Learning disabilities and disorders: a guide for parents

By Shannon Grassby, Clinical Psychology Registrar

Learning difficulty, learning disorder or learning disability are terms you may hear if your child consistently finds schoolwork too challenging.

The process of learning and schooling can be exciting for children, who from kindergarten or even preschool begin to learn the foundation skills in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics. For most children, whilst this process may present some challenges at first, the majority are able to progress through to learning more complex skills.

But this is not always the case. For some children, even with quality and persistent help, instruction and intervention, they may always find some aspects of learning very challenging. These challenges may represent a learning difficulty, or a learning disability in a specific area of learning.

Learning difficulties, learning disorders and learning disabilities: what’s the difference?

A learning difficulty is a way to describe a child who has been identified as having problems with an aspect of learning, such as reading, writing or numeracy, and whose learning is falling behind their peers. It may be the teacher, parent or child who recognises the issue.

A learning disability refers to a child who has been identified as having a learning difficulty and who has undergone specific intervention in the areas they are behind in or struggling in and has not seen any improvement in their learning skills. A learning disability also represents a neurodevelopmental difference in a person’s learning, and means a lifelong difficulty in one or more areas of learning.

Generally, the words ‘disorder’ and ‘disability’ are interchangeable, and ‘difficulty’ is a broader umbrella, or precursor, term. Psychologists use the word ‘disorder’ in diagnostic reports..

Types and signs of a learning disability or learning disorder

A child can have a learning disability in one or more of the key academic areas of reading, writing or mathematics. Formally, these are known as Specific Learning Disorder or SLDs

It may look slightly different for every person. Here are some signs to look out for across reading, writing and maths.

SLD in Reading

Inaccurate, slow or effortful word reading. Reading that is hesitant and full of guesses.
Difficulties sounding out the phonetics of words.

Difficulties understanding the meaning of words.
Difficulties recognising words, such as not recognising sight words
SLD in Writing:
Difficulties with spelling.
Writing is slow and effortful.

Difficulty understanding and or implementing grammar, punctuation and grammar rules.
‘Poor organisation of ideas into sentences or paragraphs.
Difficulties with writing the same amount of text as peers.

Often a significant gap between the actual knowledge
the person has or is able to express verbally, and what
they are able to write on the page.
SLD in Maths:

Difficulties with understanding number sense.
Difficulties understanding magnitude, that is. more than’ or ‘less than’.

Difficulties with calculation. For example, counting on fingers.
Difficulties recalling math rules and applying concepts.
Difficulties following arithmetic procedures.

These difficulties may cause some children to avoid or refuse to engage in these tasks in the classroom. Some children may avoid asking for help due to embarrassment, and they may feel anxious when engaging in learning tasks.

What causes a learning disability? 

There is no specific or single cause of a learning disability.

However, as with other neurodevelopmental disabilities, a family history of learning disabilities can increase the likelihood of a person having a learning disability. Also, anything which can change the way a child’s brain is developing in utero or when a very young baby can increase the likelihood of learning disabilities. This might include drug and alcohol exposure in utero, premature birth or head injuries.

We do know which specific processes within the brain are interrupted or different for a person with a learning disability. Usually, a person’s brain may show differences in:

  • Phonological processing: how spoken and written language is processed.
  • Orthographic processing: how written form is processed, including the shape of letters, and how written words relate to sounds.
  • Working memory – our ability to hold and manipulate information in our immediate memories to solve problems.

How are learning disabilities and learning disorders diagnosed?

A child should undergo a full assessment with a psychologist if they have been identified as having a learning difficulty and have received intervention without significant improvement in their skills. the. The graphic below explains what this process may look like long-term.

As a parent , you may be asked for background information as part of a psychologist’s assessment. This usually includes:

  • Detailed personal and medical history, including family, medical, intervention and educational history.
  • School reports and exemplary work.
  • Reports and results from previous interventions.

The psychologist will usually invite the child to take cognitive and academic tests. All of this information is then used to determine if the child’s difficulties meet the criteria for a learning disorder.

How are learning disorders treated?

Teaching techniques for children with learning disabilities are similar to those used for kids without learning disabilities. However, individuals with learning disabilities generally require more explicit instruction, more repetition, teaching at a slower pace at a higher level of intensity and frequency, and usually a systematic and step-by-step approach.

It is important that the support provided is evidence-based. That means there is scientific research that shows the support or program improves results for a child’s learning. It can be hard to know which programs and options have scientific evidence to support them. AUSPELD regularly reviews the research and has compiled a list of their recommended interventions.

An Individualised Education Plan (IEP) or Individualised Learning Plan (ILP) should be developed in conjunction with the school, and regular assessments should be provided to monitor progress. This plan may include different accommodations which could be made for the student during class to allow them to engage in classroom learning.

How can I help my child at home?

Children with learning difficulties or disabilities can often feel anxious, embarrassed or frustrated, or like they are “stupid” or “lazy”.

Praise your child’s efforts in their learning, rather than focussing on the outcome or the grade. Reinforce that they are not “dumb” or “stupid” or “not trying” and explain to them that their brain works differently. It can be helpful to think about other differences they notice in people that they meet.

It can also be helpful to encourage their involvement in non-academic activities which they can feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment from, such as sport, making friends, cooking, helping, music or drama.

How can I get support for my child’s learning difficulties?

Communicate regularly with your child’s classroom teacher. Raise any concerns you have regarding your child’s learning that you have observed at home. You may notice difficulties while completing homework, when reading bedtime stories or when counting as part of daily tasks.

It can also be helpful to ensure your child is involved in small group interventions that the school may be running.. Learning support teachers and classroom teachers can also provide suggestions for specific techniques you may be able to use at home.

Formal assessments can be conducted by the school counsellor, a private psychology clinic (such as Spencer Health), or a university psychology training clinic. A formal assessment may enable your child’s school to access support in the classroom.

Also check in with your GP and other allied health professionals to ensure your child’s hearing, vision, speech and motor coordination are developing well.

Psychologists can also help to rule out other diagnoses which may be impacting your child’s learning, such as ADHD or mental health challenges.

Contact Spencer Health if you need support or advice for your child’s learning challenges.

You may also be interested in: