What constitutes or qualifies as a learning difficulty?
“There are lots of different types of learning difficulties, and they show up in varying degrees. They can manifest in lots of ways – a child might show a resistance to learning, find it challenging to read, or have an inability to visualise what they are reading which affects their understanding. It’s important to point out that some behaviours might appear to be a learning difficulty, when they’re actually more of an emotional response. Children who are stressed or anxious, for example, might display behaviours that can be interpreted as a learning difficulty.” – Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, child psychologist and therapist
“Child learning difficulties are typically grouped under the term Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in the UK (SEND). The traits vary but it’s not uncommon for there to be overlap, for example, a child might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as well as Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). Every child is different, even if they have the same difficulty. So, when helping them, it’s important to find out what works for them as an individual. It’s also really important to remember that SEND is not an illness. It just means that a child thinks and learns differently to a neurotypically developed child.” – Dr Amanda Gummer, child development expert and psychologist
How is a learning disability different to a learning difficulty?
“A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life. People with learning disabilities tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. On the other hand, learning differences or difficulties are down to all of our brains being unique. We all think and learn differently, with some experiencing more difficulty in certain areas.” – Dr Louise Karwowski, head of science at Cognassist
“Learning difficulties can be caused by many things. Some, like ADHD, are thought to be genetic, while others, like autism, have a whole range of potential causes including genetics and the environment – we’re still not really sure.” – Dr Amanda
“Difficulties can also be caused by emotional distress. Those who are experiencing a hostile or stressful environment at home, or between parents, could face learning challenges. In these situations, children's brains tend to be functioning in ‘survival mode’ which means they have less capacity to develop their learning and curiosity. It could also be down to sensory integration. Many of our automatic brain functions are learned in the first year of life as a result of physical actions. A child's ability to learn is rooted in the area of the brain related to their first year of development. If they weren't able to fulfil this in their first year of life, it could affect their academic success and emotional regulation later in life.” – Dr Kalanit
What are the key signs to look out for?
“There are four types of difficulties: communication and interaction, cognition and learning, social, emotional and mental health difficulties, and sensory and/or physical needs. Some are specific to learning, such as dyslexia where signs include struggling to break down a word into sounds, or dyscalculia where children may have trouble with numbers. Others affect learning, such as ADHD which means that the child may have trouble focusing on a task, or ASC where they have difficulties with social interaction.” – Dr Amanda
“There are too many signs to list, but examples include not being able to read at an appropriate age, or an inability to understand what they are reading. It might be that your child struggles to make sense of a paragraph because they are skipping rows or words, as the letters are moving for them. If your child is falling behind in their class or the teacher shares an indication that they might not be progressing as they should, it’s worth keeping an eye on it. There are physical signs to look out for, too. A child might ‘collapse' on the paper in front of them or display a downward posture when learning. They might be grumpy when it comes to learning or show a strong resistance to schoolwork. Children’s natural impulse is to learn and grow, so if they are not displaying this, that could be a sign, too.” – Dr Kalanit
“In children, learning difficulties can involve falling behind other students in certain areas and experiencing emotions such as 'feeling stupid'. They can often see learning as boring and be reluctant to do homework. However, they often overachieve in other ways, such as being very creative or very chatty. Sometimes, frustration with learning might lead to behavioural issues, so this is something to look out for. In teens, learning difficulties can manifest in avoidance – avoiding reading, writing or numbers. They can often exhibit anxiety and stress over daily tasks like banking, filling out forms, memorising information and managing their time, as well as sometimes coming across as disorganised. Their relationships can also be strained as a result of feeling misunderstood by friends, teachers or relatives.
If you have younger children, these are some of the signs to look out for:
Slow language development or difficulty in finding the right words to express their thoughts or emotions.
Difficulty in putting words together to make sentences.
Difficulty in understanding what others are saying or problems with expressing what they mean.
Delay in learning to sit, crawl and walk, as well as fine motor movements such as drawing and copying letters and numbers.
Finding routines difficult to remember and follow.
Difficulty following instructions, particularly multiple instructions. This can get them into trouble at school – or result in them being labelled as disobedient.
Finding it difficult to mix with other children or not being able to relate or interact with children.” – Dr Louise
Is it wise to broach the subject with your child?
“It’s important to explain differences to children without judgement. We are all good at certain things and not so good at others. This is normal and talking about it openly reduces stigma. Each of us thinks and learns in our own way and our unique experiences of the world can bring many benefits.” – Dr Louise
“The best time to broach the subject with your child is during an activity. For example, when doing homework together, ask them how they feel. What don’t they like about it? Do they find it stressful or difficult? Ask them what will help them – perhaps it’s standing instead of sitting or listening to music. Avoid shaming or blaming them. Try to use ‘we’ language where possible so that the child understands you are with them and not against them. For example, ‘What could we do to make things easier for you?’ Talk to the side of them that has the most potential, empower them and encourage them with new skills or techniques. Unconsciously, we project our thoughts, feelings and emotions on to our children, so it’s important that we project positive messages.” – Dr Kalanit
“You can introduce the topic to them with stories, TV shows, apps, and toys that positively represent people with SEND. If your child is curious, answer their questions in an age-appropriate way. To do this, it can help to clarify what exactly they are asking, so you don’t end up creating any confusion by answering a question they didn’t ask.” – Dr Amanda
Why is comparison a bad idea?
“When your children are young (aged three and under), keep an eye on their development but try not to compare them with other siblings, cousins, or friends of the same age. Children can develop at very different rates so just because they appear behind on something, it doesn’t mean there’s a serious problem.” – Dr Amanda
“It goes without saying that all children are different, so try not to compare them to others. That said, if you have young children, try avoiding screen time where possible, or at least minimising it to ensure they are developing as best they can. Allow plenty of free time, outside if possible, to play, explore and move. Let your child follow their instincts, whether they want to dance, climb, run or jump. Anything that involves movement allows them to learn about themselves. Play is one of the best ways for children of this age to learn, grow and develop.” – Dr Kalanit
If you suspect a problem, who should you speak to first?
“If you think your child might have a learning difficulty, speak to their teacher first. They will have access to advice from educational psychologists depending on the particular problem. Specialists can include speech and language therapists, educational and clinical psychologists, and paediatricians. Your child’s teacher or SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) may have already picked up on an issue, however, occasionally, things can slip through the net so don’t be afraid to approach the school and discuss your worries with them. With the school’s support, the next stage would be to approach the local authority for an Education, Health and Care (EHC) assessment of your child to see if they qualify for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). This is key to getting the support your child needs and if an EHCP is issued, the local authority will be responsible for funding the support your child needs.” – Dr Louise
“Ask about the teacher’s experience first, rather than feeding them your own thoughts. It’s important to listen first. Ask how your child is doing socially, academically, in different subjects, with friends, as a human being – not just about how they are performing academically. This will help you to give you a holistic view of the situation. Then, you can share your concerns and discuss what you can do to support your child. Set a date for another meeting in a few weeks’ time so that you can continue to review and monitor their progress.” – Dr Kalanit
Do you have any other advice for supporting your child?
“Positive affirmations are key, as is open communication and normalising difference in the way we all think and learn. You could build a journal or a scrapbook with your child to log good news and personal achievements. You could trial assistive freeware with your child, such as mind mapping and audio recording – find out what works best for them. The best way to support a child is to accept that they have a learning difficulty, be patient, supportive and understanding. Parents can be a huge support and motivator if they use a positive approach to build their child’s confidence and resilience. It may take a while, but the results can be life changing.” – Dr Louise
“Offer praise and positive affirmations based on effort or behaviour, rather than the end result or their personality traits. Whether a test result is good or bad, praise their dedication, effort, their ability to learn from mistakes, their patience, persistence and the way they took hold of responsibility. Focus on the process rather than the end result. If they got 90% in a spelling test, congratulate them on the hard work they put in to achieve it, not the end mark. If they have improved or performed better than they have in the past – down to persistence for example – subtly mention it to them. You might say ‘I noticed that you stuck with it even though it was challenging. Great persistence!’.” – Dr Kalanit
How and when should you seek professional support?
“If you need more support, and in the unusual circumstance that your school might not be able to help, it’s worth visiting your GP. They can refer children to specialists who will be able to determine what kind of learning difficulty your child has, or if it’s in fact a disability. It can be difficult for parents too, so don’t be afraid to seek counselling for yourself if you need to.” – Dr Amanda
“If you have concerns, it’s wise to go to your GP. Always speak to the school first, but speaking to your GP is a good place to start.” – Dr Kalanit
Finally, are there any other helpful resources to know about?
“The Village is a great online parenting community led by experts. Parents can meet other parents while receiving free resources and advice from leading experts in all stages of child development. It’s a safe space for parents to seek support, modified by reputable and trustworthy experts. They also run live Q&As, online courses and group discussions, and it’s totally free to sign up. I also recommend looking up groups on Facebook and other online forums for practical and emotional advice.” – Dr Amanda
“There are lots of charities available to help with different diagnosed or suspected learning difficulties. The British Dyslexia Association and the ADHD Foundation are two invaluable resources.” – Dr Louise