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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center

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Learning Problems Have Common Risk Factors


By: Mia Daucourt

Think about your last visit to the doctor’s office for a sore throat. If it was a visit to a new doctor or a walk-in clinic, you were asked to fill out a family history questionnaire, detailing the health issues that run in your family. You probably remember also being asked about whether or not you had recently traveled on a plane or been exposed to germs in some new way, like starting school or work back up again, or maybe the doctor asked if anyone close to you had also been sick recently. The reason behind these questions is that your genetic predispositions and all those different potential environmental exposures represent risk factors that make you prone to many different illnesses, not just sore throats. Similar to health issues you go to the doctor for, learning disabilities also have a lot of common risk factors.

A recent meta-analysis by Daucourt and colleagues looked into the possibility for common risk factors among reading disability and a couple of the most common co-occurring learning problems. Specifically, they looked at the potential for shared genetic and environmental risk factors between reading and math problems and reading and attention problems. A meta-analysis is a study that compiles the results from as many studies as possible on the topic being investigated in order to figure out the link between two different traits with as big of a sample as possible. The benefit of this big, combined sample is not having to worry about differences in a sample or study making the relationship seem a certain way. On the flipside, a meta-analysis also allows you to test which of the sample and study differences are making the results of one study differ from another study on the same topic.

Overall, the researchers found that, just like the illnesses you go to a doctor for, reading and math and reading and attention problems also have common risk factors. They also found that reading and math have more risk factors in common than reading and attention problems. Importantly, the majority of the common risk factors were genetic, so a lot of kids are born predisposed to have difficulties in both reading and math. This means that when screening kids for reading-related problems, it’s important to consider that they may also have some issues with math-related problems too. Like a doctor’s office gathering a family history of health problems, a family history of learning-related problems could also be really informative for what learning-related challenges kids may face.

Finally, the researchers found that the links between these learning-related challenges were different based on the country in which they were studied, whether or not the sample was predominantly White, and the ways reading, math and ADHD were measured. The important takeaway from the differences found is that these characteristics should also be considered when helping children with their learning-related issues. Not every child is going to look the same, so it matters to take their individualities into account!

Citation: Daucourt, M. C., Erbeli, F., Little, C. W., Haughbrook, R., & Hart, S. A. (2019). A meta-analytical review of the genetic and environmental correlations between reading and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and reading and math. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1-34