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Learning — Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities in Children

Parent points to a page in a notebook in front of a confused child.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 05 Sep 2023

Published 16 Jan 2022

What are Learning Disabilities in Childhood?

Learning disabilities in childhood are specific processing challenges that make it especially difficult for a child to learn. 

Learning disabilities can be referred to as specific learning disabilities, reading, math, or writing disorders, specific learning disorders, or learning differences. Many terms are floating around that refer to learning disabilities. 

Learning disabilities may impact school performance in one or many subjects. 

With a learning disability, your child may struggle 

  • to decode words
  • to read at a steady pace
  • to comprehend reading material
  • to spell or encode information
  • to write sentences or an essay with appropriate organization and content
  • to calculate math facts
  • to solve word problems
  • to visualize math in terms of geometry or fractions. 

Your child may struggle in just one aspect of learning, or perhaps a few subjects are very challenging.  

Symptoms of Learning Disabilities in Children

  • Struggles in school: your child does not understand what is happening in class, certain subjects might be challenging, or your child may struggle with schoolwork in general
  • Struggles with study skills: your child is unsure  how to prepare for tests, has trouble developing a plan to complete an assignment, is confused about due dates, missing assignments, or low grades
  • Favorite subjects are recess and lunch: your child finds that classes are such a struggle that they only look forward to recess, lunch and possibly gym or art class
  • Homework is a warzone: your child may cry during homework or simply refuse to do it
  • Hates reading, writing, or math: your child might struggle in one particular academic subject. Your child may hate reading, for example. Unfortunately, if they struggle in reading, it will impact all other subjects because reading is required for most academic tasks. This frustration can lead to challenges with mental health as a child becomes more discouraged with one subject, with school, with their performance. A child can easily become depressed or overwhelmed if school is not going well
  • Becomes embarrassed when asked to show work in front of others: your child lacks confidence in their academic abilities and becomes stressed or embarrassed when asked to read or do a math problem
  • Smart but not achieving academic success: your child has an extensive vocabulary or advanced IQ or ability and still has a hard time with reading or writing
  • Inconsistent performance: your child’s teacher may comment that ‘he could do this yesterday, and now he already forgot it.’ You may notice that your child had his spelling words down pat while studying but then still failed the test

Causes of Learning Disabilities 

  • Varied cognitive ability: Sometimes, a child does not learn as well because a part of their brain is not as adept as other parts of the brain. For example, children with lower Verbal Comprehension scores on an IQ test often struggle with reading and writing. Children with lower scores on the Non-Verbal or Spatial part of an IQ test tend to struggle in math, science, or engineering subjects. Finally, children with lower scores on Processing Speed or Working Memory tend to struggle in multiple academic areas and may have learning disabilities. In a learning disability, usually cognitive ability is varied. A child may have excellent ability in one area and weakness in another.
  • Executive functioning: Your child’s executive functions may be impaired. Your child may struggle with planning and knowing how to solve problems, not understanding how to go about an assignment, initiating tasks, monitoring their progress on projects, or metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking). Your child may struggle with taking notes, time management, or lack a good study environment. These struggles can impact study skills.
  • Opportunity: Learning challenges can also appear when a child does not have the time or space to devote to studying. In this case, a learning disability is not diagnosed. A child needs support and space to develop and apply their study skills. Children with economic disadvantages may be able to enroll in after-school programs, tutoring supports, or mentoring programs to help provide these important relationships and skills. 
  • Emotional distress & self-esteem:  School success tends to be a yardstick by which kids measure themselves. When they are struggling, their self-esteem takes a hit. Children who do not feel good about themselves tend to perform lower, and then they feel even worse about themselves as a result. Sometimes this impacts social skills because a student may withdraw and not feel confident in any aspect of school.
  • Language processing challenges: Sometimes, how a child processes language can contribute to a learning disability. Your child may have trouble using language, understanding language, or processing information auditorily, which could also contribute to a learning disability
  • Other neurological disorders: Other neurological challenges or genetic differences can also result in learning disabilities. A child with ADHD may be more likely to have a learning disability and to have changes of this nature.

What to Do About Learning Disabilities 

Reach out to the school: If you suspect your child may have a learning disability, talk to your child’s school. Resources may be available for intervention through the school’s Response to Intervention program.

In school, these challenges are called Specific Learning Disabilities. In a clinical setting, they are called Disorder of Reading, Disorder of Mathematics, or Disorder of Written Expression (following the DSM-5). These terms capture learning challenges in reading, writing, or math that are significant enough to warrant extra support and tutoring. Children with learning disabilities also have areas of average intelligence or intellectual strength that contrast to areas of weakness.

Your child may require a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) for accommodations or services. The good news is that many people with learning disabilities learn how to live with these challenges and thrive. Although most learning disabilities are lifelong, the intensity of the struggle and challenge will significantly lessen with the right kind of support and intervention.

Consider counseling: If your child seems to be anxious or consistently has meltdowns, there may be an emotional issue worth addressing in therapy. A licensed psychologist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), would be needed for therapy or to make diagnostic decisions regarding emotional disorders.

When to Seek Help for Learning Disabilities 

Children who struggle with learning tend to experience emotional symptoms or behavior problems. Early detection of these challenges in kindergarten or first grade allows for more intervention and support. Children who get this support can make the appropriate learning gains by the middle of elementary school and avoid the frustration that learning disabilities can bring.

Emotional symptoms: If you see a sudden drop in your child’s general happiness, motivation, or enjoyment of life, consider depression or significant emotional distress.

Behavior problems: If you see your child refusing tasks, having tantrums, or giving up easily, these behaviors are red flags. In these cases, you would be wise to consider an evaluation by a psychologist.

Academic problems: If you see your child struggling significantly in school, resulting in anxiety, meltdowns, or school refusal, it is time to seek help.

Further Resources on Learning Disabilities

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in context; may be related to visual-spatial problems, attention, or learning, and this professional could further evaluate abilities and areas of weakness.
  • Optometrist or ophthalmologist: to check your child’s vision to determine if visual processing is a challenge
  • School Psychologist: to assess learning disabilities and intelligence to identify special education services. *Children with disabilities do not necessarily qualify for IEP’s. There needs to be evidence that the child cannot receive reasonable benefits from general education alone to qualify. 

Similar Conditions to Learning Disabilities

  • Achievement: problem with low performance on academic skills, poor grades, low test scores
  • Basic reading skills: problems in decoding, accuracy, or fluency,
  • Reading comprehension: problems understanding written words and stories
  • Writing: problems in spelling, grammar, or organization
  • Math: problems in math facts, calculation, or word problems
  • Initiate: difficulties with getting started on tasks
  • Metacognition: problems with ‘thinking about one’s thinking’
  • Drawing: problems with drawing familiar shapes and figures
  • Attention: problems shifting or sustaining attention
  • Emotional symptoms: problems marked by a decrease in general happiness or enjoyment in life, crying (depression), and excessive worries (anxiety)
  • Behavioral symptoms: problems denoted by tantrums and refusal of tasks

Book Resources on Learning Disabilities In Childhood

Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.

Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition.

Reid, Robert, & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz & Hagaman, Jessica L. (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, second edition.

Learning and motivation books for kids

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)

Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it.

Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit!

Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn.

McCumbee, S. (2014) The garden in my mind: Growing through positive choices.McCumbee, S. (2014). The garden in my mind activity book.