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The following is an excerpt from the book Ready to Learn: How to Help Your Preschooler Succeed
by Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.
Published by Oxford; February 2005;$28.00US; 0-19-516754-6
Copyright © 2005 Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.

Is it a Difference, Problem, Disorder, or Disability?

Parents of young children become concerned when they see something in their child that looks different. A child may have difficulty listening to a story for more than a few minutes, or struggles when learning the simplest task, or can't recall something said only minutes ago. When they do remember and try to apply what was taught, they may use it inappropriately, making parents wonder if they ever understood it. Are these examples of differences, problems, disorders, or disabilities? You'd think experts would be able to determine which is which, but they don't. When professionals discuss difficulties in learning, all four terms are interchangeably used. Surprising to parents, each label may be used to describe the same behavior in the same child. The term selected often reflects the professional's viewpoint more so than the inherent behavior.

This became apparent to me with my daughter. As a child, she had, and still does have, an uncanny ability to accurately understand what is occurring around her. I remember reading her Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As I was about to turn the page with a picture of the dwarfs looking at Snow White, she stopped me.

"Daddy, look at him," she said pointing to Grumpy.

"Yes," I replied, not knowing why she singled out Grumpy.

"He's sad Daddy."

"Yes Jessie. He does look sad." I began turning the page again, but she grabbed my hand and stopped me.

Intently looking at me she asked, "Daddy, why did someone do something bad to the nice little man?"

Not a typical response from a child -- or even an adult. Although she was able to identify something in the picture deeply human, she couldn't remember the number of dwarfs or, with the exception of Grumpy, their names. She had difficulty with details. I viewed this as a difference in the way she perceived her world. Her preschool teacher, however, viewed it as a problem, since Jessie required extra attention. A learning specialist using a standard classification system called it a "disorder" or a "disability." Same behavior, same child, but different perspectives. How we label things often has more to do with our own needs than with the thing being labeled. Jessie, at 4 years of age, displayed an ability many adults never develop. But her teacher couldn't get past Jessie not knowing the number of dwarfs in the story. Now, as an adult, she still has to make an extra effort to remember details, but because of her ability to see "the whole picture" she has developed an amazing artistic eye and a broad vision of the world.

Of the four terms, "disorder" and "disability" have the greatest emotional impact. In the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law uses a precise definition to describe "learning disabilities." The precision and exclusionary nature of this special education category is intimidating to some parents. In a national survey, 48 percent of parents whose children had a learning problem believed labeling them as "learning disabled" would be more harmful than privately struggling with the problem. Because of their fears, these parents waited a year or more before acknowledging the existence of learning difficulties. Some never sought help. Unfortunately, within the public school system, labeling is necessary. If a child isn't labeled, according to state and federal laws, services can't be provided. Don't let a word or label stop you from asking for assistance. If the only way of receiving services is to have your child identified as having a disorder or disability, accept the word -- just not the cubicle into which some people would like your child placed. We don't refer to a talented basketball player who can't hit a fastball as having a "baseball disorder." Yet, these are the distinctions routinely made by some educators when it comes to learning differences. However, change is occurring in people's attitudes towards children with learning differences, especially public school educators. Unfortunately, it's not as fast as some of us would like. Hopefully, both of these words will become as unacceptable as the term "cripple" to describe people with orthopedic problems. But until that happens, don't become too upset with the words. Your child's learning style is different, not disordered.

All of our children are different and each has a unique learning style. The style comes from the way a child's brain is wired. Some are strong visual learners, while others are better listeners. Some children, like Jessie, can grasp "the big picture" immediately, but have difficulty with individual facts. Others can retain an enormous number of facts, but can't see how they connect. These are learning differences. "Difference" is a neutral term. When someone says, "this is golf and that's soccer," they are identifying two different sports -- no judgments are made. The same applies when we say one child is a visual learner and the other is an auditory learner. Throughout this book I'll try to avoid using labels, but sometimes for convenience, or because a term is widely used, I too will use it. Whenever possible, I'll talk about learning problems -- behaviors caused by learning differences. Your child is not his or her problem. The problem is only one of many behaviors, values, and emotions that constitute your child's being.

Learning Differences and the Brain

In the past, many researchers looked at learning problems in relationship to levels of motivation, personality, teaching ability, and child-rearing practices. They thought parents, society, school culture, and the environment created the problems. If only we could determine why children were refusing to learn, everything would be better. We needed to blame someone for our children's failures. For years, fingers were unjustly pointed at parents, children, and educators. Parents weren't raising their children well. Children weren't trying hard enough. And educators just didn't care. However, with new studies, it became apparent that many of the problems are neurological. That is, certain parts of the brains of some children work differently.

The brain, in many ways, is like a computer. Computers have hardware such as motherboards, disk drives, and CD-ROM players. They can't do anything by themselves. Software, such as a Windows operating system or a word processing program, is needed. The structures of the brain are often referred to as its "hard-wiring." The way components are connected is similar to a computer's software. Learning differences may be related to the brain's hardware or software. For example, when you place a disk into a defective CD-ROM player, the reading device may not move consistently, causing data to be missed. This is an example of a hardware problem. A virus that damaged the software program responsible for reading the CD-ROM files may cause a series of other problems, even if the CD-ROM player is functioning perfectly. Our knowledge of how the brain works has been greatly enhanced by the use of imaging equipment. We've been able to see differences in how the brains of individuals who stutter differ from those who don't. Differences have also been found in the brain functioning of individuals who have reading and listening problems.

These findings unequivocally point to a neurological cause of many learning problems. Even more exciting is some preliminary research showing the brain's functioning changes when certain intervention strategies are used. This was found in the area of auditory training for children with attention problems and reading therapy for dyslexia (reading problems). Following the use of specific intervention strategies, the brain activities of children with attention problems and with dyslexia looked like those of children who had neither problem. This is a truly exciting development. It means intervention can change how the brain functions. There is reason to hope similar results will be found for other types of learning problems. Most neuropsychologists believe the changes occurring in the brain because of intervention involve the development of new connections, not necessarily corrections of the hardwiring. Regardless of what is being repaired, we've seen neurological changes not only in young people, but also in adults with reading problems, individuals who had strokes, and even geriatric patients. It appears that change occurs as a result of specific learning activities.

Just like a computer, your child's brain has many centers. In order to do one thing well, some of the centers need to function together as if they were on a team. For example, if you ask your child to clean her room, she can only do it if she remembers what each of the words in your sentence mean, the model you showed her of what a clean room looks like, and the explicit instructions you gave her for cleaning. Each of these remembered components may be located in various parts of the brain. In order for your daughter to clean her room, the parts have to communicate and work together. If they don't because of either a hardware or software problem, she may forget parts of the instructions or her memory of what a "clean room" looks may be distorted. The strategies you will learn to help your child are ones that are effective for dealing with either hardware or software problems. As we move through various activities to help your children accommodate, remediate, or detour around problems, you may think your child's brain is changing and what once was a problem is no longer. However, other than in selected areas, such as reading and certain attention problems, there are not yet findings to support changes in the brain. There may be in the future. A child's brain is a marvelous devise. Its plasticity results in the ability to shift job assignments from a damaged area to one that isn't impaired. As we use various strategies to teach children how to learn, our hope is to create new brain pathways. The strategies, at the very least, will develop detours. If in the process, new circuitry is developed -- terrific!

Copyright © 2005 Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.

Reprinted from the book  Ready to Learn: How to Help Your Preschooler Succeed by Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.; Copyright © 2005 Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.; Permission granted by Oxford University Press; For more information please visit the publisher's website at

*Endnotes omitted