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Answered by Dr. Marjory Phillips, C. Psych. Director, Integra Program, Child Development Institute

Having LDs may complicate the picture of anxiety, and may make it tricky for educators to recognize overlapping behaviors.  For example, students who appear restless, distracted and who have difficulty concentrating may have a neurodevelopmental disorder, such as a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). But students may also be distracted by internal thoughts and worries, reflecting anxiety.  And for about 30% of students with LDs, the difficulties in concentration may reflect both LDs and anxiety.  Similarly, students with LDs that impact social perception, navigating social conversation, and social problem solving may also experience social anxiety.

The following chart provides a comparative overview of the signs and symptoms of a learning disability and an anxiety disorder.

Sign / Symptom Learning Disability Anxiety Disorder
Difficulty concentrating Attention, Memory overload Generalized Anxiety
Difficulty following instructions Language, Processing Speed, Attention, Memory Generalized Anxiety
Rigid decision making; Difficulty shifting ideas or problem solving Executive Function: cognitive flexibility, impulse control, concrete reasoning Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Difficulty initiating social interactions;

Group work

Visual-perceptual problems (‘reading’ social cues), low Processing speed, Memory, Executive function Social Anxiety

So what to do about this? 

  1. The key strategy is to know your students: read the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and the psychoeducational assessment report, (if available).
  2. Implement learning strategies for both aspects: provide appropriate accommodations for the learning disability and implement good strategies for anxiety. For example, a student with social anxiety and LDs may need both direct coaching to develop the lagging social skills and support for anxiety (predictable routines, advance warning of changes, deliberate seating and assignments to partners for group work, etc).

For more in-depth information on recognizing and supporting anxiety in students with LDs, please watch an LD@school webinar recording presented by Dr. Phillips: Click here to access the webinar recording, "Recognizing and Supporting Anxiety in Students with LDs".

Related Resources on the LD@school Website:

Click here to access the article, "Strategies to Support Students with Learning Disabilities who Experience Anxiety".

Click here to read the answer to the Ask the Expert question, "How can mindfulness help students deal with feelings of anxiety?"

Click here to access the article, "Learning Disabilities and Mental Health".

Dr. Marjory Phillips is the Director of the Integra Program at the Child Development Institute, the only accredited children’s mental health agency in Canada to specialize in providing mental health services to children, youth and families with learning disabilities. Dr. Phillips received her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of Waterloo. Cross-appointed as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, Dr. Phillips worked as a clinical psychologist and clinical director in a children’s treatment rehabilitation in Kingston for 12 years. She joined the Queen’s University Psychology Department on a full-time basis in 2004 to establish a psychology training clinic for graduate students and to pursue research interests in pediatric acquired brain injury and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Dr. Phillips moved to Toronto in 2008 to join Integra where she has also held cross appointments as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at York University and is a Clinical Supervisor with the University of Toronto.