By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Australian researchers have estimated that 5-10% of people have learning disabilities.
Learning disabilities are problems with reading, spelling or maths. A learning disability is a condition that your child can live, learn and be very successful with.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a serious and ongoing difficulty with one or more of the following areas of learning – reading, spelling, writing and maths. A child with a learning disability will have a low level of ability in these areas given the child's educational opportunities, age and other abilities. These factors must be assessed by a professional.

Learning disabilities are sometimes called specific learning disabilities, learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties and dyslexia.

Causes of learning disabilities

We don’t yet fully understand the exact causes of learning disabilities. But we do know that when a child has a learning disability, parts of that child’s brain are having trouble handling information – this is called ‘neurologically based processing difficulties’.

Common ‘processing difficulties’ include difficulties working out the sounds in words, or trouble remembering unrelated pieces of information, such as a new list of numbers or letters.

Learning disabilities have been associated with particular genes and can be inherited. If other people in your family have trouble with reading or spelling or have been diagnosed as having learning disabilities, there’s a chance that children in the next generation will also have learning disabilities. 

Signs of learning disabilities

If you think your child might have a learning disability, you can look out for some common signs. Having one or more of these signs doesn’t mean your child definitely has a learning disability. But if you’re worried, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s teacher or your family GP.

If your child has a learning disability, your child might:

  • dislike reading and/or find reading hard
  • have trouble spelling common words
  • find it hard to spot the sounds and syllables in words
  • have problems remembering lists, such as random numbers, letters in irregular words that can’t be easily sounded out (for example, ‘through’ or ‘many’), maths tables, or the steps to solve maths problems
  • tell you lots of interesting ideas but find writing them down slow and difficult
  • have very messy handwriting
  • not feel very confident about schoolwork.

Learning disabilities: steps to take

Talk with your child’s teacher
If you’re worried that your child is having trouble at school and might have a learning disability, you could start by talking with your child’s teacher. You can ask questions about how your child is going with reading, writing and maths. It might also be worth talking about the teacher’s impression of your child’s self-esteem and engagement at school.

The teacher can assess your child and go through school reports with you. This can help you see whether there’s a pattern of problems.

Ask for an assessment
If you’re still concerned, ask for a formal assessment through your school.

A speech therapist or a psychologist could be involved at this point. They’ll help to check all the possible causes. If there’s a long delay, or the assessment doesn’t seem to be available through your school, you can arrange to see a specialist privately, but there will be a cost to you.

For more information about assessment, you can try contacting your nearest Australian Federation of SPELD Associations (AUSPELD) branch.

It’s important to see your GP to check your child’s sight and hearing. This way you can rule out problems in these areas as the cause of your child’s difficulties.

Telling your child about a learning disability

Children who have learning disabilities can’t do things like reading as easily as their peers can. This can lead to them thinking of themselves as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. This can have long-term negative impacts on their self-esteem, so it might be best to tell your child that she has a learning disability and that it’s not linked to her intelligence.

When you talk with your child about the learning disability, you need to be clear about the issue.

You can also highlight the positive things your child can do to live and learn with the learning disability. You might mention that lots of really successful people have learning disabilities.

Some examples of successful people who have learning disabilities are Jessica Watson (youngest solo around-the-world sailor), Lindsay Fox (Australian businessman), Jamie Oliver (UK chef), Ann Bancroft (first woman to travel across the ice to the North Pole), Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Airlines) and Tom Cruise (US actor).

Helping your child with a learning disability build resilience and self-esteem

Kids with learning disabilities can suffer from low self-esteem. They also develop ways of covering up their difficulties as they get older and are at a higher risk of school drop-out.

It’s important to identify learning disabilities early, and help your child build resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from problems and setbacks. It’s an important life skill for all kids, especially kids with learning disabilities.

To help your child be resilient and positive about his ability and disability, you could try the following suggestions:

  • Focus on and reward your child’s effort and successes. Also focus on the non-academic things your child is good at, whether it’s sport, music, drama, or being a great friend or excellent cook. And always praise your child for having a go at something.  
  • Let your child know that you believe in her. Celebrate her abilities and achievements, and let her know you understand and accept her difficulties. Try to work with your child to challenge negative thoughts and avoid setbacks.
  • You can be a role model for your child by being positive, assertive and resilient yourself.
  • Encourage your child to work out what he needs to get over difficulties, and learn to ask for help politely and calmly.
  • Give your child the chance to take on family responsibilities and make her own decisions and choices. A sense of control is a powerful self-esteem builder.
  • Support but don’t overprotect your child. Expect him to do his best and stick with tasks, despite his extra challenges.
  • Make time to be with and listen to your child and to have fun together. This sends the message that she’s special, important and worth spending time with.
A learning disability is an accepted disability under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. Your child has the right to the same access to educational opportunities as other students. You can read more in our articles on disability law in Australia, anti-discrimination law in Australia and educational rights for children with disabilities

Getting extra help for learning disabilities

There’s extra help available so your child gets the best chance at school. If health professionals recommend extra support, you’ll need to have a professional, documented assessment to prove that your child is eligible for things like extra examination time, tuition from a reading expert, or special computer software.

There are lots of different types of support outside school available for children with learning disabilities, including tuition and specialist technology. The best sort of support for your child will depend on your child’s learning disability. You can talk to your child’s teacher and health professionals to find out what will work best for you and your family.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Keep in close touch with your child’s teacher to work out what you can do at home to support your child’s schoolwork and other successes. You might need to try a few different things before you hit on something that’s right for your child and family. Just keep talking to the teacher until you work it out.
  • Children with learning disabilities learn new skills best when teachers, parents and other helpers use structured, sequential and explicit teaching methods. So you can try to break down tasks into smaller units, instructions or chunks of information. Work with your child in a step-by-step way that’s fun and that encourages your child to use different senses (perhaps visual and auditory). Practice is really important too.
  • Homework shouldn’t become too much of a chore for your child. You can aim to spend a short amount of time practising new skills together, such as reading books appropriate to your child’s level or playing alphabet games. This is a good way to make sure your child experiences success as he builds new skills. Trying new things and starting to see it all come together – being successful – will keep your child going when things are hard.
  • If your child has difficulties with literacy (dyslexia), you could try to make time for reading together. This could be at home or somewhere else, such as the local library. The bonus is that it’s special one-on-one time for you both.
  • Software packages can help support your child’s learning. You could try products from Spectronics and Quantum Technology.
  • Specialist tutors are helpful for some students with learning disabilities. They’re available in some states and territories.
If your child has or might have a learning disability, you’ll probably have lots of questions. You can find answers in our learning disabilities FAQs.

Resources and support

There are a range of support services available to families across Australia. Key organisations include:

  • the Australian Federation of Specific Learning Difficulties Associations (AUSPELD): this is a non-profit association that provides professional assessments and resources to help children and adults with specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia, with branches in five states
  • Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA): this is a professional association of educators that provides specialist one-on-one tuition for students with learning difficulties and learning disabilities.

Books and DVDs

Here are some books on learning disabilities that you might find useful:

  • Frank, R., & Livingston, K. (2002). The secret life of the dyslexic child: A practical guide for parents and educators. Bassingstoke, UK: Rodale Ltd.
  • LeMessurier, M. (2007). Parenting tough kids: Simple proven strategies to help kids succeed. London: SAGE publications.
  • Raskind, M.H., Golberg, R.J., Higgins, E.L., & Herman, K.L. (2003). Life success for children with learning disabilities: A parent guide. Pasadena: Frostig Centre.
  • Rodis, P., Garrod, A., &. Boscardin, M.L. (2001). Learning disabilities and life stories. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Westwood, P.S. (2008). A parent’s guide to learning difficulties: How to help your child. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.
  • Winkler, H., & Oliver, L. (2003). I got a D in Salami. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

You might also find TVNZ’s Decoding Dyslexia DVD (2007) useful.

  • Last updated or reviewed 20-03-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. The Centre for Adolescent Health acknowledges Dr Nola Firth for her contribution to this article.