Understanding the needs of students with specific learning disabilities (SLD)

Children with specific learning disabilities (SLD) are a diverse group. Between 6-8% of all children will experience an SLD that requires specialized support.

Children with SLD show difficulty in reading, writing, and/or math, despite having average intelligence, motivation, and instruction. These children have individual differences in how their disabilities manifest, their needs for treatment and intervention, and how their SLD impacts their education. Many children with SLD also demonstrate difficulty in psychosocial functioning – how they interact with peers and adults.

Further, youth with SLD are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. This means that understanding and providing services for these students is important in school districts and beyond.

Newer insights have raised concerns with previous definitions and testing methods for SLD. This means that the relationship among cognitive, academic, and psychosocial functioning in children with SLD has not been fully examined. Using the concordance-discordance model (C-DM), practitioners can ensure official diagnostic requirements are met, and generate, examine, and evaluate a child’s processing characteristics, achievement, and behaviour. Intervention strategies can then be developed based on the child’s specific pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Examining SLD

Using records from two British Columbia school districts, Dr. Erica Makarenko and her colleagues looked at the different cognitive profiles that had been generated for children with and without SLD diagnoses. Using the C-DM approach, the team examined the relationship between the overall cognitive profiles and the psychosocial functioning of students, and grouped them by SLD subtypes.

Three specific cognitive profiles were identified:

  • Working Memory (WM) deficit subtype – affecting how the brain temporarily holds and works with information
  • Processing Speed (PS) deficit subtype – the pace at which you can take in, make sense of, and respond to information
  • Executing Functioning (EF) deficit subtype – controlling behaviour, as well organizing and acting on information

The researchers were interested in seeing if students with SLD displayed more reported behaviour problems if they met the C-DM criteria for SLD – comparing the subtypes to each other, and to a group with no SLD diagnosis. Additionally, the research team was interested in whether students with these variable cognitive deficit subtypes demonstrated specific patterns of psychosocial functioning. Overall, 143 elementary student records were reviewed, and 83 of those were determined to have SLD based on the district’s criteria. 54 students had reading SLD, 43 had math SLD, and 48 had written language SLD. 9 students also had ADHD diagnoses.

The study revealed a number of findings related to each subtype group’s performance in different areas. As seen in the chart below, all three cognitive deficit groups demonstrated low mathematics and written language scores relative to students without SLD. The WM and EF groups showed low reading scores, and the PS and WM groups both have difficult with reading fluency. The PS group also had difficulty with writing fluency and spelling.

Achievement results for each SLD subtype and the non-SLD group (Adapted from Backenson et al., 2015 with permission)

Investigating the subtypes also highlighted social and behavioural difficulties present within the different groups. The PS subtype demonstrated poorer adaptive functioning in the classroom, and higher levels of internalizing symptoms, than the other subtypes and the non-SLD group. This means that students with Processing Speed deficits displayed more difficulty with social skills, social reciprocity, and processing of information more so than any of the other deficits.

This corroborates processing speed to be an important factor in social adjustment and adaptive behaviour, such as working with peers, giving and receiving feedback, and engaging with peers and teachers. Designing interventions for processing speed specifically for children with PS SLD may help them in both social and academic settings.

Improving interventions

The C-DM approach can provide useful information in selecting targeted interventions for students. Unlike previous models, the C-DM can help practitioners better understand the children’s individual needs, and differentiate interventions based on specific cognitive processing data. While further research is needed in this area to expand on these results, this study could have important implications for understanding brain-behaviour relationships for the different SLD subtypes. Helping to identify and support these cognitive differences can help children with SLD remediate their cognitive deficits, ultimately promoting stronger adaptive behaviours in the classroom.


See more from Dr. Erica Makarenko on her profile


Connected Citations

Backenson, E. M., Holland, S. C., Kubas, H. A., Fitzer, K. R., Wilcox, G., Carmicheal, J. A., Fraccaro, R. L., Smith, A. D., Macoun, S. J., Harrison, G. L., & Hale, J. B. (2015). Psychosocial and adaptive deficits associated with learning disability subtypes. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(5), 511-522.