Ministry of Education
Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch

What is Learning Disability

  • Children with learning disabilities show average to above average intellectual abilities.
  • Children with learning disabilities have difficulty with academic achievement and there is a discrepancy between their potential for learning and their achievement.
  • The pattern of development for language, physical and academic development is uneven.
  • Learning deficits are not due to environmental disadvantages.
  • Learning deficits are not due to other causes (emotional or behavioural).

Ontario statistics show that approximately 42% of identified students are identified with a learning disability. These children appear to be no different than their peers because there are no outward signs of a learning disability. It is referred to as the “invisible handicap.”

General Characteristics

In general, children with learning disabilities have difficulties processing information. These difficulties involve the reception of information through the senses, the storage of information in the brain, the retrieval of information from storage and the expression of information through oral or written language. In addition, many of these children experience difficulties in focusing attention. These difficulties are evident during schooling, but they may also affect a child’s social functioning.

Specific Characteristics

The characteristics of an individual child’s learning disability are unique. Even when two children have difficulties with language, the degree of difficulty may be quite different and effective teaching strategies can vary considerably.

Children with learning disabilities may have severe deficits in information processing in one or more of the following areas:

  • auditory perception
  • visual perception
  • visual-motor integration
  • fine motor skills
  • gross motor skills
  • attention
  • receptive language
  • expressive language
  • memory – long, short term, working
  • processing speed
  • organization

Areas Affected by a Learning Disability:

  • listening
  • remembering
  • reasoning
  • speaking
  • reading
  • written language
  • spelling
  • handwriting
  • mathematical computation
  • problem solving
  • spatial relations
  • social interactions

A history of frustration, anxiety and tension caused by the failure to learn can lead to very low self-esteem and little self-confidence. Research indicates that difficulties in learning is prevalent in most people with these experiences.

Symptoms Commonly Related to Learning Disabilities

Symptoms include:

  • poor performance on group tests, difficulty with time concepts and difficulty with size shape or colour
  • general awkwardness, difficulty copying from a model and poor organizational skills
  • difficulty with abstract reasoning, disorganized thinking and poor long term or short term memory
  • low tolerance for frustration, poor peer relationships and lags in developmental milestones
  • failure to predict outcomes, excessive variation in mood and overly distractible
  • difficulty making decisions, difficulty with tasks requiring sequencing and reversals in writing and reading
  • poor visual-motor integration, distorted concept of body image and hyperactivity
  • slowness in completing work, easily confused by instructions, difficulty with problem solving
  • often obsesses on one topic or idea, impulsive behaviour, excessive movement during sleep
  • overly gullible and easily led by peers, difficulty adjusting to changes and lack of hand preference

Services in Ontario

Local Board Of Education

  • I.P.R.C. (Identification, Placement and Review Committee).  This committee officially identifies a student as exceptional.  The committee is made up of teachers, parents and administrators. Typically the process leading to an I.P.R.C. involves the acknowledgement of a learning difficulty, some intervention at school and possibly some formal testing to establish a level of achievement. The I.P.R.C. meeting will legally establish that the student qualifies for additional assistance and/or modifications to be made to school programming.  An individual educational plan (I.E.P.) will be written. The committee will meet at least once a year to review the identification and placement of the student.
  • Special Education Teacher

This staff member is qualified in special education and is trained in the use of techniques and strategies which are effective in dealing with learning disabilities. This person will either directly deliver services to students or provide class room teachers with strategies needed to assist students in the regular classroom.

Demonstration Schools

The Ministry of Education offers residential schools with resource services for students with severe learning disabilities. There are three schools:

  • Amethyst School, London, Ontario
  • Trillium School, Milton, Ontario
  • Sagonasksa School, Belleville, Ontario

There are formal procedures that school boards and parents must follow to access the services provided by Demonstration Schools.  Resource services staff co-ordinate the referral process. Referrals from Boards of Education can be made for services which include:

  • assessment for programming
  • assessment for application
  • workshops for teachers
  • assistance with application packages


Finding out that a student has a learning disability is often a relief to students and parents. It is the first step in understanding one’s learning difficulty and seeking out the strategies that can help maximize learning and cope with the deficits. When a student is identified with a learning disability, we know two things for certain. One, that he/she has at least average intelligence and two, that he/she learns in a different way. Unlocking the mystery of how an individual learns is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. The first step begins with the identification. Next, individuals need to identify those areas that cause difficulties for them and work out ways of coping with those difficulties. Once this has been accomplished, students need to be able to advocate for themselves, explaining in appropriate ways to teachers, what they need to succeed in a given academic situation. A learning disability does not disappear when a student leaves school. Many adults with a learning disability have learned to use strategies for coping with their learning difficulties and are very successful in their life long endeavors.