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A Scientific Look at Learning Disabilities

By Abbey Becker

Lauren McGrath

Photo of Lauren McGrath by Murugi Thande

School of Education, Teaching, and Health (SETH) professor Lauren McGrath began her undergraduate studies like many students—she knew what she liked, but she didn’t know what she wanted to major in or pursue career-wise. “I knew I liked science, and I knew I didn’t want to do pre-med, because I didn’t have the stomach for it,” she says.

She took various science courses, discovered an interest in neuroscience, and began working on neuropsychology problems, or the connections between the brain and behavior. After college, she worked in a lab that studied autism and language impairment. “My experience in the lab brought me into the field of learning disabilities,” says McGrath. “Early development seemed to have a lot of promise for intervention.” She went on to earn her master’s and PhD in child clinical psychology with a focus on developmental cognitive neuroscience.

When McGrath saw that SETH was looking to hire a professor that incorporates neuropsychology concepts in the education field, she knew she’d found a match. “It’s a very unique request,” she says. “I was curious about what educational interventions were out there, and AU was specifically looking for the type of research I do to bridge the gap between cognitive science and education. I knew I would learn a lot from my colleagues about what’s happening on the ground with learning disabilities.”

McGrath focuses her research on neuropsychological, genetic, and environmental risk factors for learning disabilities. “My main interest right now is trying to understand why learning disabilities are co-morbid,” she says. “If you have a reading disability, you’re much more likely to have a math disability as well.”

As the director of the Learning, Education, and Related Neuropsychology (LEARN) Lab, McGrath gets to perform research on this topic with the help of students. “We’re studying the cognitive risk factors for learning disabilities,” she says. “We’ll mainly be testing kids with behavioral and computerized tests, but AU just purchased EEG equipment, so we may be able to expand into brain imaging methods very soon.”

McGrath shared her research findings with her student, many of whom have a special education focus or are current teachers in the D.C. community, during the fall 2013 semester. She’s learning some of the workaround tricks that they’ve used in their classrooms or with student teaching, and she in turn helps them figure out new ways of looking at a disability. “One student, a high school English teacher, was telling me that her students with learning disabilities have trouble with paraphrasing,” she says. “Together, we came up with a visual way to explain paraphrasing. The student was able to use this new technique in the classroom with good success. It was exciting to see our class content translating into new educational strategies.”

With this kind of collaboration, McGrath hopes to connect the neuropsychology field and education’s study of learning disabilities. “I’m hoping that what we’re learning about disabilities will funnel down to actual teachers,” she says. “It would be great to guide educational interventions with the best cognitive science on learning disabilities.”