Yes, they do, but true learning disabilities are rare. I believe that our educational system is too quick to blame “learning disabilities” and to label students as dyslexic, MBD, ADD, or any of the other familiar labels, instead of noting differences in learning styles and using some common sense: if the student can’t get it this way, try a different way.

Even if the label is appropriate, so what? No label has ever “fixed” the problem or helped a teacher or parent devise effective teaching methods. But a statement such as “the student has trouble sequencing two-letter sounds” defines a specific problem and allows for developing an appropriate strategy. In other words, the bottom line is: each student is unique, having different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different learning styles.

All too often kids are labeled because someone is confusing the need for a different teaching method with a “learning problem.” Or as I strongly believe, many “learning problems” are actually created because we don’t take into account an individual child’s unique learning timetable: they should all learn the alphabet in preschool, start reading in kindergarten and first grade, do fractions in third, start cursive in second, and so on. Why? They don’t all begin to walk and talk at the same time Some students need more time. Some students need a different program.

In Their Own Way by Thomas Armstrong discusses this issue:

It’s time for the schools, and parents as well, to start focusing their attention on the inner capabilities of each and every child . . . the schools persist in labeling hundreds of thousands of children with perfectly normal brains as ‘minimally brain damaged’ or ‘neurologically handicapped,’ when in fact teachers simply have not found a way of teaching them on their own terms, according to their own unique patterns of neurological functioning . . .


The part of the brain that thrives on worksheets and teacher lectures probably takes up less than one percent of the total available for learning. More likely, these stale methods of learning are actually what educator Leslie Hart refers to as ‘brain-antagonistic’ ~ they shut down potentials rather than open them up … It will end when parents decide to toss aside all of these labels and begin the task of understanding and nurturing their children’s personal learning styles so that they can begin to learn in their own way.

What about when there really is a learning or developmental delay? The concept of different learning style/appropriate teaching method still applies. Obviously, the student needs to be taught a different way if the way that has been presented hasn’t worked.

If you feel that you need special help, do contact a professional. Just make sure that the professional will be giving you specific techniques to work on specific “learning problems,” and not just a label. I believe that most kids who are thought to have a learning disability do not.

Now a person might be having a problem learning something in particular, but this is not the same as a disability. For example a 12-year-old student is very artistic and creative; reads adequately at grade level and is a great swimmer and runner. The student holds appropriate conversations, loves animals, is alert and friendly and enthusiastic. Further this child is at grade level in math, but needs to work on spelling and punctuation which are not strong subjects.

Notice I said and, not but. The and gives a very different perspective. The and means that the latter phrase is one more part of the description about what the student is like.

If we had said but, all the previous statements would have basically been discounted. And that is usually what is done: Mary can do this and this and this, BUT — meaning, all of that hardly counts because she has such a deficiency in this or that area, and deficiency is the only thing we are going to notice about her. And then we label this deficiency a learning disability or learning handicap of some sort.

How dare we think of Mary as disabled — this charming, bright, and intelligent person who has many talents that you and I do not possess. We have done such a good job convincing people of this that those adults who grew up not knowing why they had problems in school are thrilled when they learn that they actually were, and are, “disabled,” because this gives them a good reason for not having done well, as opposed to thinking that they are merely stupid. There must be more to good education than this.

I believe that good education fosters respect and awe for the uniqueness of each individual, excitement in discovering learning styles and teaching techniques, comfortableness with a different kind of education program which frees the spirit, combines fun with learning, views students as capable rather than disabled. “You are precious in my eyes . . you are honored and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4)

(adapted from Home Schooling the Child with “Learning Problems” ©1993 by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, M.S.)

Used by permission of the author. First published in The California Parent Educator magazine, July/August 1993.

Mariaemma Willis is co-author of Discover Your Child’s Learning Style and Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten. She is a sought-after speaker, trainer, and consultant for parents and teachers. She has worked with thousands of homeschooling families—assessing learning styles, diagnosing school “problems,” and designing customized curriculum plans to meet individual learning needs. Mariaemma is co-founder of the LearningSuccess™ Institute where parents and teachers learn how to coach every child for Learning and Life Success![email protected], 805-648-1739