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5. Learning and attention issues affect children from all income levels, but low-income children are more likely to be identified as having SLD.

People from all walks of life have learning and attention issues, but data indicates that children in poverty are identified at a higher rate. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, children living at or below the federal poverty level are more than twice as likely to be identified with SLD as children in households with income four times the poverty level.11

Research does not indicate a clear reason for this trend, but several factors likely contribute to the higher rate of SLD identification among low-income children. In particular, environmental factors may play a role:

  • Studies indicate that poverty increases the risk of low birthweight, exposure to lead and other risk factors associated with disabilities.12
  • Children living in poverty are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).13 ACEs can cause chronic stress that affects neurodevelopment in ways that make it harder to learn and control emotions. Students who experience four or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning or behavioral challenges.14

Potential bias may also impact identification:

  • A recent study of special education in Massachusetts found that low-income students were much more likely to be identified with a disability if they attended school in a relatively high-income district than if they attended school in a relatively low-income district, suggesting that low-income students may be overidentified with disabilities.15

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