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Most students encounter academic challenges sometime during their academic career. But, when is a learning struggle a learning disability?

The answer to this question is not always an easy one and, frankly, depends on whom you ask! Professionals outside of the school setting may diagnose a child with a learning disability or identify areas of learning deficits. This information can be extremely helpful to understanding individual learning needs, and seeking help to address academic concerns. However, students must meet Wisconsin eligibility criteria to be considered for specific learning disabilities (SLD) programming in the public school setting.  

Qualifying for special education

In order for a student to qualify for SLD, which is a type of special education, in Wisconsin, many steps are taken to ensure that a true disability exists. Beginning in early elementary school, all students are screened throughout the school year in order to identify those youngsters who may have learning needs. Inadequate classroom achievement and insufficient student progress must be documented.

However, these children will not qualify for special education immediately after being identified. First, an identified student must be observed in the classroom setting. The professional doing the observation will look out for and document those interventions the teacher attempts to help the student learn. There must be two attempted sets of interventions in order to qualify for special help.

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It also takes awhile for a student to qualify for SLD because the state wants to give enough time to determine if the attempted interventions have worked. Those interventions must be scientifically researched or evidence-based, and must be administered with fidelity. In other words, appropriate interventions must be chosen and consistently implemented for a period of time long enough to assess if the chosen interventions have been successful.

Different schools, different (interpretation of) rules

Upon identification, all public schools must provide appropriate interventions to match individual learning needs. However, each school district has discretion to determine how interventions are chosen and delivered. To add to the confusion, terminology and procedures for dealing with SLD may differ from district to district.

The SLD rule can be difficult to interpret.  If you have academic concerns for your child, your first contact should be the classroom teacher. A member of your support school’s staff, such as a psychologist, social worker or guidance counselor, may also provide you with helpful information.  The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, at dpi.gov, is also an excellent resource in helping you navigate the waters of SLD.

Terri Peckerman-Stein is a licensed clinical social worker with North Shore Center.
 

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