all their struggles, all their feelings that they were “different” from other students, it all makes sense with a diagnosis. This is just one of the many reasons I don’t think parents should hide diagnoses from their kids.

Kids know what’s up, even if they don’t say it out loud. When they feel that there is something different about them, and that they are struggling more than their peers, yet their parents are saying “everything is fine!” that can deteriorate a situation.

Learning Disability cannot be cured. However, with appropriate support and interventions, people with learning disabilities can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community.

Though there is no “cure,” SLD can be successfully managed throughout one’s life. People with SLDs can go on to become skilled learners and may be able to build on strengths that often are associated with their learning differences.

People with dyslexia, for example, are often particularly creative and able to think outside-of-the-box. Having a learning difference does not mean a person is limited in their choice of career or the opportunities for success.


Yes, if the school finds that your child primary disability (the one that interferes with their education the most) is their ADHD, then the correct disability category is OHI. It just is. It’s written in IDEA that way. I have done a whole separate post on that (below).

However, back to the “ADHD rarely travels alone!” concept, many kids have multiple learning disabilities. Make sure that you agree that it is the ADHD that is primary.

If it’s dyslexia and the child does not get targeted interventions, all the executive functioning help in the world isn’t going to teach a child to read.

Can Schools Say Dyslexia?

I really have no idea where this rumor came from, but it circulate for years. There was this urban legend that schools absolutely, positively ARE NOT ALLOWED to either say dyslexia or list a targeted intervention (like Wilson Reading, Lindamood Bell) on an IEP. Pffffttttt. 100, 1000% not true.

The OSEP even put out a “Dear Colleague” letter about the dyslexia rumor.

And yes, if a school is doing a specific intervention, they absolutely can list it on the IEP. Most do not want to because they do not want to be held accountable to that. There is absolutely nothing in IDEA or any state regs that prevents them from doing this.

In fact, if a district was providing these interventions routinely, and with fidelity, they should (and would!) be proud of doing so! If you invested the time and money to have your staff Wilson trained and delivering to students, why wouldn’t you put that on an IEP?

They can. Just depends on if that’s the battle you want to fight. If your child isn’t progressing, then yes, I’d fight that battle for a structured, evidence-based intervention. </rant>

Over the years, I have accumulated many posts on the various SLDs. Take a look.

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