What Are Nonverbal Learning Differences?

Executive function strategies, like those in the SMARTS Program, can benefit all learners, especially those with learning differences (aka learning disabilities). When naming learning differences, most people tend to think of verbal learning differences, like dyslexia. But what about nonverbal learning differences?

Nonverbal learning differences (NVLD), which affect students’ social skills (but not their speech or writing skills), represent an often overlooked population of students who may struggle in school. Personally, I didn’t know as much about NVLD as I should. Fortunately, I found this terrific article from Understood.org that gives an overview of NVLD and how to support students at school and at home.

While NVLD doesn’t affect everyone in the same way, students with  NVLD often have difficulty with conceptual skills, grasping large concepts, fine and gross motor skills, and visual-spatial skills. They also struggle with social skills and interpreting social cues.

Some children with NVLD have good language skills, but they have trouble sorting through information and understanding bigger concepts. They may not have issues with written or spoken language. But they may think in literal terms and miss subtle, nonverbal cues.

Unlike students with dyslexia, students with NVLD may have strong abilities in terms of reading and writing; however, their challenges with abstract concepts may lead to difficulties understanding math concepts or interpreting figurative language when reading poetry.

Children with NVLD tend to talk a lot, but they don’t always share in a socially appropriate way. Or they might not relay the most important information. They often miss social cues, so making and keeping friends is a big challenge. There can also be misunderstandings with teachers, parents and other adults.

Unlike kids with language-based learning disabilities like dyslexia, kids with NVLD have trouble understanding communication that isn’t verbal. That includes body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.

The challenges faced by students with NVLD are not entirely academic in nature. When students with NVLD struggle to interpret social cues, they are likely to face ridicule from peers, experiencing loneliness and social isolation as a result.

Since NVLD is an ‘invisible disability,’ it is important that educators understand what it is and how to support students who are dealing with it.

Do you work with students who have nonverbal learning differences? Is this topic new to you as well? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager