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Learning disability and ADHD glossary

What is an IEP? What about executive function? A lot of the language around learning and thinking differences can be confusing, even for people pretty familiar with ADHD and learning disabilities. But unfamiliar words shouldn’t stand in the way of getting help. This ADHD and learning disability glossary aims to make these terms easier to understand. 

504 plan: A tailored plan that removes barriers to learning for a student with a disability. Often includes tools, services, and changes called accommodations. Not the same as a special education plan, although some 504 plans include specialized instruction.

accessibility: Removing barriers for people with differences or disabilities. The goal is to give everyone equal access. Not just equal access to places, like buildings with wheelchair ramps. But also equal access to information, like books with audio versions.

accommodations: Changes that remove barriers for people with disabilities. Doesn’t change what students learn in school or what job responsibilities people have at work. Changes how people learn and how people get their work done, such as using read-aloud software.

ADHD: Short for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. A common condition that makes it hard to focus. Many people with ADHD also have trouble keeping still and thinking before acting. Sometimes called by an older name: attention-deficit disorder (ADD).

Americans with Disabilities Act: A federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Applies to the government, schools, and workplaces with 15 or more employees. Also applies to anyone who offers goods and services to the public. Also called the ADA.

assistive technology: Any device, software, or tool that helps people with disabilities learn, communicate, or function better. Can be as high-tech as a computer. Or as low-tech as a walking stick. Often called AT.

behavior intervention plan: A formal plan to support a student whose behavior gets in the way of their learning. Designed to improve or replace negative behavior. Includes how to teach and reward the student for positive behavior. Often called a behavior plan or BIP.

developmental delay: Not meeting milestones (like sitting up or saying first word) at the same rate as other kids. Also the name of a disability category in special education. Schools can only use this category for kids ages 3 through 9. Often called a developmental lag.

dyscalculia: A learning difference that makes it hard to do math and everyday tasks that involve math, like using coins. Also called a specific learning disability or disorder in math. How to pronounce it: the “cu” in dyscalculia sounds like the “cu” in calculator.

dysgraphia: Challenges with handwriting and typing. Often caused by trouble with motor skills. Does not include trouble expressing thoughts in writing, which is called written expression disorder or a specific learning disability in writing.

dyslexia: A learning difference that makes it hard to read and spell. People with dyslexia often read slowly and make mistakes while reading. That can lead to trouble understanding what they read. Also called a specific learning disability in reading. 

early intervention: Services and supports for kids from birth to age 3 who are behind in reaching milestones, like walking or talking. Also covers some health conditions, like hearing loss, that could lead to a delay in reaching milestones.

English language learner: A student who is working to become fluent in English. Schools can help English learners reach their full potential by valuing their home-language skills and culture. Also called emerging bilingual and limited English proficient (LEP) student.

executive function: An important set of mental skills used to plan, prioritize, and get things done. Includes self-control, working memory, and flexible thinking. Often called “the management system of the brain.”

explicit instruction: Teaching in a clear, direct way that shows students what to do and avoids uncertainty or guesswork. Includes:

  • Breaking information into steps

  • “Thinking out loud” to model how to do each step

  • Giving feedback while students practice

expressive language: Using words to share your thoughts and ideas. Includes speaking and writing. Trouble with expressive language can make it harder to join discussions or write about what you know. 

free appropriate public education: A legal right for public school students with disabilities. Requires schools to tailor instruction and provide related services to meet the unique needs of each child who qualifies for special education. Also called FAPE (rhymes with “cape”).

functional behavioral assessment: A process schools use to figure out why a student is behaving in a certain way. Understanding the cause of the behavior can help the school work on a plan to improve or replace the behavior. Often called FBA.

general education: Education that targets a broad set of skills, like reading and math. Often used in contrast to:

  • Special education that is tailored to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities

  • Vocational training that teaches a narrower set of skills

growth mindset: Believing that you can work to improve your skills. The opposite of a “fixed mindset,” the belief that your skills won’t improve no matter how hard you try. Instead of thinking “I can’t do this,” people with a growth mindset think “I can’t do it yet.”

IEP: Short for Individualized Education Program. A formal plan that details the special education instruction, supports, and services that a student with a disability needs to make progress in school. Can be used for kids as young as 3 up through 12th grade. 

Individualized Family Service Plan: A formal plan to provide supports and services — at no cost to families — to a baby or toddler who isn’t developing skills at the same rate as their peers. For kids from birth to age 3. Includes how families can help. Also called an early intervention plan.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: The federal law that gives kids with disabilities the right to special education. Requires public schools to look for kids with disabilities and tailor instruction for those who qualify for special education. Also called IDEA (by saying each letter, not the word “idea”).

instructional intervention: A specific program or set of steps that targets a struggling student’s academic needs. The student is taught this way for a certain number of weeks or months. The school looks at progress during the academic intervention to see if more support is needed.

learning disability: A lifelong challenge with learning skills like reading or math. Caused by brain differences, but is not related to intelligence. Also called a learning disorder, learning difference, or LD.

least restrictive environment: A legal right for students who qualify for special education. The law says to educate them alongside kids who don’t have disabilities “to the maximum extent that is appropriate.” Different classrooms or schools should only be used if needed. Also called LRE.

listening comprehension: Understanding information that is spoken by a person or by read-aloud tools. Involves language and attention skills. Trouble with listening comprehension can make it hard to follow directions at school, home, and work.

modifications: Changes in what a student with a disability is expected to learn. Examples include less homework or easier assignments. Often called academic modifications. They are controversial and aren’t the same as accommodations, which change how kids learn. 

multidisciplinary evaluation: A process that school districts use to see if a child has a disability and needs special education services. Must be conducted by two or more professionals. Includes tests and other data. Also called an education evaluation or a school evaluation.

neurodevelopmental disorder: A condition that involves how the brain develops and functions. May affect skills like learning, speaking, and interacting with others. Signs are often seen early in childhood, like before grade school. Common examples include ADHD, autism, and dyslexia.

personalized learning: Tailoring what each student learns based on their strengths, needs, and interests. Students may learn some skills at different paces. But each student gets a “learning plan” that keeps them on track to meet the standards for a high school diploma.

reading comprehension: Understanding what you read. Involves many skills, including:

  • Paying attention while reading

  • Connecting ideas within and between sentences

  • Using vocabulary and background knowledge

reading disability: A learning disability that makes reading challenging. Also called a reading disorder. Dyslexia is the most well-known type of reading disability.

receptive language: Understanding spoken or written words. People use receptive language skills to “get” the meaning of what they hear or read. Trouble with these skills makes it hard to do things like follow directions or have a conversation.

related services: School supports that kids with disabilities need to benefit from special education. May include help learning how to do things like speak clearly or grip a pencil. But can cover a wide range of services, from mental health counseling to transportation.

response to intervention: A common way that schools identify and support struggling students. Includes targeted teaching and using data to decide if a student needs more intensive support. Often called RTI.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: A federal law that protects students from disability discrimination by public schools, and by any college, trade school, or private school that gets federal funding. Not the same thing as special education. Provides equal access to general education.

self-advocacy: Telling other people what you need to thrive. Has three key elements:

  • Understanding your needs

  • Knowing what kinds of supports might help

  • Communicating these needs to others

self-regulation: Managing your emotions and behavior in tough situations. Involves keeping track of changes that are happening around them and adjusting how they react to those changes. Related to self-control, which is mainly a social skill.

sensory processing: How the brain organizes and responds to information that comes in through the senses. People who struggle with this may be very sensitive to what they hear, see, smell, taste, or touch. They may be less sensitive, too, like not feeling cold or pain.

special education: Instruction designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. A special education plan may include one-on-one or small group teaching. May also include tools, therapy and other services, and changes (accommodations) like extra time on tests.

specific learning disability: A term used in special education law to describe learning disabilities that make it hard to read, write, listen, speak, reason, or do math. Called SLD for short, it is the most common category in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

twice-exceptional: A student who has a disability and is gifted or highly skilled in one or more academic areas. May qualify for gifted programs as well as special education. Often called 2e. 

Universal Design for Learning: A teaching approach that starts with looking for ways to meet the needs of all learners. Provides more than one way for students to:

  • Get interested and stay interested

  • Take in information 

  • Show what they have learned

usability: Making products easy to use. Includes how easy it is to use the first time and how pleasing the experience is. Applies to digital products, like a website or app. Also applies to physical products, like a door that users know whether to push or pull.

visual processing: How the brain makes sense of visual information. Examples include: 

  • Telling the difference between two shapes 

  • Finding a specific piece of information on a page, like an icon or a phone number

visual-spatial processing: Telling where objects are in space, including how far they are from you and from each other. Used in many tasks like tying shoes, reading a map, and noticing the difference between letters and numbers with similar shapes, like b and d or 6 and 9.

vocational rehabilitation: Services to help people with disabilities get or keep a job. Includes help finding careers, on-the-job training, and job coaching. Also includes classes that teach independent living skills. Often called vocational rehab or VR.

working memory: One of the brain’s executive functions. Allows you to work briefly with new information without losing track of what you’re doing. Used for short-term tasks, like adding numbers in your head. Also helps organize new information for long-term storage.

Now that you can sort through the jargon, dive deeper into learning disability and ADHD terms and resources.

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