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Learning disabilities are real challenges that are not related to intelligence. They impact millions of kids and adults in the U.S. And people who have them are not at all “lazy.” 

Learning disabilities are caused by differences in the brain. And they often are hereditary. These challenges can impact people at school, at work, and in everyday life. But the good news is there are strategies and supports that can help people with learning disabilities thrive.

In this episode, listen as Julian explains:

  • What learning disabilities are and how they are diagnosed

  • The differences between an IEP and a 504 plan

  • Ways to tell if a child is struggling with a learning disability

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3. 

Welcome back, listeners. It's me, your boy, Julian. I am here and we have a really great episode for you today. You know, all our episodes are great, but this is an extra great one. Yeah, it turned into a solo episode. It is just little old me today. But we really want to talk about the things that some people have been asking us a lot about, specifically around learning disabilities. And I'm going to try to answer some of those few common questions that so many families have about special ed. Let's get right to it. 

Number one: "Mr. Saavedra, what is a learning disability?" So, what is a learning disability? They are defined as lifelong challenges with learning skills like reading, writing, and math. These challenges are caused by brain differences, and they're not related to intelligence. So, let me say that one more time so it's clear, it is a challenge and it's not an intelligence-based thing. It's a difference in the way that you learn. Learning disabilities are real. They can impact people at school, at work, everyday life. They've been around forever since humans have been around, and they will continue to be around.

You don't outgrow most learning disabilities, but there are strategies, there are supports, and there's teaching approaches that can really help people thrive with the learning disability, not despite the learning disability with the learning disability. We'll talk a little bit more about what those supports look like specifically for our students in just a minute. But again, a learning disability is a challenge caused by brain differences and it's not related to intelligence. 

"Mr. Saavedra, What is an IEP?" I'm sure a lot of your listeners have heard this mentioned constantly, but again, we just want to make sure that we clarify so everybody is on the same page. When kids struggle in school, you may hear the term IEP. But what is an IEP and how do IEP support kids with learning disabilities? IEP is an acronym that stands for Individualized Education Program. Individualized, key on individualized education program. It's more than just a written legal document, although that's what it is. But it's more than that. It maps out the entire program of special education, which means the instruction that the student is receiving, the type of support that a student might get, and the services that are necessary to make progress so that school can be a positive experience.

But this IEP really is a legal document that not only gives the students, but it gives the families, it gives the schools, protections. And making sure that these protections are in place so that the student is getting everything that they need. They allow families to be involved with decisions that impact their child's education. You know, I have a lot of students that come in and they know they have an IEP, but they're not really sure what does that mean. So, we always try to stress when you have an IEP, it's an individual education program. It's individualized, which means, you know, you're getting customer service specialized for you. That's what you want to think about when you have an IEP in place. It's a customized, individual experience that is especially for the learning disability or learning differences that your child has. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA, I-D-E-A, federal law, it requires public and charter schools to create an IEP for a student who qualifies for special education services. Children can get an IEP starting at age three until they graduate from high school or up to age 21. So, whichever comes first, in order for you to be eligible for an IEP, the student must have at least one of the 13 different disabilities covered by IDEA. And as a consequence of having it, the student requires special education to be able to advance in school. 

There is a process to receive an IEP, and it really begins with something called an evaluation. Families listening: evaluation. Remember that word. It's really, really important. Evaluation. It has to begin with that. And this evaluation is conducted to show the strengths and the challenges that the student may face. This can be a combination of a pediatrician could get involved, a school psychologist, a team of teachers, a whole host of people are going to evaluate the student's skills. It's not just going to be one person saying, "I think something's going on. This kid needs an IEP." Doesn't work that way. There's a whole team of people that have to get involved and they have to really do a deep dive to evaluate all the different aspects of the child to really figure out "Well, what do we need to do to support this student and do they truly need extra help or are there other interventions that we can do?"

I also want to make sure that we mention, unfortunately, private schools are not compelled to offer IEPs. So, that umbrella could be religious schools or private schools that they are not compelled or they are not they don't have to follow IEPs. So, if you are a family that is sending a child to a private school, you are able to get special education services. It just might not be through the school. It could be through a service plan, better known as an individualized services plan. 

Next question: "All right. Mr. Saavedra, I heard about these numbers, 504. What is it?" It's another question I get all the time. What is a 504 plan? I'm sure people have heard of that, too. So, let's make sure we clarify for everybody out there. IEP and 504 are two different things. Sometimes they cover the same thing, but they are two different things. So, let's jump in. 

In school, some students receive support under a 504 plan rather than an IEP. A 504 plan isn't part of special education, and it serves a different purpose than an IEP. So, if you come to school saying, "I got a 504," that's not something that's covered under special education. It's not under IDEA. It's a totally different thing. 504 is really based on two specific requirements. Number one, the child or the student has to have a disability, and this disability could fall under a host of different situations. But there has to be a disability in place. It covers a wide range of different struggles in school. And the second is that the disability must interfere with the child's ability to learn on a general education classroom. If you can think of it as, sometimes this relates to like a physical situation.

So, if a child has a health condition that prevents them from being in a general education classroom or they need extra support in that classroom, this could fall under the purview of the counselors, but also the school nurse. They might be heavily involved in creating a 504 plan. 504 also has a broader definition of what a disability is than IDEA. It says that a disability must substantially limit one are more basic life activities. This can include learning, reading, communicating, and thinking. That's why a child who doesn't qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan. 

We've gone into it in a host of different episodes, and the Understood Network has plenty of information around the differences between IEP and 504. Those of us that work with students or we have a child with ADHD, sometimes ADHD might fall under a 504 plan as opposed to an IEP. So, if you're somebody that wants to learn more about that, obviously go check out Understood.org. You get everything you need. 

Next question. This is one that I get all the time: "Mr. Saavedra, how can you tell if your child or my child is struggling with a learning disability?" So, there's not an easy answer to that question, right? It's not something that just you do checklists and "All right, now I got it. I figured it out," it really boils down to observation and evaluation. So, the signs really depend on what the learning disability is, right? They can look really different at different ages and within different people. And not everybody has the same level of difficulty, right? A child could be struggling with reading at four years old, whereas by the time they're nine, they could be completely different and caught up. Whereas a child might be struggling with attention issues after spring break, but then they're perfectly fine in the middle of the wintertime.

And so, it all depends on what the situation is. It depends on what their history of learning is. It depends on the team of people that are paying close attention. But as a parent or as a parenting adult, you want to make sure that you're paying attention to how your child's progressing. What are some signs that you notice that might not directly be related to their skills? Right? It's not just what they can do. It's a host of other things involved. 

People with learning disabilities are more likely to develop anxiety or low self-esteem, right? And so we know we want to pay attention to that. If your child is coming home and saying, "Mom, Dad, I'm really not feeling school," or "Mom, Dad, I'm really nervous to go to school tomorrow. I don't want to go," that's something you want to pay attention to. And I always recommend: ask your child lots and lots of questions, open-ended questions, right? Don't fill in the blanks for them. Something that we do at home with our own children, I pick my kids up today and I put them in the back of the car and I tell them, "How was your day today?" And I leave it open-ended. It's not "Did you have a good day?" It's just "How was your day? Tell me about it." And so, it leaves it open because it's not saying, "Oh, you had to have a good day today, so I'm going to make something up that makes it good." I want to know, like, was it a good day? Was it not a good day? Was it an OK day? What's happening? Fill in the blanks.

So, when you notice signs like that and you allow your children to tell you what's happening, it really can help you figure out "Is there something deeper going on?" Sometimes kids may try to cover up some of the challenges by acting out at school or at home. We've done a few episodes on how challenging behaviors manifest themselves, and so, there's a times when some of that is a coping mechanism because students are struggling. And so, again, really paying attention and asking questions is most important. People of all ages, me included, may avoid a task that they struggle with. And so, ask questions. Pay attention. See what you can find out. 

Next question, "Mr. Saavedra, how are learning disabilities diagnosed? How are they officially diagnosed?" So, I'm going back to the word that I said multiple times, but I'm going to say it again so that we're crystal clear. The only way to know for sure if a child has a learning disability is through an evaluation. An evaluation is going to look for any specific strengths and challenges in reading, writing, math skills. There also might be a psychological evaluation. There might be a behavioral evaluation. But these evaluations are comprehensive. So, it's not looking at one thing. It's a comprehensive look at the student as a full child and a full learner. They can happen at school or they can be privately conducted.

There are some professionals who assess students for learning disabilities. These, again, can include school psychologists, clinical psychologists, and neuropsychologists. And sometimes you might find that there's pediatricians that are involved or even a psychological group that focus on specific learning disabilities that can help with this process. But the key is that it's not something that you just say, "Oh, my kid got a learning disability. There's nothing wrong with that." And if you ever hear somebody say that, then you immediately go back to this episode and say that Mr. Saavedra, a.k.a. your boy Julian, said, "You have to use evaluations to diagnose any learning disabilities," and that's it. That's the only way. 

So, this leads into a next question: "What rights do families and students have in terms of their school experience?" This is one that is incredibly important. And if I'm being 100% honest, our podcast is called The Opportunity Gap. This is really where the rubber hits the road right here, where there is a gap in how the legal rights of families are provided by schools based on income, based on socioeconomic status, based on race, based on gender, based on a host of other demographic challenges. And so, we want to make it clear that those of us that are listening, especially our families of color, you have rights and you're hearing from an assistant principal. I am part of the system. And I'm telling you, you have rights. You deserve those rights. And you need to be very clear on what type of educational experience you should be receiving. 

So, parents who are considering having their child evaluated, make sure you know which rights you're entitled to legally before you even begin the process. There's a fantastic article by Understood.org that goes through all the different rights that parents have. But the long and short is that an evaluation is a process. It's not a quick thing. It's not something that happens overnight. It takes some time. It could take up to three, four, five days, or sometimes in some cases a couple of weeks. It all depends on what the schedule is. It depends on who is involved in the team. Just know that there are a couple of important things that, as families and as people who live in this country, based on federal law, you have every right to have. And these can include, one: You have the right to request an evaluation. I always recommend that if you are requesting an evaluation, the school should receive that request in writing.

So, either writing it on a note or asking for an evaluation in an email to an administrator or a teacher. And that written documentation that's time-stamped, that tells the school, "All right," at least in Pennsylvania, we have 60 days, 60 school days to process that evaluation. So, legally, if you requested, then the schools have to honor that request. You also have a right to receive written notice of the school's decision, right? So, you can request the evaluation, but then you need to have notice and clear clarification as to what the results of that evaluation are in a certain amount of time. And that's a legal right. 

You have the right to give or refuse consent. And, you know, once you start this process, there is a host of documents that will be sent to you for you to agree or not agree. So, at any step of the process, if something is not feeling right, you can say, "I'm not providing consent to this and step out." All right, so that's your right. You don't feel like you're ever being forced to do something that you as a family don't believe in. You also have the right to a thorough evaluation, like I've mentioned a few times. An evaluation is a full team of people. Ask for their credentials. What is there, there's stuff behind what they're doing? Do they have the proper credentials to be doing this evaluation? Well, I mean, it's not the end all be all, but ask for where did they get their own school degrees? Where did they go to school for their information? What kind of experience do they have? So that you understand clearly who are these people that are evaluating my student? 

And lastly, you have a right to be free of discrimination. And you know, those of us that are people of color, this is something that we've talked about extensively on the podcast, that there is rampant discrimination in schools. I mean, it's a fact. And special education specifically, there is discrimination that comes out in many forms, whether it be explicit bias, like explicitly saying things that are based in discriminatory practices, or implicit meaning it's not come outright and said, but you just feel it. And, you know, many of us have experience that we know what that feels like. We know that that's not right. And if you get any inkling of that feeling, those families of color or those that are not but are allies of people of color, if you get any inkling of that, please make sure that you write down what was said. You make sure that you timestamp when it happened, and you put it in writing so that you can go back and document that for later on. Because those practices are not legal. It is not legal. It is not what you or anybody that is involved with you deserves to have.

And so, your rights as a family and as somebody being educated in this country is that you deserve certain legal protections, especially when it comes to discriminatory practices and special education. 

A school can only deny an evaluation request if it believes that there's no evidence your child has a disability and they have to make sure that they explain in writing why the school is denying the request for evaluation. Woah, that's a lot of information. But it's information that you need to know. 

So, again, the big hits from this are those of you that are parents and you have children, make sure that you're paying close attention to the signs of any struggles that they're having. Ask them lots and lots and lots of questions. IEPs and 504s are two different things, but an evaluation is incredibly important. You have a legal right to get the information, to get the evaluation, to be supported by schools at any point in this process. 

I really hope you enjoyed listening to my solo episode. I like talking to other people too, but sometimes we've just got to break it down with just me, and I hope that this helps you have a greater understanding of learning disabilities and the special education process. We could go on and on and on about it, but these are just really the nitty gritty, most important things you need to know. 

Before we go, I have to share some of our helpful resources. Number one, one of our sister podcasts "Understood Explains," they have an episode that is entitled "How to decide if your child needs a special education evaluation." Check it out. It really breaks down every step by step in the process to decide if that is the route you need to go. So, check it out. 

Also another resource, Understood.org's article "What are learning disabilities?" And lastly, another article from Understood.org "Learning about evaluations." If you don't remember anything about this podcast, remember the word "evaluations." It's incredibly important in the process. Again, I can't thank you enough for choosing to take the time to listen to us and join us. Spread the word. We're really trying to get this information out there. It is incredibly important. I deal with this on a daily basis in the honored position of being an assistant principal. I love my job and I love the work that we do. But I also know that there are families out there struggling to get this information. And so, if you're listening, share. Share this information with others, because we want to make sure that everybody has the tools they need. Thank you once again, Opportunity Gap. We'll see you on the next one. Take care. 

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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