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Different Terms You May Hear for Learning and Attention Issues

By Lexi Walters Wright

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Does it sometimes seem like your child’s teacher and her doctor are speaking different languages from you—and each other? Below, see the different ways different people may talk about your child’s learning and attention issues.

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Different Terms You May Hear for Learning and Attention Issues

Different experts discuss your child’s challenges in different ways. Teachers may use terms from IDEA, like “learning disabilities.” Doctors and other professionals are likely to say “disorder” or “condition,” or use the issue’s clinical name. Lawyers use legal terms that describe your child’s rights. Here are three examples of how this might play out.

Example 1: Mary.
Mary is 7 and is having difficulty learning to read. She mixes up letters and has trouble sounding out words.
What Mary says:
“I hate reading! It’s stupid. Can’t you just tell me what it says?”
Lawyer might say:
“We should look at whether Mary is eligible for special education services for her learning disability. If she is, the school has a legal obligation to provide them.”
Teacher might say:
“Mary and I will work on strategies to address challenges related to her learning disability. We’ll practice connecting letters to sounds.”
Doctor might say:
“According to our evaluation, Mary has dyslexia, a reading disorder.”
What her parents might say to friends:
“Mary has some learning issues that make reading harder for her, but she loves listening to audiobooks. We’re working with her school’s reading specialist this winter to build her skills.”

Example 2: Philip.
Philip is 8 and has trouble writing. His handwriting is illegible, and he doesn’t know how to string sentences together to form a paragraph.
What Philip says:
“I wish I could type everything. Can you write it for me? Writing takes so long. It’s just too hard.”
Lawyer might say:
“Given his diagnosis, it looks like Philip may qualify under IDEA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Let’s talk about the services and accommodations he could receive.”
Teacher might say:
“We’re showing Philip how to use a graphic organizer and a pencil grip tool to help him with his writing.”
Doctor might say:
“Philip has dysgraphia, a condition that makes writing difficult.”
What his parents might say to friends:
“Philip’s thank-you notes may be a little late this year. Writing is tricky for him right now. He’s making huge improvements, though—he even does some writing warm-up exercises each night before he does his homework.”

Example 3: Li.
Li is 12 and is struggling with math. Her class is working on complicated pre-algebra problems, and she’s still using her fingers to count.
What Li says:
“Math is so much easier for everyone else! It’s not fair.”
Lawyer might say:
“Given her learning disability, Li may be protected under IDEA. Let’s discuss whether the school is offering her appropriate services in the least restrictive environment.”
Teacher might say:
“Li is a good student, but she’s struggling so much in my class because of her math learning disability.”
Doctor might say:
“We’ve diagnosed Li with dyscalculia, a math disorder.”
What her parents might say to friends:
“Math is tough for Li. But we’re spending time together each night to go over her homework. I’m so proud of her dedication!”
Graphic of Different Terms You May Hear for Learning and Attention Issues
Graphic of Different Terms You May Hear for Learning and Attention Issues

About the Author

Portrait of Lexi Walters Wright

Lexi Walters Wright is a veteran writer and editor who helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

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Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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