By Sean Alexander

Children with learning disorders may need additional help outside of the traditional classroom curriculum to remain successful.  It's important to understand the nuances of each learning disorder and the strengths and challenges that come with them.


Manage common learning disabilities

Here is a review of the most common learning disabilities and best practices for how to manage them:

    1. Dyslexia

    Dyslexia is a learning disorder that makes reading difficult despite normal intelligence.  Dyslexia can manifest in many different ways.

    Symptoms of Dyslexia

    • Reading below age level
    • Difficulty finding the correct word
    • Difficulty with ordering letters and numbers
    • Difficulty seeing the differences between characters
    • Difficulty sounding out words
    • Difficulty spelling

    Ways to Manage Dyslexia

    1. Never underestimate the power of graph paper! The paper helps to manage symbols and order. If the student concentrates on putting one symbol per square, they are guaranteed to line up. You might consider graph paper with extra-large squares such as this: Large Square Graph Paper
    2. Another useful trick is to make an outline of an assignment before getting into the details. Dyslexics are usually good at seeing the big picture but struggle with minor details. For example, if your student is working on a math problem, they can write down a list of steps to follow. Most good teachers will help your student put this list together. Once completed and the student can see the big picture, they can then concentrate on the smaller pieces or steps. Dyslexics see the forest but not the trees.
    3. Increase the spacing between letters.

    2. Attention Disorders

    Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD, ADHD) is a learning difference affecting attention and focus.

    Symptoms of ADHD

    • Difficulty finishing tasks
    • Organizationally challenged
    • Difficulty focusing on one task for extended periods of time
    • Fidgety
    • Difficulty waiting their turn to speak
    • Often impatient
    • Short fuse
    • Impulsivity

    Ways to Manage ADHD

    1. The key to managing ADHD is to make the subject material relevant to the students’ passion in life. ADD and ADHD students actually have hyper-focus when it comes to something they are passionate about. For example, if the student is a swimming athlete you could teach them fluid dynamics in their physics class. They would then realize that a knowledge of fluid dynamics would inform their swimming technique.

    If you have a child with ADHD and don’t know what their passion is yet, make this your #1 priority. Try everything, they definitely have one. You’ll know when you’ve found it.

    Then relate all learnings to this passion. If the student believes the material will enhance their special ability then you’ve tapped into their superpower.

    1. Beware of video games. Video games are filled with action every second. This gives a continuous release of dopamine to the player. Like all dopamine-inducing substances or activities, the crash cannot be avoided. This has the effect of making low-action activities like homework unbearable.
    2. Another word of caution on medications such as Aderrol and Ritalin. Many parents have had great success with these medications. However, it’s not the right solution for every student. Be sure to try natural remedies first, the most effective of which are regular exercise and meditation. Talk with your child’s doctor before making any changes to their medications.  For more details on how to manage ADHD naturally see this article: How to manage studying for math with ADHD

    The most important thing when managing ADHD is to make the subject material relevant to the student’s passion. For example, let’s say your student is obsessed with sports and baseball. Then you can teach them the statistics concepts from the movie “Moneyball.” Moneyball is a true story of how the manager for the Oakland Athletics put together a winning team using statistics.

    If the student is a musician you can teach them that frequency and wavelength are the properties of sound that determine the pitch. Attention-deficit students are obsessed with their passion. If the lesson will improve their skill you have the full power of ADHD obsession on your side!

    3. Dyscalculia

    Dyscalculia is a difficulty with numbers, especially in regard to mathematics, despite normal intelligence.

    Symptoms of Dyscalculia

    • Scoring below age level in mathematics
    • Difficulty doing mental arithmetic
    • Difficulty remembering math skills
    • Difficulty counting backward
    • Difficulty with word problems
    • High anxiety around math

    Ways to Manage Dyscalculia

    The best way to manage dyscalculia is to return to the foundational principles of mathematics and really master them.

    Here is a list of steps that will make a huge difference with your dyscalculia student:

    1. Master your fractions. Revisit the rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions. Have your student watch the following video which presents fractions in a very logical and visual manner that will appeal to your student:

    Fractions, the mother of all math issues.

    1. Master your negative numbers. The most common problem is that students confuse the rules for multiplying negative numbers with the rules for adding and subtracting them. Here is a detailed video on each:

    Adding and Subtracting Negative Numbers

    Multiplying Negative Numbers

    1. Master one- and two-step algebra. Here is a video for you:

    What you do to one side, you do to the other

    1. Memorize your multiplication tables. If your student is struggling with this I recommend using a “multiplication table of the week”, such as 6 x 8 = 48. Assign them more complicated multiplication problems that all have combinations of 6 and 8 in them. For example 16 x 28. In doing this problem the student will encounter 6 x 8. Assign problems like this with 6 and 8 all week long.

    Then the following week you can introduce a new one, such as 3 x 6. Once you get through a good number, you can start combining them. Continue adding more combinations each week, they will get it! Some students excel when using a game, here’s a good one:

    1. Get a math tutor! One-on-one instruction is the absolute best way to ensure your student learns the fundamental skills listed above. There are many benefits of having a tutor, and it’s vital to consider these when assessing your child’s progress.
    2. Consider their learning environment. Your student probably feels embarrassed in math class and doesn’t want to ask questions for fear of embarrassment. Creating a safe place where your child feels comfortable making mistakes is essential. This is how they will build up their confidence, which is the most important math skill to have.

    The above skills are essential for any math student. If your student with dyscalculia studies the above videos, you will see a huge improvement.

    Here is a resource for free practice problems: Under the “free worksheet” section, you can search for the above topics and get plenty of free practice problems.

    4. Dysgraphia

    Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that affects handwriting.

    Symptoms of Dysgraphia

    • Illegible handwriting
    • An awkward grip on the pen or pencil, causing the hand muscles to cramp or get tired
    • Difficulty with the spacing of characters
    • Difficulty with spelling
    • Rushes handwriting
    • Words tend to run into each other

    Ways to Manage Dysgraphia

    1. Slow down! It’s not a race; ask your student to really take their time and you will see a huge improvement.
    2. Individuals with dysgraphia often have trouble gripping the pen. One effective technique you can try is to get an assortment of pens of different widths and let your student pick their favorite. Having the right-width pen can reduce the effort needed and give your student more writing stamina.

    You can also try adding a grip to the pen such as this: Pencil Grip

    1. Finally, once again, don’t underestimate graph paper. The squares on the page can help a dysgraphic student with letter spacing and staying organized. We recommend large square graph paper such as this: Large Square Graph Paper

    5. Processing Disorders

    We will discuss the two most common processing disorders, which are auditory processing disorder (ADP) and language processing disorder (LPD).

    Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP)

    An auditory processing disorder interferes with the brain’s ability to give the sound of words their meaning. There is nothing wrong with the person’s hearing. The problem lies in the ability to translate sounds into meaningful statements.

    Symptoms of Auditory Processing Disorder

    • They zone out mid-conversation
    • They ask you to repeat yourself frequently
    • They say “what?” frequently
    • Become overwhelmed in loud environments
    • Difficulty with spelling

    Language Processing Disorder (LPD)

    Language processing disorder interferes with the ability to express oneself through verbal communication.

    Symptoms of Language Processing Disorder

    • Learns to speak at a late age
    • Doesn’t understand jokes
    • Easily frustrated in conversations
    • Limited vocabulary
    • Uses filler sounds like “umm” frequently

    There are two types of language processing disorders, expressive language disorder (ELD) and receptive language disorder (RLD).

    Persons with ELD have trouble expressing their thoughts and feelings with language. Persons with RLD have trouble understanding communication with others. Your ELD student may have trouble coming up with the right words. You may be in the middle of a conversation and they just get stuck. Your child knows what they want to say in their heads, they just have trouble finding the right word(s). Your RLD student may “zone out” during conversations. It’s not because they are not interested! They will realize mid-conversation that they haven’t been following you and don’t know where they are in the conversation.

    Ways to Manage Processing Disorders

    If you think your child has an auditory or language processing disorder you should engage a speech therapist as soon as possible.

    Regardless of your diagnosis don’t be discouraged!  Many highly successful individuals have learning disabilities.  Manage the learning disability, encourage the genius that comes with it.  Good luck!


    • Sean Alexander

      COMMAND PILOT, OWNER Sean has been a professional educator for 15 years and has taught math, physics, and astronomy at all levels.  His experience ranges from working at a high school for severe learning differences to teaching advanced physics at Stanford.  After completing his graduate work in theoretical physics Sean founded Alexander Tutoring, with the mission of revealing the deep connections between math and nature to as many students as possible. 

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