Do Kids Grow Out of Learning Disorders?
Learning disorders don’t go away, but they can get much easier to manage
Clinical Experts: Angela Dewey, PhD , Rachel Ganz, PhD
What You'll Learn
- How do learning disorders change over time?
- How do early interventions help kids with learning disorders?
- How can families help kids with learning disorders build self-esteem?
If your child has been just diagnosed with a learning disorder, you may be wondering if they’ll grow out of it. Learning disorders don’t go away. But kids who have them can learn successfully with the right support. By understanding how they learn and getting to know their own strengths and weaknesses, kids with learning disorders can thrive like any other child.
The way that your child’s learning disorder impacts them is likely to change over time. In some cases, challenges can get bigger as your child gets older. For instance, kids with dyslexia often struggle more in late elementary school, when they are expected to read and write more fluently.
On the other hand, learning disorders can get easier to manage as kids gain tools to cope with them. Special technology, organizational strategies, and school accommodations can all help kids with learning disorders. It’s important to work with your child as they get older to understand how their learning disorder affects them and help them advocate for support at school.
The earlier kids with learning disorders get support, the easier it will be for them to excel later. Specialized instruction can help them build academic skills. And getting support early helps kids get comfortable being different from their peers and gain confidence asking for what they need.
It makes a big difference to praise your child for their effort at school rather than their performance on a test or assignment. Learning early on that their self-worth isn’t tied to their academic performance can help them gain self-esteem and build on their strengths.
If your child has just been diagnosed with a learning disorder, it’s normal to be worried about their future. You may wonder whether they will be able to attend college or hold down a job — and whether they’ll always struggle with the condition.
The bottom line is that kids don’t grow out of learning disorders. Learning disorders are neurodevelopmental issues that appear around the early school years and are characterized by consistent challenges, most commonly with reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), or math (dyscalculia). But while learning disorders don’t go away, kids who have them can learn successfully, with the right strategies and support. And as kids get older, they can get better and better at using their strengths to work around their LD.
“Kids with LDs are able to go on to college, and they are able to pursue careers and be successful,” says Angela Dewey, PhD, a neuropsychologist in the Child Mind Institute’s Learning and Development Center. “Understanding their learning profile, understanding their challenges, and also understanding their strengths…they’re better able to tailor their experiences toward the things that they’re good at and the things that they’re interested in.”
Having a learning disorder doesn’t mean your child isn’t intelligent — it just means their brain works in a different way. These conditions are not as uncommon as you may think, either: in the U.S., as many as 15 percent of school-aged children are estimated to have a learning disorder.
It’s important that kids with learning disorders know that while they might need different strategies for learning, and school might not be as easy for them as for some other kids, they can still thrive academically and personally. And there are some critical ways that you can support them, both in the short term and as they grow up.
Changes over time
Your child’s challenges are likely to evolve over time, depending in part on their specific disorder and its severity. Keeping open communication with your child can help them prepare for how their learning disorder’s impact could shift throughout their life.
Some challenges associated with learning disorders can get more intense as the demands of school get more complex in the older grades. For example, kids who have dyslexia often struggle more when they get to about third grade, when they are expected to write and read with more fluency.
Meanwhile, students with auditory processing disorder may find the greater academic demands and independence in middle and high school more difficult, and children with non-verbal learning disorder may find it tricky to follow the subtler social cues that emerge as they and their peers get older. In general, teenagers with LDs often find it tough to take good notes, finish big assignments, or study for exams — especially as they also navigate college and career planning.
On the other hand, some things are likely to get easier once kids understand their conditions and how to cope with them. Students can get comfortable using visual aids, speech-to-text tools, or strategies to break down assignments into smaller tasks. In college, students with LDs typically register with their school to access accommodations, which could include more time for exams, note-taking assistance, priority class registration, and individualized support.
With help, “kids can better cope with those learning challenges and still go to a rigorous college, or pursue the career that they want, but using those modifications to just remove the barrier,” Dr. Dewey says.
Keep in mind that people with learning disorders have legal rights to accommodations and support services in school and at work under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Helping children get a handle on their strengths, weaknesses, and rights early on can help them learn how to become stronger, more comfortable advocates for themselves in college and beyond.
Early interventions make a difference
Early identification and intervention for learning disorders can help bolster your child’s academic success and emotional well-being as they get older. Professionals can help your child learn how to rely on their strengths and build skills in areas they struggle with, though the specific tools will depend on the type and severity of the disorder.
“The earlier we can understand what’s going on for a student and the earlier they get support, it just becomes part of their curriculum, or part of their day-to-day support that they’re receiving,” says Rachel Ganz, PhD, a neuropsychologist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. “We want to keep the desire to learn alive.”
Kids with dyslexia, for example, could get into intensive remedial reading programs in elementary school to help them improve their reading fluency and academic skills as they get older. Students with a math-related disorder might learn better verbally, so math problems could become more manageable if kids are encouraged to write out the steps on how to solve them.
“Students can gain skills and improve in academics or behavior regulation, whatever is challenging for them,” Dr. Dewey says. “Oftentimes, there is a positive trajectory when intervention happens early.”
Ultimately, Dr. Ganz says, the goal of early intervention is to give students academic tools that can make it easier to manage their learning disorder as they get older. Then those same skills can make daily life and career success easier in adulthood.
Supporting your child’s emotional and academic needs
Learning disorders can take a toll on kids’ self-esteem, especially if their condition goes undetected for several years. Kids often feel frustrated if they struggle to keep up with their classmates, and they may act out at school or withdraw from social situations — which means that getting strong emotional support at home is even more important.
Try talking through your child’s disorder with them when they’re young, so they can get comfortable with the idea of being different from some of their peers. Keep in touch with school professionals to ensure they have the appropriate testing accommodations and learning programs available for your child. Don’t be afraid to seek out support from educational advocates, support groups, or mental health professionals. And when your child is old enough, you can help them practice being their own advocate — a skill they can use in academic or professional settings when they’re older.
At home, meanwhile, try to ensure that your child feels comfortable asking for help with homework, and praise them for their effort rather than their performance on a test or assignment. Learning early on that their self-worth isn’t tied to their academic performance can help them gain self-esteem and feel more confident confronting challenges later on.
“Even though we’re helping children understand their weaknesses and learn language to advocate for themselves, it’s also important to help them understand that they have so many strengths,” Dr. Ganz says.