Educationally Identified Disabilities

If you are having consistent concerns about your child’s learning or struggles in school, your child’s challenges may be due to a disability. In some cases, a child with persistent problems in school may have an educationally identified disability. Children who try hard in school but still fall behind may have a learning disability or other condition that is getting in the way of their school success and educational performance. School problems can have a big impact on day-to-day life for a child and for the family. If your child has poor grades in spite of working hard, underachieves in spite of being smart, or hates school in spite of strong academic skills, he or she may have a school problem worthy of consideration.

What are Educationally Identified Disabilities?

School problems may be due to one of the following factors: self-esteem & emotions, attention & executive functions, or learning disabilities. Regarding self-esteem and emotional well-being, many children may struggle in school due to a factor that is not directly academic. Children who are naturally more anxious or depressed, live in poverty, or are in the middle of a life change (divorce, death of a parent) may have learning problems. Children with attention problems tend to also struggle in school. This child may be constantly out of his seat, may not sit still, may does not follow directions, and may not complete his work. Children with poor executive functions often cannot get started, easily get off-track, and do not plan out an approach to a problem. Links for all of these issues are provided at the conclusion of this article. The rest of this piece is dedicated to learning disabilities and other educationally identified categories under the special education laws.

With regard to educationally identified disabilities, a child with a disability must first have one of the disabilities identified by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Second, the disability must have an adverse impact on educational performance. With regard to the first requirement, that the child have a disability that is eligible under the IDEA, the following categories are provided:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Developmental delay
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment, including blindness

The child must be identified with one of the above categories of disability to be considered for special education services. However, the condition of “adverse impact” must also be satisfied in order to qualify for services with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). It is important to know that your child does not necessarily need to be failing to be demonstrating adverse impact. See the following information below from the IDEA:

This does not mean, however, that a child has to be failing in school to receive special education and related services. According to IDEA, states must make a free appropriate public education available to ‘any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even if the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade, and is advancing from grade to grade.’ [§300.101(c)(1)]” [2]

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Developmental Delay, or Intellectual Disability, the requirement is not that the disability necessarily impacts academics, but rather, his or her “education” must be affected. For a child with autism, adverse impact could mean that the child is unable to participate in P.E. and music, cannot collaborate in group-work, and regularly fails to follow the teacher’s instructions. This difference would be considered adverse impact with or without academic problems.

In terms of learning disabilities, most states require that the child’s scores are very low in the area of disability in order to qualify as having an adverse impact, even though the child’s performance may be okay otherwise. For example, a child may be doing well in math but may have scores in reading that fall below the 12th percentile and two grade levels below peers his or her age. Generally, these scores are considered “special education qualifying” scores for a Specific Learning Disability. But, this rule is not set; it is only a guideline most states use.

What are the signs and symptoms of Educationally Identified Disabilities?

Defining all of the categories of disability under the IDEA is beyond the scope of this section. However, the following categories are most commonly seen in school buildings and are thus broadly described here.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with autism may or may not qualify for special education services. Children who do not have autism may qualify under the Autism Spectrum Disorder category for educational purposes. Yes, that’s right. The school does not get involved with diagnosis. Rather, the school’s job is to decide whether or not your child qualifies for services under the autism category. Schools do not diagnose autism. Thus, the term “Educational Diagnosis” is a misnomer and should be replaced with the term “educational identification.” Indeed, even if your child has been diagnosed with autism, the school will not take that to mean he or she meets the qualifications for services at school. If indeed you or the school are so concerned that your child needs special education, the school team is required to conduct a comprehensive evaluation. Such evaluations must consider your child’s social skills, adaptive abilities, communication skills, and school-related behavior. Generally, issues like sensory, academic performance, and cognitive ability are considered as well.

Within the school building, the following conditions must be evaluated in order to determine eligibility. First, the child must not be able to receive “reasonable benefit” from general education. This term means that the team (including parents and school professionals as equal partners) must decide that the child needs special education services to access the learning environment. Second, the child must qualify as having autism as defined by three conditions. First, the child must have communication problems that extend beyond speech and language into social communication, both expressively and receptively. Secondly, the child must have social problems in that he or she has difficulty understanding and interacting in social relationships. Finally, the child must have behavioral rigidity, which means that he or she has difficulty dealing with changing schedules, may have sensory problems, or may engage in repetitive behaviors that are significantly interfering with his or her access to the educational environment [5]. If your child cannot receive reasonable benefit from his or her education and meets the above criteria due to weaknesses in social, communication, and behavior, then the child qualifies for special education services under the Autism Spectrum Disorder category. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be designed to meet all areas of special education need [5].

Specific Learning Disability. Within a school building, children can be identified with having a learning disorder in a defined number of categories. Although the technical definition is broader, schools typically identify children under reading, writing, or math. If the school suspects your child has a qualifying disability, he or she must be evaluated for special education services. Please note that an outside report from a diagnostic clinic does not qualify your child for services. Rather, children have to meet very specific criteria to be identified at school. Further, children who are performing low due to such ‘exclusionary factors’ as poverty, lack of education in reading or math, a health condition or mental health issue, being an English Language Learner (ELL), or certain cultural factors will not qualify as having a learning disability under the law. As one might suspect, it is possible to be an ELL student and also have a learning disability. However, the qualifying criteria are tighter, and the child must have received adequate intervention to be identified. With regard to the qualifying factors, the following rubric is used by schools around the country to identify a child as having a learning disability within the school environment:

“The child does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to meet State approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child’s age or state-approved grade-level standards: 

  • Oral expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Basic reading skill
  • Reading fluency skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematical calculation
  • Mathematics problem solving

The child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or state-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas identified in this section when using a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention as determined by a body of evidence demonstrating Academic skill deficit(s) and Insufficient progress in response to scientific, research-based intervention.” (Paraphrased for simplicity) [7]

Specific Learning Disability in Reading. Within the school environment, the following are considered learning disabilities:

  • Basic reading skill
  • Reading fluency skills
  • Reading comprehension

If your child indeed has significant difficulties reading, your school may identify him or her under any of the above categories. Some children may qualify as having all of these disabilities. If your child is scoring roughly below the 12th percentile on diagnostic reading tests, such as the Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT), or is two or more grade levels behind peers, he or she is likely to qualify as having a Specific Learning Disability in reading. Basic reading skill involves skills like phonics, phonemic awareness, decoding, and reading grade level materials accurately. Reading fluency is the skill of reading smoothly and with enough speed that the child can essentially ‘keep up’ with peers. One reading test is called a ‘fluency probe’ whereby your child will read a passage while being timed. The school professional will count the number of words read accurately within a certain amount of time. Children who cannot read ‘fluently’ will read the passage too slow and with too many errors. Finally, reading comprehension is the skill of understanding what your child reads. This ability is usually tested by asking your child questions about a grade-level passage that he or she has read aloud. Many children can read fluently but do not understand what they read. Known clinically as “hyperlexia,” this term means that your child can decode but does not comprehend the materials.

Note that the word ‘Dyslexia’ is not used in any of these categories. The term ‘Dyslexia’ shares a complex relationship with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) in Reading. Interested readers are guided to an excellent article provided by Colorado Department of Education [6] on the topic of SLD as compared to Dyslexia. If a psychologist diagnoses your child with a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading (also known as Dyslexia), he or she may or may not qualify for special education. However, such outside diagnoses are extremely helpful to schools in determining service needs. If your child is struggling but maybe not to the point that the school has raised concern, it may be worthwhile to pursue a clinical evaluation and then to bring that comprehensive report back to the school to consider whether or not services are needed. Note that the school CANNOT require you to get an outside evaluation for any disability that qualifies under the IDEA.

Specific Learning Disability in Writing. Children who struggle in writing and achieve well below grade-level standards are typically identified under the category

  • Written expression

This disability means that your child has a writing problem that adverse impacts his or her education. Often, children who have an SLD in Reading (or Dyslexia) may also have problems with writing. This disability means that your child has difficulty gaining information from paper to his or her head (decoding = reading) and from his or her head to paper (encoding = writing). The clinical term used for such difficulties in writing is Specific Learning Disorder in Writing (sometimes known as Dysgraphia). Generally, schools consider children with scores on diagnostic tests, such as the Test of Written Language (TOWL), below the 12th percentile or two more grade levels below peers as having an SLD in written expression, and an IEP must be developed to meet all areas of special education need.

Specific Learning Disability in Math. Children who struggle in math may be considered by the school to have a learning disability in one of the following categories:

  • Mathematical calculation
  • Mathematics problem solving

Children who struggle with math may be identified under Specific Learning Disability in Mathematical calculation or Specific Learning Disability in Mathematics problem solving, or both. Mathematical calculation is the ability to perform math operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. A degree of ‘fluency’ is required, meaning that your child would need to know math facts and to understand the basic operations to do such calculations. To test these skills, your child may be assessed with a ‘curriculum-based measure’ or a ‘fluency probe’ involving a set of problems that are given and scored for errors. If your child cannot accurately answer a certain amount of problems (based on grade-level standards) within a time limit, he or she may be identified with a SLD in Mathematical calculation. Mathematics problem solving is the ability to read and understand story problems, follow mathematical procedures, accurately arrive at an answer, and describe how the problem was solved. Note, the describe part is critical because mathematics communication is now considered part of the math standard in most states. Your child may be tested for math skills using a test like the Key-Math or an achievement test like the Woodcock Johnson (WJ-current version) or the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT-current version). If your child’s scores fall below the 12th percentile or two or more grade levels below peers, your child may qualify as having an SLD in Mathematics, and an IEP must be developed to meet all of your child’s special education needs.

Developmental Delay. Children who are developmentally behind peers may qualify for special education services under the term “developmental delay.” This term is used only for young children. See the definition below:

“…for children from birth to age three (under IDEA Part C) and children from ages three through nine (under IDEA Part B), the term developmental delay, as defined by each State, means a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development; cognitive development; communication; social or emotional development; or adaptive [behavioral] development.” [2]

Children with developmental delays may struggle in multiple areas. They may have problems with motor skills and may have trouble participating in PE class, holding a pencil, sitting up in a chair, or walking down the hall. Some children may have trouble with communication, such as with the articulation of letters and sounds, and may have poor expressive language skills. In this case, a speech therapist will determine whether the child has a delay (i.e., child is likely to grow out of it) or a disorder (i.e., requiring specific treatment). Some degree of cognitive impairment is often observed in children with developmental delays. This aspect is a tad confusing because if the child has an intellectual disability (low IQ and adaptive skills), he or she is not considered ‘delayed’ by these criteria. Generally, children with delays in cognitive development are more mildly impaired. The term ‘delay’ also implies that the school team believes the child’s skills may develop adequately over time. Children with delays may also struggle with adaptive skills like self-dressing, self-feeding, or getting around the school building. Finally, emotional or social delays that interfere with academic performance may also be observed.

Children CANNOT qualify as delayed if a cultural or socio-economic reason explains these delays. Delays of this nature are assessed using a comprehensive evaluation that considers motor, adaptive, speech-language, and cognitive development. If your child has a significant delay in any or multiple areas, and adverse impact is observed, your child will be identified with Developmental Delay. An IEP must be developed to meet all areas of special education need.

What if your child does not grow out of the “delay?” Sometime before your child’s 9th birthday, the school must conduct a triennial review or re-evaluation. If a child who previously was identified under Developmental Delay still appears to have difficulties that are adversely impacting his or her learning, the school must determine under which other category these problems qualify. For example, a child who grew out of the Developmental Delay but is still far behind in reading may qualify for an SLD in Reading. A child with significant social communication deficits and behavior problems may qualify under Autism Spectrum Disorder. Still others may qualify for services under speech-language disability or other condition.

Intellectual Disability. The term intellectual disability means low cognitive ability. This term replaces the archaic label of ‘mental retardation’ and was put into the law as such by President Obama with the provision of Rosa’s Law [2].

Intellectual disability is defined as: “… significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance” [2].

Children with Intellectual Disabilities have deficits in intelligence as shown on a standardized IQ test administered by a qualified person (typically a School Psychologist). However, low IQ is not sufficient to qualify as intellectually disabled. Rather, children need to also show deficits in adaptive skills. Typically, ‘qualifying’ scores are below 70 on an IQ test (such as the WISC-current version) and an adaptive test (such as the Vineland-current version). Most school teams require systematic observations in all adaptive domains to determine the adverse impact of the disability. If your child scores below 70 on the IQ and adaptive tests and is unable to demonstrate the skills needed to access the learning environment, he or she qualifies for special education services. An IEP must be developed to meet all areas of need.

How is Educationally Identified Disabilities treated?

Although children do not tend to ‘grow out’ of learning disabilities, most individuals with such needs learn to navigate the challenges and find success in life. It may be that your child has to steer clear of certain types of positions that require a high demand on the skills where he or she is lacking. For example, someone with dyslexia may choose to avoid law school. Then again, many individuals with such disorders indeed pursue these language heavy careers and do just fine. If you have concerns about any of the learning problems identified in this article, it is worthwhile to consult the school early and often. Be persistent. Competent, evidence-based school services and interventions can be the difference between a miserable and ineffective experience in school and a challenging but successful one. It is worth the effort to pursue a comprehensive evaluation if you suspect your child will qualify for such services. With these supports in place, it is possible to see growth in skills, the ability to navigate learning challenges, and the potential to live a fulfilling life.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Educationally Identified Disabilities?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Helpful resources for Educationally Identified Disabilities

[1] Parent Center Hub.

[2] Parent Center Hub. Categories of Disability under the IDEA

[3] State of Connecticut Board of Education: Guidelines for Identification of ASD

[4] State of Colorado in collaboration with JFK Partners, Center of Excellence for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities. Exceptional Student Services Unit. The Office of Special Education (June 2015). Guide for Educational Identification of Autism.

[5] See Chapter 18 & 19 on the Educational Identification of Autism in:

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.



[6] Colorado Department of Education. Dyslexia and SLD Topic Brief.

[7] Colorado Department of Education. Guidelines for identification of Specific Learning Disability. Topic Brief.

[8] Colorado Department of Education. Response to Intervention Process & Referral for Evaluation.

[9] Mather & Goldstein (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: A guide to intervention and classroom management, third edition. Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Co, Baltimore.

[10] Reid, Leinemann, and Hagaman (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition. The Guilord Press, NY.

[11] Anderman & Anderman (2009). Classroom motivation. Jenson books.

[12] Shaywitz, M.D., Sally (2005) Overcoming Dyslexia: A New Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Every Level

[13] Bell, Nancy (2013). Seeing Stars: Symbol Imagery for Phonological and Orthographic Processing in Reading and Spelling.

[14] Bell, Nancy (2007). Visualizing and Verbalizing: For Language Comprehension and Thinking.

[15] Orlassino, Cheryl. Blast Off to Reading!: 50 Orton-Gillingham Based Lessons for Struggling Readers and Those with Dyslexia.

[16] Orlassino, Cheryl (2014). A Workbook for Dyslexics, 3rd Edition.

Perseverance book for kids:

[17] Spires, Ashley (2014). The Most Magnificent Thing

[18] Gordon, Jon & Scott, Korey (2012).The Energy Bus for Kids: A Story about Staying Positive and Overcoming Challenges.

[19] Kobi Yamada & Besom, Mae (2013). What Do You Do With An Idea?

Learning & motivation books for kids:

[20] Hamm, Mia & Thompson, Carol. (2006) Winners Never Quit.

[21] Deak, JoAnn & Ackerbury, Sarah (2010). Your Fantastic Elastic Brain Stretch it Shape it.

[22] Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the Feedback I think (Best me I can be)

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