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Preventing Learned Helplessness in Students with Language Impairments

A few weeks ago in one of my private speech language therapy sessions, I was reviewing the homework  of an 11-year-old student,  part of which involved  synonym and  antonym production describing abstract feelings (e.g., disinterested, furious, etc.). These words were in the client’s lexicon as we had been working on the concept of abstract feelings for a number of weeks. I was feeling pretty confident that the student would do well on this assignment, especially because prior to assigning the homework we had identified the exact emotion which required the generation of antonyms and synonyms. So all was going swimmingly,  until she made the following comment when explaining one of her answers: “I was thinking that this word ____ is not really an appropriate synonym for _________ but I put it anyway because I couldn’t think of any others.”

That gave me a pause because I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. So I asked: “I completely understand that you might not have remembered some words but what could you have done to help yourself in this situation?” Without any prompting, the student readily identified a number of strategies including: looking up the words in a thesaurus/dictionary, “Googling” them, or even asking an adult to help her with choosing the best answers from a number of choices.

My follow-up question to her was: “Why didn’t you?” The student just shrugged her shoulders and looked at me in surprise, as though this concept had never occurred to her.

This incident got me thinking regarding the pervasive influence of learned helplessness, and how our students continue to be impacted by it long after they begin receiving the necessary therapies to improve their academic performance.

For those of you unfamiliar with this term, here is a brief overview. This phrase was coined by a US based psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967. In a series of experiments they exposed dogs to electric shocks that they were unable to escape. After a little while the dogs stopped trying to avoid the aversive stimuli because they became conditioned to the fact that they were helpless to change the situation. However, the most fascinating aspect in these series of experiments was the fact that even after the opportunity to escape became clearly available, the animals still failed to take any action and continue to behave as though they were still helpless.

How does this apply to students with learning disabilities? 

Many students with language impairments and learning disabilities struggle significantly in school setting due to failing academic performance. The older they get, the more academic demands are placed on them.  This includes but is not limited to the amount of homework they asked to complete, the number of long-term projects they’re expected to write, as well as the number of tests they are expected to study for.

Because they are unable to meet the ever increasing academic demands, their parents begin to actively micromanage their academic life by scheduling the times when the students are expected to perform homework, study for tests, do projects, and much much more. As a result, many of the students do not know how to do any of the above activities/tasks independently because they are conditioned  by their parents/teachers to tell them what to do, how to do it, and how to lead their academic life at any given moment.

The students begin believing they they are helpless  to change even the most basic situations (e.g., take an extra step during the homework assignment and look up a vocabulary word without anyone telling them to do it) and continue to behave in this fashion long after they begin receiving the necessary therapies, coaching, or in school assistance. This is especially true of students whose language/learning disabilities are not identified until later in their school career (e.g., late elementary years, middle school, or even high school).

What are the Symptoms of Learned Helplessness in Children?  

The below poster from Dragonfly Forest Blogspot/Forest Alliance Coaching summarizes it quite nicely.

Other symptoms of learned helplessness include:

  • Lack of motivation/task initiation
  • Poor critical thinking abilities
  • Reluctance to make independent choices
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Blaming a disability: “I act like this because I have _________”

It is important to note that the above symptoms are most applicable to students with learning disabilities and average cognition.  However, learned helplessness is equally pervasive (if not more so) in students with developmental disabilities (e.g., ASD, genetic syndromes, etc.)

Below are just a few examples of learned helplessness in students with developmental disabilities, which were inadvertently (and/or deliberately) reinforced by the adults in their lives(e.g., family members, educational staff, etc.).

  • Spoon feeding a three-year-old with ASD who has already mastered this particular ADL skill
  • Having a non-verbal eight-year-old correctly identify the PECS card for “open” but then always opening the door for him without giving him an opportunity to do so himself
  • Keeping a 12-year-old with ASD on puréed diet despite multiple MBS and FEES studies indicating that there are no structural abnormalities which would prevent this student from successfully trialing solid foods
  • Not placing basic expectations such as cleanup of toys on a verbal seven-year-old with Down Syndrome, simply because of her condition

Changing the Patterns of Learned Behavior:

According to available literature, when psychologists had tried to change learned helplessness in animal subjects it took them between 30 – 50 times of physically moving the dogs across the barrier before they proceeded to do so independently. Thus, it stands to reason that the process of rewiring the brain in humans with learned helplessness will be a lengthy one as well.

The first task on the part of adults  is active analysis of all the things  we may be doing  as  parents and educators,  which inadvertently  reinforces learned helplessness in our children/students.   Some  things may surprise you.   For example, I frequently ask the  parents of the students on my caseload what chores and responsibilities  they give their children at home.   In an overwhelming majority of the cases  my clients have  very few chores/responsibilities at home.  This  is especially apparent in families  of language  impaired children  with typically developing siblings. Conversations with parents  frequently reveal that many typically developing siblings (who are sometimes younger than my clients)  have far greater responsibilities  when it comes to chores,  assignment completion,  etc.

Did you know that an average 8-9 year-old is expected to remember to do chores for 15-20 min after school (“prospective memory”), independently, plan school projects (select book, do report, present in school), keep track of changing daily schedule, do homework for 1 hour independently as well as keep track of personal effects when away from home? (Peters, 2013)

Did you know that an average —12-14 year old is expected to demonstrate adult level planning abilities, have daily chore responsibilities for 60-90 minute in length, babysit younger siblings, follow complex school schedule, as well as plan and carry out multiple large semester-long school projects independently? (Peters, 2013)

While our language impaired children of the same age may not be capable of some of the above responsibilities they are capable of  more then we give them credit for given appropriate level of support (strategies vs. doing things for them).

Where do we begin?

It is important to recognize the potential of the children that we work with without letting their disabilities to color our subjective perceptions of what they can and cannot do. In other words, just because there are significant physical/cognitive handicaps, it does not mean that given appropriate accommodations, therapies, resources, as well as compensatory strategies that our student will not be able to reach their optimal potential.

Working with Physically/Cognitively Impaired Children: 

  • Uphold accountability 
    • You wouldn’t let a typical four-year-old get away with leaving a mess and not cleaning up their toys, so why would you let a four-year-old with Down syndrome or ASD slide?  It might take a tad longer to teach them what to do and how to do it but it certainly is more then doable
  • Do not excuse inappropriate behaviors and attribute it to a disability
  • Assign responsibility
    • Even in the presence of physical and cognitive disabilities students are still capable of performing a number of tasks and chores. This may include but not be limited to cleaning up own room, making up one bed, loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking out the garbage, vacuuming the floor, pushing the grocery cart in the store, loading and unloading food at the cash register, and much much more.
  • Encourage Hobbies 
  • Explore Adapted Sports 
    • Similar to hobbies adaptive sports can be incredibly beneficial to children with developmental disabilities. Movement helps to rewire the brain! Adaptive sports participation increases the child’s independence as well as fosters socialization with others.  Engagement in adaptive sports can also combat learned helplessness.
  • Support Quality of Life Experiences
    • Unfortunately the quality of life of the children with developmental disabilities that we work with is often compromised. Because there is inordinate focus placed on “just existing” and fitting in all the therapies, frequently joyful experiences are few and far between. If the situation allows it needs to change! There are so many simple activities we take for granted, which can bring true happiness to the children that we work with.
      • Swimming in the pool
      • Visiting a museum
      • Going into an amusement park
      • Picking berries or mushrooms in the woods
      • Going to the beach
      • Bird watching
      • Taking a vacation (if financially doable)
  • Expect more
    • Don’t let the child’s cognitive and/or physical limitations  stop them from reaching their true potential.
      • This may mean disagreeing with well-meaning but limitedly knowledgeable school-based professionals, who may tell you that your child with genetic syndrome such as Down Syndrome or Fragile X will never learn how to read (see Case C
      • This may mean finding accommodations and compensatory strategies for a student’s severe disabilities to make that person’s life more meaningful and enjoyable.  To illustrate, many years ago when I just started working for a school for severely medically fragile children, I’ve worked with severely physically impaired nonverbal young adult  (21) who had a limited use of his right arm (gross motor movements]only).  That did not stop us from ‘discussing’ works of literature, studying SAT level vocabulary, as well as learning Greek and Latin Roots of English.   It also didn’t stop his parents from exposing him to a variety of life experiences, aimed to make him feel like an average young adult, such as allowing him to taste a few drops of sake even though he was NPO (lat. for nothing by mouth)

Working with Language Impaired and Learning Disabled Children with Average IQ:

  • Increase their accountability in own education
    • Teach useful compensatory strategies
      • Have the children wear a watch to be more mindful of the passage of time (a child 6+ years of age could be an appropriate candidate)
      • Use of schedules, planners, and timers to be more mindful of time spent on homework, assignments, and test studying
      • Use charts listing various strategies of asking for help to teach children to increase ownership of their learning (FREE HERE)
  • Teach them to speak up regarding needed accommodations
    • Use of software applications
    • Time to prepare for oral responses
    • Use of choices when answering questions of increased complexity
    • Audio recording of newly taught information in the classroom
  • Develop their critical thinking skills and problem solving abilities
  • Change your outlook
    • Replace doing everything for them attitude or finger-pointing and blame attitude with solution- focused constructive criticism by teaching specific strategies which will help the student succeed
  • Encourage perseverance
    • Teach the students positive strategies of not giving up and persisting through the difficult situations

Changing the ingrained patterns of learned helplessness is no easy feat.  It requires time, perseverance, and patience. But it can be done even in children with significant developmental and learning disabilities.  It is a difficult but much needed process, which is instrumental in helping our students/children attain their optimal potential.


  1. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975) Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco : Freeman.
  2. Peterson, C., S. Maier, and M. Seligman. (1993). Learned Helplessness. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Special Education Disputes and Comprehensive Language Testing: What Parents, Attorneys, and Advocates Need to Know

Image result for evaluationSeveral years after I started my private speech pathology practice, I began performing comprehensive independent speech and language evaluations (IEEs).

For those of you who may be hearing the term IEE for the first time, an Independent Educational Evaluation is “an evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the public agency responsible for the education of the child in question.” 34 C.F.R. 300.503. IEE’s can evaluate a broad range of functioning outside of cognitive or academic performance and may include neurological, occupational, speech language, or any other type of evaluations  as long as they bear direct impact on the child’s educational performance.

Independent evaluations can be performed for a wide variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • To determine the student’s present level of functioning
  • To determine whether the student presents with hidden, previously undiscovered deficits (e.g., executive function, social communication, etc.)
  • To determine whether the student’s educational classification requires a change
  • To determine if the student requires additional, previously not provided, related services (e.g., language therapy, etc.) or an increase in related services
  • To determine whether a student might benefit from an application of a particular therapy technique or program (e.g, Orton-Gillingham)
  • To determine whether a student with a severe impairment (e.g., severe emotional and behavioral disturbances, genetic syndrome, significant intellectual disability, etc.) is a good candidate for an out of district specialized school

Why can’t similar assessments be performed in school settings?

There are several reasons for that.

Why are IEE’s Needed?

The answer to that is simple:  “To strengthen the role of parents in the educational decision-making process.” According to one Disability Rights site: “Many disagreements between parents and school staff concerning IEP services and placement involve, at some stage, the interpretation of evaluation findings and recommendations. When disagreements occur, the Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) is one option lawmakers make available to parents, to help answer questions about appropriate special education services and placement“.

Indeed, many of the clients who retain my services also retain the services of educational advocates as well as special education lawyers.  Many of them work on determining appropriate level of services as well as an out of district placement for the children with a variety of special education needs. However, one interesting reoccurring phenomenon I’ve noted over the years is that only a small percentage of special education lawyers, educational advocates, and even parents believed that children with autism spectrum disorders, genetic syndromes, social pragmatic deficits, emotional disturbances, or reading disabilities required a comprehensive language evaluation/reevaluation prior to determining an appropriate out of district placement or an in-district change of service provision.

So today I would like to make a case, in favor of comprehensive independent language evaluations being a routine component of every special education dispute involving a child with impaired academic performance. I will do so through the illustration of past case scenarios that clearly show that comprehensive independent language evaluations do matter, even when it doesn’t look like they may be needed.

Case A: “He is just a weak student”.

Several years ago I was contacted by a parent of a 12 year old boy, who was concerned with his son’s continuously failing academic performance. The child had not qualified for an IEP but was receiving 504 plan in school setting and was reported to significantly struggle due to continuous increase of academic demands with each passing school year.  An in-district language evaluation had been preformed several years prior. It showed that the student’s general language abilities were in the low average range of functioning due to which he did not qualify for speech language services in school setting. However, based on the review of available records it very quickly became apparent that many of the academic areas in which the student struggled (e.g., reading comprehension, social pragmatic ability, critical thinking skills, etc)  were simply not assessed by the general language testing. I had suggested to the parent a comprehensive language evaluation and explained to him on what grounds I was recommending this course of action.  That comprehensive 4 hour assessment broken into several testing sessions revealed that the student presented with severe receptive, expressive, problem solving and social pragmatic language deficits, as well as moderate executive function deficits, which required therapeutic intervention.

Prior to that assessment the parent, reinforced by the feedback from his child’s educational staff believed his son to be an unmotivated student who failed to apply himself in school setting.  However, after the completion of that assessment, the parent clearly understood that it wasn’t his child’s lack of motivation which was impeding his academic performance but rather a true learning disability was making it very difficult for his son to learn without the necessary related services and support. Several months after the appropriate related services were made available to the child in school setting on the basis of the performed IEE, the parent reported significant progress in his child academic performance.

Case B: “She’s just not learning because of her behavior, so there’s nothing we can do”.  

This case involved a six year old girl who presented with a severe speech – language disorder and behavioral deficits in school setting secondary to an intellectual disability of an unspecified origin.

In contrast to Case A scenario, this child had received a variety of assessments and therapies since a very early age; however, her parents were becoming significantly concerned regarding her regression of academic functioning in school setting and felt that a more specialized out of district program with a focus on multiple disabilities would be better suitable to her needs. Unfortunately the school disagreed with them and believed that she could be successfully educated in an in-district setting (despite evidence to the contrary).  Interestingly, an in-depth comprehensive speech language assessment had never been performed on this child because her functioning was considered to be “too low” for such an assessment.

Comprehensive assessment of this little girl’s abilities revealed that via an application of a variety of behavioral management techniques (of non-ABA origin), and highly structured language input, she was indeed capable of significantly better performance then she had exhibited in school setting.  It stood to reason that if she were placed in a specialized school setting composed of educational professionals who were trained in dealing with her complex behavioral and communication needs, her performance would continue to steadily improve.  Indeed, six months following a transfer in schools her parents reported a “drastic” change pertaining to a significant reduction in challenging behavioral manifestations as well as significant increase in her linguistic output.

Case C: “Your child can only learn so much because of his genetic syndrome”.  

This case scenario does not technically involve just one child but rather three different male students between 9 and 11 years of age with several ‘common’ genetic syndromes: Down, Fragile X, and Klinefelter.  All three were different ages, came from completely different school districts, and were seen by me in different calendar years.

However, all three boys had one thing in common, because of their genetic syndromes, which were marked by varying degrees of intellectual disability as well as speech language weaknesses, their parents were collectively told that there could be very little done for them with regards to expanding their expressive language as well as literacy development.

Similarly to the above scenarios, none of the children had undergone comprehensive language testing to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. Comprehensive assessment of each student revealed that each had the potential to improve their expressive abilities to speak in compound and complex sentences. Dynamic assessment of literacy also revealed that it was possible to teach each of them how to read.

Following the respective assessments, some of these students had became my private clients, while others’s parents have periodically written to me, detailing their children’s successes over the years.  Each parent had conveyed to me how “life-changing”a comprehensive IEE was to their child.

Case D: “Their behavior is just out of control”

The final case scenario I would like to discuss today involves several students with an educational classification of “Emotionally Disturbed” (pg 71).  Those of you who are familiar with my blog and my work know that my main area of specialty is working with school age students with psychiatric impairments and emotional behavioral disturbances.  There are a number of reasons why I work with this challenging pediatric population. One very important reason is that these students continue to be grossly underserved in school setting. Over the years I have written a variety of articles and blog posts citing a number of research studies, which found that a significant number of students with psychiatric impairments and emotional behavioral disturbances present with undiagnosed linguistic impairments (especially in the area of social communication), which adversely impact their school-based performance.

Here, we are not talking about two or three students rather we’re talking about the numbers in the double digits of students with psychiatric impairments and emotional disturbances, who did not receive appropriate therapies in their respective school settings.

The majority of these students were divided into two distinct categories. In the first category, students began to manifest moderate-to-severe speech language deficits from a very early age. They were classified in preschool and began receiving speech language therapy. However by early elementary age their general language abilities were found to be within the average range of functioning and their language therapies were discontinued.   Unfortunately since general language testing does not assess all categories of linguistic functioning such as critical thinking, executive functions, social communication etc., these students continued to present with hidden linguistic impairments, which continued to adversely impact their behavior.

Students in the second category also began displaying emotional and behavioral challenges from a very early age. However, in contrast to the students in the first category the initial language testing found their general language abilities to be within the average range of functioning. As a result these students never received any language-based therapies and similar to the students in the first category, their hidden linguistic impairments continued to adversely impact their behavior.

Students in both categories ended up following a very similar pattern of behavior. Their behavioral challenges in the school continued to escalate. These were followed by a series of suspensions, out of district placements, myriad of psychiatric and neuropsychological evaluations, until many were placed on home instruction. The one vital element missing from all of these students’ case records were comprehensive language evaluations with an emphasis on assessing their critical thinking, executive functions and social communication abilities. Their worsening patterns of functioning were viewed as “severe misbehaving” without anyone suspecting that their hidden language deficits were a huge contributing factor to their maladaptive behaviors in school setting.


So there you have it!  As promised, I’ve used four vastly different scenarios that show you the importance of comprehensive language evaluations in situations where it was not so readily apparent that they were needed.  I hope that parents and professionals alike will find this post helpful in reconsidering the need for comprehensive independent evaluations for students presenting with impaired academic performance.

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Friend or Friendly: What Does Age Have To Do with It?

In my social pragmatic language groups I target a wide variety of social communication goals for children with varying levels and degrees of impairment with a focus on improving their social pragmatic language competence.  In the past I have written blog posts on a variety of social  pragmatic language therapy topics, including strategies for improving students’ emotional intelligence as well as on how to teach students to develop insight into own strengths and weaknesses.  Today I wanted to discuss the importance of teaching students with social communication impairments, age recognition for friendship and safety purposes.

Now it is important to note that the focus of my sessions is a bit different from the focus of “teaching protective behaviors”, “circles of intimacy and relationships” or “teaching kids to deal with tricky people. Rather the goal is to teach the students to recognize who it is okay “to hang out” or be friends with, and who is considered to be too old/too young to be a friend.

Why is it important to teach age recognition?

There are actually quite a few reasons.

Firstly, it is a fairly well-known fact that in the absence of age-level peers with similar weaknesses, students with social communication deficits will seek out either much younger or much older children as playmates/friends as these individuals are far less likely to judge them for their perceived social deficits. While this may be a short-term solution to the “friendship problem” it also comes with its own host of challenges.  By maintaining relationships with peers outside of their age group, it is difficult for children with social communication impairments to understand and relate to peers of their age group in school setting. This creates a wider chasm in the classroom and increases the risk of peer isolation and bullying.

Secondly, the difficulty presented by friendships significantly outside of one’s peer group, is  the risk of, for lack of better words, ‘getting into trouble’. This may include but is not limited to exploring own sexuality (which is perfectly normal) with a significantly younger child (which can be problematic) or be instigated by an older child/adolescent in doing something inappropriate (e.g, shoplifting, drinking, smoking, exposing self to peers, etc.).

Thirdly, this difficulty (gauging people’s age) further exacerbates the students’ social communication deficits as it prevents them from effectively understanding such pragmatic parameters such as audience (e.g., with whom its appropriate to use certain language in a certain tone and with whom it is not) and topic (with whom it is appropriate to discuss certain subjects and with whom it is not).

So due to the above reasons I began working on age recognition with the students (6+ years of age) on my caseload diagnosed with social communication and language impairments.   I mention language impairments because it is very important to understand that more and more research is coming out connecting language impairments with social communication deficits. Therefore it’s not just students on the autism spectrum or students with social pragmatic deficits (an official DSM-5 diagnosis) who have difficulties in the area of social communication. Students with language impairments could also benefit from services focused on improving their social communication skills.

I begin my therapy sessions on age recognition by presenting the students with photos of people of different ages and asking them to attempt to explain how old do they think the people in the pictures are and what visual clues and/or prior knowledge assisted them in the formulation of their responses. I typically select the pictures from some of the social pragmatic therapy materials packets that I had created over the years (e.g., Gauging Moods, Are You Being Social?, Multiple Interpretations, etc.).

I make sure to carefully choose my pictures based on the student’s age and experience to ensure that the student has at least some degree of success making guesses.  So for a six-year-old I would select pictures of either toddlers or children his/her age to begin teaching them recognition of concepts: “same” and “younger” (e.g., Social Pragmatic Photo Bundle for Early Elementary Aged Children).

Kids playing in the room

For older children, I vary the photos of different aged individuals significantly.  I also introduce relevant vocabulary words as related to a particular age demographic, such as:

  • Infant (0-1 years of age)
  • Toddler (2-3 years of age)
  • Preschooler (3-5 years of age)
  • Teenager (individual between 13-19 years of age)
  • Early, mid and late 20s, 30s, 40s
  • Middle-aged (individuals around 50 years of age)
  • Senior/senior citizen (individuals ~65+ years of age)

I explain to the students that people of different ages look differently and teach them how to identify relevant visual clues to assist them with making educated guesses about people’s ages.  I also use photos of my own family or ask the students to bring in their own family photos to use for age determination of people in the presented pictures.  When students learn the ages of their own family members, they have an easier time determining the age ranges of strangers.

My next step is to explain to students the importance of understanding people’s ages.  I present to the students a picture of an individual significantly younger or older than them and ask them whether it’s appropriate to be that person’s friend.   Here students with better developed insight will state that it is not appropriate to be that person’s friend because they have nothing in common with them and do not share their interests. In contrast, students with limited insight will state that it’s perfectly okay to be that person’s friend.

This is the perfect teachable moment for explaining the difference between “friend” and “friendly”. Here I again reiterate that people of different ages have significantly different interests as well as have significant differences in what they are allowed to do (e.g., a 16-year-old is allowed to have a driver’s permit in many US states as well as has a later curfew while an 11-year-old clearly doesn’t).  I also explain that it’s perfectly okay to be friendly and polite with older or younger people in social situations (e.g., say hello all, talk, answer questions, etc.) but that does not constitute true friendship.

I also ask students to compile a list of qualities of what they look for in a “friend” as well as have them engage in some perspective taking (e.g, have them imagine that they showed up at a toddler’s house and asked to play with him/her, or that a teenager came into their house, and what their parents reaction would be?).

Finally, I discuss with students the importance of paying attention to who wants to hang out/be friends with them as well as vice versa (individuals they want to hang out with) in order to better develop their insight into the appropriateness of relationships. I instruct them to think critically when an older individual (e.g,  young adult) wants to get particularly close to them.  I use examples from an excellent post written by a colleague and good friend, Maria Del Duca of Communication Station Blog re: dealing with tricky people, in order to teach them to recognize signs of individuals crossing the boundary of being friendly, and what to do about it.

So there you have it. These are some of the reasons why I teach age recognition to clients with social communication weaknesses. Do you teach age recognition to your clients? If so, comment under this post, how do you do it and what materials do you use?

Helpful Smart Speech Resources Related to Assessment and Treatment of Social Pragmatic Disorders 

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Is it Language Disorder or Learning Disability? A Tutorial for Parents and Professionals

Recently I read a terrific article written in 2014 by Sun and Wallach entitled: “Language Disorders Are Learning Disabilities: Challenges on the Divergent and Diverse Paths to Language Learning Disability“. I found it to be so valuable that I wanted to summarize some of its key points to my readers because it bears tremendous impact on our understanding of what happens to children with language disorders when they reach school years.

The authors begin the article by introducing a scenario familiar to numerous SLPs. A young child is diagnosed with receptive, expressive  and social pragmatic language deficits as a toddler (2.5 years of age) begins to receive speech language services, which continue through preschool and elementary school until 2nd grade. The child is receiving therapy under the diagnosis of specific language impairment (SLI), which is characterized by difficulties with acquiring language in the absence of any other known disorders. By 2nd grade the child has seemingly “caught up” in the areas of listening comprehension and complex sentence production but is now struggling academically in the areas of reading and writing. Now his teachers are concerned that he has a learning disability, and his bewildered parent asks “Is it true that my child now has another problem on top of his language problem?”

From that scenario the authors skillfully navigate the complex relationship between language disorders and school disability labels to explain that the child does NOT have a new disorder but rather continues to face new challenges presented by his old disorder due to which he is now struggling to meet the growing language demands of the academic curriculum.

Here’s the approximate hierarchy of language development in young children:

  • Exploration of the environment
  • Play
  • Receptive Language
    • Comprehension of  words, phrases, sentences, stories
  • Expressive Language
    • Speaking single words, phrases, sentences, engaging in conversations, producing stories
    • Reading
      • Words, sentences, short stories, chapter books, etc.
      • General topics
      • Domain specific topics (science, social studies, etc)
    • Spelling
    • Writing
      • Words, sentences, short stories, essays

The problem is that if the child experiences any deficits in the foundational language areas such as listening and speaking, he will most certainly experience difficulties in the more complex areas of language which is reading and writing.

The authors continue by explaining the complexity of various labels given to children with language and learning difficulties under the IDEA 2004, DSM-5, as well as “research literature and nonschool clinical settings”. They conclude that: “the use of different labels by different professionals in different contexts should not obscure the commonalities among children with language disorders, no matter what they are called”.

Then they go on to explain that longitudinal (over a period of time) research has revealed numerous difficulties experienced by children with “early language disorders” during school years and in adulthood “in all domains of academic achievement (spelling, reading comprehension, word identification, word attack, calculation)…”. They also point out that many of these children with language disorders were later classified with a learning disability because their “later learning difficulties [took on] the form of problems acquiring higher levels of spoken language comprehension and expression as well as reading and writing”.

The authors also explain the complex process of literacy acquisition as well as discuss the important concept of “illusory recovery“.  They note that there may be  “a time period when the students with early language disorders seem to catch up with their typically developing peers” by undergoing a “spurt” in language learning, which is followed by a “postspurt plateau” because due to their ongoing deficits and an increase in academic demands “many children with early language disorders fail to “outgrow” these difficulties or catch up with their typically developing peers”.

They pointed out that because many of these children “may not show academic or language-related learning difficulties until linguistic and cognitive demands of the task increase and exceed their limited abilities”, SLPs must consider the “underlying deficits that may be masked by early oral language development” and “evaluate a child’s language abilities in all modalities, including preliteracy, literacy, and metalinguistic skills”.

Finally, the authors reiterate that since language is embedded in all parts of the curriculum “intervention choices should be based on students’ ongoing language learning and literacy problems within curricular contexts, regardless of their diagnostic labels”. In other words, SLPs should actively use the students’ curriculum in the intervention process.

In their conclusion the authors summarize the key article points:

  • The diagnostic labels may change but the students linguistic needs stay the same. Thus clinicians need to a) “identify existing language/literacy needs that may have been unidentified previously” and b) provide “relevant and functional interventions that are curriculum-based and literacy-focused”
  • Early language disorders are chronic and tend to follow children through time, manifesting themselves differently based upon an individual’s inherent abilities”. Thus SLPs need to be keenly aware regarding the nature and timing of “illusory recoveries” NOT to be fooled by them.
  • “Definitions of literacy have broadened” so “intervention goals and targeted language learning strategies should change accordingly to guide effective and relevant intervention
  • Majority of learning disabilities are language disorders that have changed over time”.

I hope that you’ve found this article helpful in furthering your understanding of these highly relevant yet often misunderstood labels and that this knowledge will assist you to make better decisions when serving the clients on your caseload.


Sun, L & Wallach G (2014) Language Disorders Are Learning Disabilities: Challenges on the Divergent and Diverse Paths to Language Learning Disability. Topics in Language Disorders, Vol. 34; (1), pp 25–38.

Helpful Smart Speech Therapy Resources:


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Language Processing Deficits (LPD) Checklist for School Aged Children

Need a Language Processing Deficits Checklist for School Aged Children

You can find it in my online store HERE

This checklist was created to assist speech-language pathologists (SLPs) with figuring out whether the student presents with language processing deficits which require further follow-up (e.g., screening, comprehensive assessment). The SLP should provide this form to both teacher and caregiver/s to fill out to ensure that the deficit areas are consistent across all settings and people.

Checklist Categories:

  • Listening Skills and Short Term Memory
  • Verbal Expression
  • Emergent Reading/Phonological Awareness
  • General Organizational Abilities
  • Social-Emotional Functioning
  • Behavior
  • Supplemental* Caregiver/Teacher Data Collection Form
  • Select assessments sensitive to Auditory Processing Deficits