Learning Disability or Learning Difference: What are the Issues?

“…and let me make it clear to the ones of you who belong to the “why?” generation, that you are in my class to learn and not to question, and if you are too stubborn to understand that, you don’t belong here!” I still can vividly see the tall bearded man standing in front of our classroom in the ancient Gymnasium (Secondary School) thundering these words at us. He was our Literature teacher, Professor Stickelberger (not his real name).

Growing up in Switzerland, almost too long ago to remember, I still can feel the effect on me of two very distinct teachers: Herr Lehrer Steiger in my primary school and Professor Stickelberger in the Gymnasium.

The memory of my primary school teacher smells of the plants growing in the classroom, plants whose seeds we had collected ourselves and whose growth we had observed day by day. I can also feel the excitement of climbing over the remnants of the medieval wall of our small town, listening to his description of battles of long ago.

Well, I turned out to be one of the ones who didn’t belong to Professor Stickelberger’s world because I left school shortly after and returned to academia only many years, and many adventures in the “real world”, later. By this time, the enthusiasm for learning and discovery I had caught in primary school had long given place to a daily feeling of boredom and even dread at school.

I had what nowadays is described as “ADHD of the hyperactive type”.  If I had known that I was of a certain “type” may have helped me at a time when I had absolutely no clue why simple things, like sitting still and listening to teachers six hours every day, were so difficult for me. Although I learned to cope with my particular way of learning and tackling life, it was at a great cost to my family and me.

What I really needed at the time was an understanding of my unique learning profile, the positive side of belonging to the “why” generation as well as ways of training myself to increase the time I could concentrate on listening to teachers. If only somebody would have told me how to focus on the parts of their lectures that appealed to my questioning mind, how to satisfy my need for excitement in a positive manner and other “tricks” I had to learn so painfully on my own.

Naturally, a better fit between my learning strengths and the teaching environment, as had happened in my primary school years, would have made a huge difference.

This anecdote out of my personal life hopefully helps to illustrate some of the issues I am trying to disentangle in this article: How the concepts of learning disability and learning differences affect individual children, their parents and their schools.

Common Interchangeable Use of Terms

Let’s begin with the way the terms are often used. Many people use “Learning Difference” in preference to “Learning Disability” because it sounds “nicer” but really means the same thing: A description of someone who is not coping at school. This interchangeable use of the two terms is unfortunately often necessary in the interest of children who do have problems at school. This is the case when schools have a rigid concept of what “normal” children look like (usually the ones who are thriving in their particular leaning environment) with an equally rigid concept of what “not normal” children look like (usually the ones who are not coping in their particular learning environment.  The concept of “Learning Disability” is based on the idea that there is a deficit in the learner that needs remediation.

Denotes Different Philosophical Outlook

The concept of “learning differences” denotes, however, a fundamental change in our attitude towards success or failure at school. In this view, it is the fit between learning environment and learner that determines the outcome of education rather than the learning characteristics of the child alone.

This does not mean that the learning characteristics of the child are unimportant, quite the contrary.  A thorough knowledge of the individual child’s learning profile, their particular strengths and weaknesses is an essential ingredient in helping a child to succeed.  The first step in supporting a child is thus a thorough assessment of a child’s learning profile.

At Lexicon Reading Center, we use an evidence based best model of assessment of a child’s strengths and weaknesses. We examine, together with information gathered form parents and schools a child’s  learning profile in eight areas that determine and individual’s learning (I will be looking at the contribution of each of these systems in future articles): Attention Control System, the Spatial Ordering System (non-verbal), the Temporal-sequential Ordering System (step-wise learning), the Memory System (Short and long term remembering), the Language System, the Neuro-motor Control System (brain body movement connection), the Social Cognition System (relating to others) and the Higher Order Cognition System (making sense of complex information).

An equally important element is on the other hand an understanding of how a child’s learning environment impacts on her ability to develop her strengths and find ways to compensate for her weaknesses.  Her we are looking at the child’s learning environments (the school and the home) and the interaction between the child and these environments.

Responsibility for change

If the reason for success lies in a good fit between the child’s learning profile and his learning environments, it follows logically that the responsibility for success is shared by all participants in the learning process. The process of improving a child’s academic success becomes collaboration between the child, the school, the home and other participants like clinicians and learning support personnel.

This is a break from the idea embedded in the term “learning disability” where the disability is within one participant in the learning process: the child. In an ideal situation, all the participants are willing to examine their contribution to a child’s success or lack of success at school and in life.  While more and more parents, teachers and schools are willing to do so, we sometimes have to settle for the best possible approximation to the ideal.  The closer the collaboration between the participants in the learning process, the better is a child’s chances for success.

Practical Implications

The first impact of this model is on a child’s self-concept and the resulting self-esteem:  Self descriptions of a child with a learning disability often include words like failure, stupid, can’t, fear, and hate. A self description of the same child when aware of his individual learning profile may include words like good at, need help with, my own way, comes easy, is a bit hard.

The change from a low self esteem to a healthy (and realistic) self appreciation is one of the most gratifying effects of this change in outlook.

The second impact is one the child’s parents and its school.  The shift here is one from an attitude of “how can we help this poor child with its limited resources” to one of “what is our responsibility in supporting this child’s strength within our learning environment.”


Let’s now look at the story of a child who was diagnosed with an oppositional defiant learning disability, let’s call her Alice.
Alice was described by her Kindergarten teacher as “bright” and “inquisitive”.  This developed into “willful” and “uncooperative” in early primary to “oppositional” and “disruptive” in late primary. Her parents were becoming more and more exasperated and Alice frequently refused to go to school. Alice was suspended from school in early High School.

A thorough examination of Alice’ Learning Profile revealed a high level of general ability (higher order cognition). Alice caught on quickly to new ideas. She had particular strengths in visual spatial perception (Spatial Ordering System). Alice tended to remember things in pictures and was good at using graphs and charts etc.

Alice had a significant weakness in her graphomotor (writing) functions (neuro-motor system). She was slow at writing, her spelling was poor, her writing was disorganised and she wrote very little.  Alice also found it hard to translate her excellent understanding of concepts into a logical sequence intelligible to others (Temporal-sequential Ordering System). Her oral answers showed often a good understanding but she found it hard to explain how she reached conclusions.

Alice’ unrecognised specific strengths and weaknesses and the frustrations resulting from the discrepancy between her well developed insight and her poor output were at the core of her problems at school. Her profile and some possible strategies were explained to her, her parents and her teachers. She then learned how to compensate for her weaknesses by using her high ability and visuo-spatial strengths. She learned to apply graphic representations, mind maps, brainstorming and other strategies to show her knowledge and understanding.  She also learned to apply template like structures to her writing that helped her to improve her output. Most importantly of all her confidence in herself improved dramatically and she started enjoying school.

Her teachers a the same time realised that other students too had  similar learning styles as Alice and adapted their teaching by including more visual support and reducing the need for writing lengthy essays.

Alice was finally able to develop her great potential and became an enthusiastic and successful member of her class.


The most important conclusion of the shift from “disability” to “difference” is that we (parents, teachers and children) understand that everyone learns differently without the need to judge “wrong” or “right”. These means that we as parents and teachers have to strife to understand the whole child and adapt our teaching and support to fit the individual learning profile of each individual child.

By Rudolf Stöckling