Learning Differences Guide

Understanding Learning Differences at any age — at home, at school and in life.


Micaelia Randolph, EdD, MA

Educational Consultant

Neilson Chan author image


Neilson Chan, PhD

Licensed Psychologist
CHC’s Catherine T. Harvey Center for Clinical Services

A View of Learning Differences Across the Lifespan

One in 5 in the US has a learning difference (LD). Terms such as learning difference, learning disability, or even learning disorder all refer to what we call LD. This is not about intelligence, although one can experience challenges especially in the areas of reading, writing and math. Learning differences can exist with other challenges such as problems with executive function, anxiety or even ADHD. Individuals with LD also possess great strengths and the lists here include traits that are meant to help you understand LD over time; they are not meant to be a diagnostic tool.

Young Child

Children with learning differences are typically bright, outgoing, and often, very verbal. Signs begin to appear when more formal language learning begins.

  • Difficulty with rhyming
  • Appreciates routines
  • Trouble recognizing letters of alphabet
  • Works hard
  • Slower to talk
  • Unable to find the right words
  • Often creative
  • Tells the truth
  • Usually follows rules

School Age Child

Once the child begins school and the demands increase, the impact of a learning difference becomes more apparent.

  • Challenges with spelling
  • Often has a good sense of humor
  • Difficulty learning math facts
  • Likes puzzles 
  • Bright and curious
  • Self esteem begins to deteriorate 
  • Sees patterns
  • Doesn’t want to go to school
  • Somatic complaints (stomachache, headache etc)
  • Likes to help others


Adolescents with learning differences continue to experience academic and learning challenges as the workload increases. They also begin to understand and leverage their strengths.

  • Can be very verbal
  • Skilled at problem solving
  • Sometimes outgoing with good sense of humor
  • Perceive themselves as ‘dumb’ in school
  • Difficulty with homework and completing assignments
  • Understands real-world math
  • Can be disorganized
  • May withdraw
  • Artistic and creative
  • May excel at sports or music


Although adults may continue to have difficulties with reading, writing and math, they can find their niche in life and in the workplace by identifying and using their many strengths.

  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty following verbal directions
  • Creative and clever
  • Adept problem solvers
  • Good listeners
  • May carry the pain of not feeling successful throughout childhood
  • When successful, they may feel like an impostor
  • Can experience increased motivation
  • Well-developed strategies to support challenges
  • May be incredibly resilient

Your Questions Answered

Top questions answered by CHC experts.

Can a Learning Difference be “cured”?

Learning differences cannot be cured, but one can learn to live with and actually celebrate their conditions if they are aware of them. Each person is a unique individual with a combination of strengths and challenges. Learner variability can be supported at home and at school through self- awareness and self-advocacy. If not diagnosed, a person with a learning difference may experience anxiety, frustration and loss of self-esteem. Therefore, when there are concerns, it is important to seek professional help and obtain an evaluation so that support can begin.

Does having a learning difference mean my child is not smart?

No. The opposite is true. Those with learning differences are typically bright and outgoing and simply have brains that are wired a particular way. Students with dyslexia, for example, may be slow readers who are clever, creative problem-solvers in other areas. Learning differences typically reside within what Yale LD expert Dr. Sally Shaywitz calls “a sea of gifts.” Early evaluation is important so that the family and the child can begin on the path of self-awareness and self-advocacy and get back to a sense of wellbeing and empowerment.

How is a Learning Difference Diagnosed?

When a family is concerned that a student’s progress in school could be the result of a learning difference, it is important to speak to a professional, beginning with the pediatrician. The pediatrician may refer the family to a learning and mental health group that can provide advice, and if needed, a psychoeducational evaluation to determine how the child learns. This evaluation can involve a team that includes a psychologist, a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist. Once the child’s strengths and challenges are identified, further recommendations can be made for the types of help that are right for the child at school and at home.

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Tools, Tips & Takeaways





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Learn more about Learning Differences from CHC experts.

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Our Experts

At CHC, we have learning and mental health experts who can help you overcome barriers to learning and help you develop skills that last for a lifetime. Real people you can talk to. People who can really help.

Neilson Chan

Neilson Chan, PhD


Licensed Psychologist 

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Ann Lyke, MEd


Educational Specialist

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Jessica Naecker, PhD


Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Sharmila Roy, PhD


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Comprehensive & Integrated Services for Learning Differences & Mental Health

CHC’s Catherine T. Harvey Center for Clinical Services

CHC therapists provide specialized, individualized and age-appropriate services for you to take charge of your own mental health and wellbeing. Services in California.

Schwab Learning Center at CHC

The SLC@CHC empowers all types of learners to adopt tools and strategies to support their unique strengths. Students and young adults with diagnosed or suspected ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities discover their gifts, strengths and potential.

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