Harvard University

Causes Of Learning Disabilities

Currently, there are no known causes for learning disabilities. Recent brain research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has linked the origins of dyslexia to the brain, but we have yet to determine with certainty what causes the garden-variety learning disability we have been seeing crop up in schools across the country. In almost every book, article, research study, Web page, and film I have ever seen on learning disabilities, the problem always resides in the child, and the prescriptions almost always call for a change in the child, the medication of the child, or a new or different understanding of the child. Every approach, it seems, suggests that the child is the one with the weakness.

As a result, dozens of illogical conclusions are drawn about teaching kids for whom the traditional system is a challenge. Here is one that is particularly curious: many children with learning disabilities are told they cannot learn a foreign language because they have a language-based learning disability. Except that they did learn a language. They learned how to think, speak, write, and listen in their native language. So why not another language? Schools tend to teach foreign languages very differendy from the way we learn our native language. The concentration on grammar baffles me. I have no idea what the grammatical rules of the English language are. I always tuned out in English class when we got to that part. It was boring and felt useless to me. Had I been in an English class that devoted a lot of time to grammar, I probably would have failed. And were I to have repeatedly failed in English class, I would have turned off and stopped learning. Luckily, that was not my experience, and I have a master’s degree in English. Not being able to conjugate a verb does not seem to prevent me from expressing myself well through writing. Not all kids need to learn the respective rules of grammar in order to learn a foreign language. And not all kids learn in the same way. Of course kids with learning disabilities can learn foreign languages; we just have to figure out how to teach them. That is our responsibility.

We seldom discuss the possibility that learning problems have their roots in a variety of places other than in the child’s brain. We don’t hear about a “teaching disability,” a “parenting disability,” a “school disability,” or a “federal policy disability.” I don’t deny that there is something very wrong that is grossly challenging the thousands of young people who are diagnosed every day with learning disabilities. I not only believe in their challenges, but I also think it is imperative that we address them. The reality is that many students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities are extremely good learners outside the classroom. Many students with learning disabilities are very skillful in other areas, such as in the performing arts. A girl with a math disability may be exceptional at designing clothing. I know a young man who struggles in reading but who is the most socially skilled person I know. He speaks eloquently, acts onstage, and is a leader in his school even though he reads three grades behind grade level. One girl I know has invented several ways to put stage flats together to create different scenes in a play, yet she cannot pass her biology exam. Somewhere along the line it was determined that if students don’t perform at a high level in all content areas, the areas in which their performance is weak should deem them to be considered disabled. Somewhere along the line it was determined that success means that every student be perfectly well rounded in all subject areas.

A blind person is disabled in the seeing world. In the comfort of a dark auditorium, listening to a symphony, that same person is not disabled with regard to his or her ability to understand, appreciate, and experience the performance. In fact, it could be argued that the senses of some blind people will be heightened in this situation even more than those of sighted people.

A hearing-impaired person would have a hearing disability in the same situation and would not be able to experience the event with the same result as the other audience members. However, in another setting, that same person might outperform the others. For example, someone with a hearing disability may be an expert photographer. The label disability has as much to do with the setting and the requirements of the setting as it does with the person. The setting most responsible for the proliferation of the term learning disability is the traditional school. If all public and private schools are working off the same model of teaching and learning, a student will be disabled in every school that uses that model. The manifestation of the disability may vary somewhat depending on whether the school has small or large classes, tons of money or no money, or chooses to read one book instead of another. Therefore, schools most willing to depart from the traditional methods used to teach and assess performance will do the greatest service in addressing the issue of learning disabilities. Those schools will create programs that meet students where they are and take them where they have faith they can go.

The above is an excerpt from the book Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers by Jenifer Fox. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Your Child’s Strengths
Copyright © Jenifer Fox, 2009

Author Bio
Jenifer Fox, author of Your Child’s Strengths: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, is an educator and public speaker who has worked in public and independent schools as a teacher and administrator for twenty-five years. She is currently the international leader of the Strengths Movement in K-12 schools. She holds a B.S. in communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A. in English from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, and an M.Ed. in school administration from Harvard University.

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