CRITERION 3: The group determines that its findings under paragraphs (a)(1) and (2) of this section are not primarily the result of

(i) A visual, hearing, or motor disability;
(ii) Intellectual Disability*;
(iii) Emotional disturbance;
(iv) Cultural factors;
(v) Environmental or economic disadvantage; or
(vi) Limited English proficiency.




This step in the SLD identification process is designed to ensure that students are not identified as having SLD when their lack of academic achievement (Criterion 1) and lack of response to scientific, research-based intervention (Criterion 2) are primarily the result of other factors.

This does not mean the school team must completely rule out each of these factors. It is entirely possible for one or more of these factors to be influencing a student’s lack of achievement and response to intervention and for the student to have SLD. Therefore, the school team must determine the degree to which each factor affects the student’s performance. The existence of the factors is not the issue; the issue is the degree to which each factor adversely affects performance. The fundamental question is whether the poor performance is primarily the result of any of these factors.

A full evaluation may not be necessary for each factor. In many cases the data gathered during the RTI process may be sufficient to determine that environmental, cultural, or economic factors and LEP are not the primary cause of a lack of academic achievement and lack of response to scientific, research-based intervention. This can be determined if there is documentation that the majority of students from similar demographics are meeting expectations.

Considerations specific to each factor are discussed below.

Visual Disability


Screening for vision problems is routine in most public schools. If a vision screening indicates normal vision, a visual problem can be can be ruled out as the primary cause of the student’s academic underachievement unless an evaluation from an appropriate credentialed provider (e.g., optometrist/ophthalmologist) provides evidence to the contrary. If screening finds a vision problem (i.e., the student may need glasses), then additional evaluation must be conducted to determine the extent of the problem and attempts should be made to correct the problem. If, after correction, the student’s poor academic performance continues, the school team can conclude that a visual disability is not causing the poor performance.

Hearing Disability


Similar to the process for vision problems, hearing screenings are generally performed in schools. If a hearing screening indicates normal hearing, a hearing disability can be ruled out unless an evaluation from an appropriate credentialed provider (e.g., audiologist) provides evidence to the contrary. If the screening indicates a hearing problem, further evaluation is required. If the hearing problem is corrected (i.e., via hearing aids) and the student continues to perform poorly, a hearing disability can be ruled out as a primary cause of the student’s academic underachievement.

Motor Disability


Unlike vision and hearing screenings, schools don’t generally screen for motor difficulties. Motor problems—also known as orthopedic impairments—can interfere with typical school tasks such as handwriting and walking. Assessments to measure motor skills may be necessary to determine if such difficulties are interfering with academic achievement. As with vision and hearing issues, if the problem is corrected and achievement improves, motor difficulties can be considered as the primary cause of underachievement and the school team could recommend consideration of eligibility under the orthopedic impairment category of IDEA. If the achievement problems persist after application of prosthetic devices or intervention, the school team should consider SLD as the primary cause of underachievement.

  A student with a primary disability in the area of vision, hearing, and/or orthopedic impairment may be considered as also having an LD if the identified learning deficits are significantly greater than what can be reasonably expected as a result of the primary disability (e.g., hearing loss) alone. Again, all the identified needs of the child must be addressed, whether or not typically linked to the child’s primary disability.

Intellectual Disability

This is the one factor that cannot co‐exist with SLD. Students with intellectual disabilities (ID) exhibit significant deficits in measured intelligence and adaptive behavior.

If the school team suspects an ID, measures of adaptive behavior and an intellectual evaluation should be requested to confirm or rule out the presence of ID. Guidelines for identification of IDs are outlined in the periodically updated handbooks published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Emotional Disturbance

Students with SLD often display inappropriate and disruptive classroom behavior. Other students may have emotional problems that do not manifest themselves in externalizing behaviors. For students who display behavior problems, the evaluation team must determine whether the student’s learning problems are causing the behavior problems, or whether underlying emotional problems are affecting the student’s ability to acquire academic skills. The task of determining which condition is primary in terms of explaining the academic deficit(s) is often difficult. When social or emotional behavior is a concern, the school team may consider data regarding

  Criterion 5 (Observation) specifically requires that the student be “observed in the child’s learning environment (including the regular classroom setting) to document the child’s academic performance and behavior in the area(s) of difficult academic performance and behavior” (§300.310 (a)). Thus, the school team should necessarily consider the observation data as part of a determination regarding this factor.

Improving academic achievement is interconnected with effective instruction and effective behavior support. There is a strong positive relationship between academic engaged time and student achievement (Algozzine & Algozzine, 2007; Algozzine et al., 2011; Brophy, 1988; Bruhn & Watt, 2012; Cook et al., 2013; Filter & Horner, 2009; Fisher et al., 1981; Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002; Horner et al., 2009; Lassen, Steele, & Sailor, 2006; McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun,& Cochrane, 2008; McIntosh, Horner, Chard, Dickey, & Braun, 2008McIntosh, Sadler, & Brown, 2012; Preciado, Horner, & Baker, 2009; Sanford, 2006; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997). There is also an inverse relationship between student misbehavior and a teacher’s ability to engage students. As engagement goes up, misbehavior and suspensions tend to go down (Osher, Bear, Sprague, & Doyle, 2010). Research supports that an integrated approach to academic and behavior support can be beneficial for enhancing student outcomes.

Cultural Factors

The impact of cultural factors can also be difficult to ascertain. Cultural factors that may affect a student’s school performance include

  • communication patterns,
  • behavioral expectations,
  • gender-based family roles, and
  • prescribed cultural practices.

Information from interviews with parents (and other community members who share the student’s cultural and linguistic background) would be particularly helpful in determining the impact of cultural factors as well as an in-depth family social history, if warranted.

A separate, but related, consideration is whether data indicate that the student’s general education instruction and interventions are culturally appropriate and whether the student functions differently from classroom to classroom, year to year, from intervention setting to general education classroom, or between home and school. (See Considerations for English Language Learners)

In determining the impact of cultural factors, data might indicate that most students of a particular cultural or ethnic group are achieving at acceptable levels in response to general education and intervention. If a particular student is receiving the same instruction in a similar learning environment, but not achieving similarly to peers from the same cultural background, a determination that the learning difficulties are not due to cultural factors might be made.

The influence of cultural factors is closely related to linguistic factors, such as LEP, discussed next.

Limited English Proficiency

To adequately make the determination that LEP is not the primary cause of the student’s academic difficulties, the school team should include at least one person who is knowledgeable about the development of English and related achievement skills for the student’s age and language/cultural background, and is knowledgeable about students with LEP who are identified with an SLD. Research has indicated that students who are English language learners (ELLs) take approximately 2–3 years to acquire basic interpersonal communication skills and between 5 and 7 years to acquire the cognitive academic language proficiency that is required to function effectively in academic content subjects (Brown & Ortiz, 2014; Cummins, 1981; Cummins, 1981; Klingner & Eppolito, 2014; Rhodes, Ochoa, & Ortiz, 2005)

Schools are required to identify all students whose home language is other than English. This is typically done via a parent survey. Additional evaluations are required to determine the student’s proficiency with English language skills that are often repeated over time so that progress in learning the majority language can be made. Some assessments also include proficiency in Spanish and special concern should be devoted to children who show weaknesses in both languages and the educational options provided that may limit the growth in both. School teams must have access to such evaluations in order to determine if LEP is the major contributing factor.

Students who are in the process of learning English will often display academic gaps that may look like deficiencies, especially if their education has been disrupted during an immigration experience. Similarly, ELLs may be particularly at risk for lack of appropriate instruction issues if language instruction has not been provided that addresses the student’s language development needs. Given the paucity of research on appropriate interventions, assessment, and response rates for students who are learning English, it can be difficult for school teams to differentiate SLD from characteristics of second language acquisition (Zumeta, Zirkel, & Danielson, 2014). Extensive resources for such information can be found on the formerly federally funded Center on Instruction website.

Below are questions the school team might consider when determining the impact of LEP on a student’s academic achievement:

  • What is the student’s native (home) language and culture?
  • Is the student proficient in his or her native (home) language based on a formal assessment of language proficiency in the native language?
  • Has the student failed to develop age-appropriate native language skills despite opportunities to learn?
  • What is the gap between the student’s proficiency in English and his or her native language?
  • Has the student failed to gain English language skills despite instruction?
  • Is there a difference in the student’s performance by subject area, with higher performance in areas that are less related to language proficiency?
  • Are the student’s learning difficulties pervasive in both his or her native language and English?
  • Are the expectations of the student’s home culture consistent with school expectations?
  • What is the performance of other ELLs with similar levels of proficiency in this school/district and subject area?
  • Can any social or psychological factors (e.g., refugee or immigrant status; mental health concerns; racial or ethnic bias) be identified?
  • Did someone with expertise in the student’s dominant culture and language AND someone who is knowledgeable about students with LEP who are identified with an SLD participate in the school team?
  • Was someone with expertise in the student’s dominant culture and language AND someone who is knowledgeable about students with LEP who are identified with an SLD involved in conducting and interpreting the evaluation data?

(Adapted from Wisconsin’s Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) Rule: A Technical Guide for Determining the Eligibility of Students With Specific Learning Disabilities, 2013)

Given the rise in the population of culturally and linguistically diverse students in the United States, attention to this factor is critical to appropriate identification. Therefore, it is further discussed in Considerations for English Language Learners.

Environmental or Economic Disadvantage

The last factor to examine is that of environmental or economic disadvantage. Situations such as homelessness, child abuse, poor nutrition, socioeconomic status (SES), and other factors may adversely impact a student's ability to learn.

SES is defined as an economic and sociological combined total measure of a person's work experience and of an individual's or family’s economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation.


As detailed in the Education and Socioeconomic Status Fact Sheet from the American Psychological Association, research continues to link lower SES to lower academic achievement and slower rates of academic progress as compared with higher SES communities. Therefore, careful consideration of a student’s SES is critical to this factor. Important findings regarding effects of low SES include:


  • Children from low-SES environments acquire language skills more slowly, exhibit delayed letter recognition and phonological awareness, and are at risk for reading difficulties (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008).
  • Students from low-SES schools entered high school 3.3 grade levels behind students from higher SES schools. In addition, students from the low-SES groups learned less over 4 years than children from higher SES groups, graduating 4.3 grade levels behind those of higher SES groups (Palardy, 2008).
  • In 2007, the high school dropout rate among persons 16–24 years old was highest in low-income families (16.7%) as compared to high-income families (3.2%) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008).
  • SES and its correlates, poverty and health;
  • family mobility;
  • number of schools attended;
  • school attendance;
  • family change such as divorce or death;
  • substandard housing;
  • inadequate nutrition and food insecurity;
  • severe physical/psychological trauma;
  • exposure to violence in the community;
  • chronic medical conditions;
  • sleep disorders; and
  • observations across a variety of settings, such as testing/routine classroom instruction/interventions/noninstructional time.

If needed supports are provided and the student’s academic achievement improves, then environmental and economic disadvantages cannot be ruled out as primary contributors. However, if supports implemented with fidelity fail to produce improvements in learning, particularly if other students with similar environmental or economic situations are performing adequately to general education and interventions, then the student should be considered for SLD eligibility.

Ultimately, Criterion 3 of SLD identification may well be the most difficult and complicated of all. There are no straightforward guidelines, a wide variety of relevant factors, significant interaction among a host of variables, and a relative dearth of research upon which to base decisions, making assessing the contribution of these factors extremely error-prone.

It is important to not exclude a student from SLD eligibility simply because of the existence of one or more of these factors. On the other hand, it is equally critical not to identify a student as having SLD and being in need of special education when, in fact, one or more of these factors is the primary cause of poor academic performance.

Efforts to determine the relative contribution of visual, hearing, motor, and intellectual disabilities as well as cultural factors, environmental or economic disadvantage, and LEP as factors in poor school performance and lack of response to interventions should include systematic strategies that have been shown to be effective for students with similar needs and characteristics. For example, if many students presenting with similar factors (e.g., LEP) are able to make adequate progress in the tiered system of supports, this gives the school team more confidence that a particular child’s struggles are not due to a lack of appropriate instruction.

Should the school team find that one (or more) of these factors is the primary cause of a student’s lack of achievement, efforts to address the student’s needs through interventions in general education must continue.

  For more information on the co-morbidity of ADHD and SLD, explore the following resources:

NASP’s Position Statement on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder 

American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children resources on ADHD identification, including   
Is it ADHD or a Learning Disorder?  and Identifying Coexisting Conditions

International Consensus Statement on ADHD, January 2002. (2002). Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 5(2), 89–111.





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