What is a Learning Difference?

Learning differences are extremely common. One in five kids have learning or attention issues, with the most prevalent being language-based. This can make reading, writing, and spelling difficult for students.

80% of students with learning differences find reading a challenge.

Typical side effects of learning disabilities include issues with sensory-motor integration, motor planning and coordination, and executive functioning. Attention disorders such as ADHD frequently occur in tandem as well.

For more information, visit Understood.org, a consortium of 15 nonprofits who support the millions of parents whose children, ages 3–20, are struggling with learning and attention issues.

Each student's specific learning needs are addressed through Oakland School's individualized learning program.

Types of Learning Differences

+ Reading


Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader. While people with dyslexia are slow readers, they often, paradoxically, are very fast and creative thinkers with strong reasoning abilities.

Dyslexia is very common, affecting 20 percent of the population and 80 to 90 percent of those with learning disabilities. Dyslexia can’t be cured—it is a lifelong neurological issue, but with the right support, individuals with dyslexia can become highly successful students and adults. Among these success stories are Thomas Edison, Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cher, and Charles Schwab.

What this might look like...

Children in kindergarten or first grade might:

  • Make reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page. For example, the student might say “puppy” instead of the written word “dog” on an illustrated page with a picture of a dog
  • Does not understand that words come apart
  • Complains about how hard reading is or hides when it is time to read
  • Have a history of reading problems in parents or siblings
  • Not be able to sound out even simple words like cat, map, or nap
  • Not associate letters with sounds, such as the letter b with the “b” sound

Older children in grades 2 through 12 might:

  • Be very slow in acquiring reading skills
  • Have trouble reading unfamiliar words, often making wild guesses because s/he cannot sound out the word
  • Avoid reading out loud
  • Pause, hesitate, or overuse “um” when speaking
  • Mispronunce long, unfamiliar, or complicated words
  • Seem to need extra time to respond to questions
  • Struggle to finish tests on time
  • Have extreme difficulty learning a foreign language
  • Exhibit poor spelling and/or messy handwriting
  • Have trouble remembering dates, names, numbers, and random lists

Processing speed difficulties

Processing speed is the pace at which you take in information, make sense of it, and begin to respond. This information can be visual, such as letters and numbers, or auditory, such as spoken language. Having slow processing speed has nothing to do with how smart kids are, just how fast they can take in and use information. It may take kids who struggle with processing speed a lot longer than other kids to perform tasks, both school-related and in daily life.

What this might look like...

Children with slow processing speed may have trouble:

  • Finishing tests in the allotted time
  • Finishing homework in the expected time frame
  • Listening or taking notes when a teacher is speaking
  • Reading and taking notes
  • Solving simple math problems in their head
  • Completing multi-step math problems in the allotted time
  • Doing written projects that require details and complex thoughts
  • Keeping up with conversations

Parents and teachers may notice that a child:

  • Becomes overwhelmed by too much information at once
  • Needs more time to make decisions or give answers
  • Needs to read information more than once for comprehension
  • Misses nuances in conversation
  • Has trouble executing instructions if told to do more than one thing at once

+ Writing


Dysgraphia is a learning disability characterized by problems with writing, often causing children diagnosed with this neurological disorder to experience emotional stress and anxiety. Because they have good verbal skills, parents and teachers expect them to write at the same level as they speak; when they don’t, they may be mistakenly thought of as lacking motivation or careless. It is common for the first signs of dysgraphia to show up in elementary school.

What this might look like...

Children with dysgraphia and other writing issues might:

  • Have illegible printing and cursive writing disproportionate to the time spent on the task
  • Show writing inconsistencies including a mix of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or irregular sizes, shapes, or slant of letters
  • Show unfinished words or letters, or omitted words
  • Use inconsistent punctuation or spacing between words and letters
  • Exhibit strange wrist, body, or paper position
  • Exhibit slow or labored copying or writing skills
  • Show poor spatial planning on paper
  • Complain of sore hands or have a cramped or unusual grip
  • Exhibit great difficulty thinking and writing at the same time, like when taking notes or writing creatively


Dyspraxia is a neurological disorder that affects fine and gross motor skills, memory, judgment, perception, information processing, and other cognitive abilities. You might hear people also use the term developmental condition disorder (DCD). While the two terms are not entirely the same, they both refer to movement difficulties. Occupational therapy and physical therapy can help improve movement and coordination skills, as can playing games, cooking, or playing catch with your child.

What this might look like...

School-age children with dyspraxia or DCD might exhibit:

  • Frequent tripping or an unsteady walk
  • Difficulty going down stairs
  • Difficulty tying shoes, putting on clothes, and other self-care activities
  • Immature drawing, copying, or scissor skills
  • Behavior that seems clumsy, including dropping items and running into others
  • Messy eating habits including a preference to eat with their fingers or frequently spilling drinks

+ Attention


Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. It’s caused by differences in brain anatomy and wiring and often runs in families. ADHD presents in three types: inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting), and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought), or in combination of those.

An estimated 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD. It is often first identified in school-aged children when it leads to disruption in the classroom or problems with schoolwork. Most kids don’t totally outgrow ADHD, although some symptoms can lessen or disappear as they get older.

What this might look like...

In children with the inattentive type of ADHD, symptoms include:

  • Forgetfulness, distraction, and daydreaming
  • Careless mistakes in school or lack of attention to detail
  • Problems staying focused on tasks or activities including classroom instruction, conversations, or lengthy reading
  • Not listening when spoken to, seemingly elsewhere
  • Failure to complete schoolwork or chores
  • Inability to follow through on instructions
  • Difficulties organizing tasks or managing time appropriately
  • Messy, disorganized work or missed deadlines
  • Avoidance of tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • Frequent loss of things needed for tasks or daily life, such as homework, books, keys, glasses, lunchboxes, and jackets

In the hyperactive/impulsive type of ADHD, children might:

  • Fidget with or tap hands or feet
  • Squirm in seat and be unable to remain seated in class
  • Run or climb where it is inappropriate
  • Be unable to play or do leisure activities quietly
  • Seem as if they are always “on the go”
  • Talk too much
  • Blurt out an answer before a question has been finished
  • Have difficulty waiting his or her turn while playing, in school, or in conversation
  • Interrupt or intrude on others' conversations, games, or activities

+ Organization

Executive function difficulties

Executive function skills enable children to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, manage multiple tasks, and be flexible. Up to 90 percent of kids with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction, which impairs goal-directed behavior. But so do some kids with learning issues who don’t have ADHD. Whereas ADHD is an official diagnosis, executive function disorder (EFD) just refers to weaknesses in these key mental skills.

What this might look like...

Children with executive dysfunction might have difficulty:

  • Paying attention
  • With self-control
  • Managing emotions
  • Holding information in working memory
  • Switching easily from one activity to another
  • Getting started on tasks
  • Staying organized with time and materials
  • Staying on task
  • Completing long-term projects
  • Thinking before acting
  • Staying focused and remembering

Links and resources are listed for informational purposes and convenience. No direct or implied endorsement by Oakland School should be construed.