Gender Differences in Learning Disabilities

More boys than girls are identified with learning disabilities.

At first sight, learning disabilities appear to be more common among school-aged boys than girls. About two-thirds of school-age students identified with learning disabilities are males. Until recently, the research on learning disabilities (LD) purported that the ratio of boys to girls with learning disabilities was between 5:1 and 9:1, respectively, in the school identified population. However, a recent, comprehensive study conducted has demonstrated an equal number of boys and girls having learning disabilities.

Theories Explaining This Gender Difference

1. Biological Vulnerability

Many theories have been proposed to explain why more boys than girls are identified as having learning disabilities. Some researchers proposed that the increased prevalence is due to a child’s biological vulnerability. This means that they may be born with or acquire a tendency for a learning disability early in life.

2. Referral Bias

Other studies suggest that this discrepancy in identification may be due to referral bias. Boys are more likely to be referred for special education when they demonstrate academic problems because of other apparent behaviors.  Boys who are frustrated and struggle academically are more likely to act out. They may be hyperactive, impulsive, or disruptive in class, while girls typically show less obvious signs of their academic frustrations. For instance, girls who only show inattention are more likely to be missed by teachers and seen as uninterested in the subject matter.

This same ratio of boys to girls (5:1) is reported for ADHD as well.

3. Test Bias

The true frequency of learning disabilities among genders is subject to much dispute for many reasons. Some researchers say that the lack of a universal definition of “learning disability” and the absence of accurate, objective testing criteria to measure learning disabilities directly correlate to inaccurate identification of children with learning disabilities.

Many of the tests used to diagnose learning disabilities were designed and standardized on boys.  Consequently, these tests might not address differences in the way that boys reveal their learning disabilities, as compared with girls. The tests may not address certain types of problems found specifically with girls.

Growth in the Identification of Students with Learning Disabilities

Since the category of learning disability first arose in 1975, the number of students identified with learning disabilities has tripled. Approximately 2.4 million students are identified as having a learning disability and receive special education services in schools.

A number of reasons have been suggested for the vast increase in children diagnosed with learning disabilities.  These reasons include:

1. Biological and psychosocial stressors may put more children at risk for having learning disabilities, and as a result, more children are identified.

2. The diagnosis of LD is more socially acceptable than many other special education classifications.

There is a reluctance on the part of teachers to label a child “mentally retarded” or “emotionally disturbed.” Parents even prefer the "LD classification" and push for it.

3. Children who are academically underachieving are incorrectly labeled as individuals with learning disabilities. The evaluation and diagnostic criteria may be too subjective, unreliable, and flawed by nature. Furthermore, there may be few, if any, alternative programs for these underachieving students.

4.  Greater overall awareness of learning disabilities and comprehensive analysis of student performances have resulted in more substantiated referrals and identifications. Teachers and parents are cognizant of the different types of services that are available to the students.

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