Learning Difficulties in Childhood

Catherine Abrahamson

Jan 12, 2022

Children have a natural desire to learn and explore.  However, for some children learning difficulties can make learning frustrating and unmotivating.  Learning difficulties typically emerge in early childhood and as children progress in formal schooling.  Early identification of learning issues is key, as research has consistently shown the benefits of early intervention. (1) Moreover, learning problems that are not addressed can significantly and negatively impact a child’s educational success. These learning difficulties can also contribute to behavioral, emotional, and occupational issues beyond the school setting and into adulthood. (2)
 

child learning

Types of Learning Difficulties    
Learning challenges can appear in specific academic areas (e.g., reading comprehension) and across broad areas of cognitive functioning (e.g., memory and processing of information).  Difficulties with learning can be associated with certain developmental disorders (e.g., ADHD, Intellectual Disability, and Autism), psychological conditions, and/or medical conditions. For about 5-15% of children, the learning difficulties meet the criteria of a learning disability or disorder. (3)
 
A Specific Learning Disability, a term often used in school and legal systems, indicates that a person “does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to meet State approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas, when provided with learning experiences and instructions appropriate for the child’s age or State-approved grade-level standards: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics problem solving” (IDEA, 2004). (4)
 
A Learning Disorder, a term often used in medical and clinical settings, includes learning difficulties in the areas of reading (i.e., dyslexia), written expression (i.e., dysgraphia), and/or math (i.e., dyscalculia).  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the duration of these difficulties must “have persisted for at least 6 months, despite the provision of interventions that target those difficulties.” (5) Similar to the definition of a learning disability, a learning disorder is characterized by academic skills that fall “substantially and quantitatively below those expected for the individual’s chronological age.”   
 
Under both definitions, the listed difficulties cause significant impairment in functioning and are not due to other conditions, such as the lack of appropriate instruction or lack of proficiency in the language of academic instruction.  
 
How do I know if my child has a learning disability/disorder? 
A psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation can help determine whether your child meets diagnostic and educational eligibility criteria for a learning disability/disorder.  This evaluation would include the use of multiple evidence-based measures completed by multiple raters (e.g., child, parent, teacher) to determine whether your child meets criteria.  The evaluation can also rule out whether there are other factors, including mental health or developmental conditions, that are contributing to the learning challenges.  The evaluation should be conducted by a qualified professional, typically a licensed psychologist.  In public schools, these evaluations are often completed by a school psychologist, licensed specialist in school psychology, or educational diagnostician.   
 
What can I do to help my child?  
Communicate--Talk with your child about learning.  Try to find out what your child likes about school, favorite subjects, and what is frustrating. Additional questions to consider: 
Do you like the subject?  Do you understand the assignments?  Do you understand the expectations of the teacher?  Do you feel you can do the assignments?  Do you feel you have enough time to complete it?  Do you know how to get help in class if needed? 
 
Collaborate--Reach out to your child’s instructors about your child’s performance.  Identify your child’s strengths as well as his/her weaknesses.  Topics to discuss can include: curriculum, amount of time for instruction, format of learning (e.g., whole class instruction vs. independent work), how progress is monitored and assessed, child’s specific skill needs, interventions used, academic supports available (e.g., tutoring), and any behavioral or emotional concerns. 
 
Consult--Discuss your concerns with professionals, including your child’s pediatrician.  Your physician can help determine if there are medical factors impacting your child’s learning.  You can also consult with other school personnel (e.g., academic specialist) or a mental health specialist who specializes in the identification and treatment of learning difficulties. 
 
Connect--Caregivers and children often find it helpful to connect with organizations that are working to raise awareness and provide support to children struggling with learning.  Below are some resources that can help:  

National Center for Learning Disabilities 
www.ncld.org 
Learning Disabilities Association of America 
http://ldaamerica.org/parents/ 
American Psychiatric Association 
https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/specific-learning-disorder/what-is-specific-learning-disorder  
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/learning-disorder.html  


1 National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (2007). Learning Disabilities and Young Children: Identification and Intervention. A Report from the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, October, 2006 (pp. 63-72). Learning Disability Quarterly, 30 (1), 63–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/30035516

2 Gerber, P. J. (2012). The impact of learning disabilities on adulthood: A review of the evidenced-based literature for research and practice in adult education. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(1), 31-46.

3 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

4 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (2004)

5 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596 

Written by:

Catherine Abrahamson

PhD, LP, LSSP

Jan 12, 2022

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