What are learning difficulties and learning disorders?
Learning difficulties are problems with reading, writing and/or maths.
Learning disorders are specific, serious and ongoing problems with reading, writing and/or maths, which are diagnosed by health professionals. Dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia are examples of learning disorders.
‘Learning disorder’ is the term that health professionals use when they’re diagnosing a specific problem with reading, writing and/or maths. Some people use ‘learning disability’. These terms mean more or less the same thing.
Learning difficulties and early signs of learning disorders
Learning difficulties and early signs of learning disorders are often picked up in the first two years of school, when children start classroom-based learning in reading, writing and maths.
If your school-age child has learning difficulties or a learning disorder, you might notice that they:
- dislike reading, writing or maths and/or find reading, writing or maths hard
- have a lot of trouble spelling common words, using rhyming words or counting
- find it hard to spot the sounds and syllables in words – for example, the ‘k’ sound in monkey
- find it hard to link a number to the associated word – for example, ‘5’ and ‘five’
- don’t feel confident about schoolwork.
If your child has early learning difficulties, it doesn’t automatically mean they have a learning disorder. Some children take longer than others to develop literacy and numeracy skills. Or there might be other things that make it hard for children – for example, they’ve missed a lot of school or they have hearing or vision problems.
Worried about learning difficulties or learning disorders: what to do
If you think your child is having early difficulties with reading, writing and maths, it’s important to get these problems checked out early. There are several things you can do.
1. Talk with your child’s teacher
Make an appointment with your child’s teacher. You can talk with the teacher anytime – you don’t need to wait until a parent-teacher interview.
When you talk with the teacher, you can ask:
- whether your child is progressing as expected with reading, writing and maths
- how your child is going at school more generally – that is, do they seem happy, confident and engaged?
The teacher or support staff can assess your child for difficulties with reading, writing and maths and go through the results with you. This can help you see whether there’s a problem.
2. See your GP
Make an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible.
Your GP might refer you to another health professional like a paediatrician, psychologist, speech pathologist or audiologist for further assessment and tests.
These professionals can help you work out whether there are other things that are making it hard for your child to learn – for example, problems with sight, hearing, language development, or attention and focus.
3. Ask about school-based skills programs
If your child is identified as being behind in their reading, writing or maths, talk to your child’s teacher about additional literacy or numeracy programs at school.
These programs might include one-on-one or small-group work with a learning support officer. This kind of support can help your child learn concepts and practise skills at a pace that suits them.
4. Ask for a formal assessment for learning disorders
If your child has done additional programs at school but still seems to be struggling with reading, writing and/or maths, you can ask the school to arrange a formal assessment for learning disorders by a psychologist or paediatrician.
If there’s a long wait or the school can’t arrange the assessment, you can see a specialist for a private assessment. You’ll have to pay for this assessment.
Depending on where you live, you could contact a local university. Most universities have psychology clinics where postgraduate students (who are supervised by experts) assess children for learning disorders.
For more information about assessment, you can also try contacting your nearest AUSPELD state association.
Specialised learning support for children with learning disorders
If your child is diagnosed with a learning disorder, it’s important to get support for your child as soon as possible.
With this support, your child can improve their skills and start to make good progress with their learning. This will help your child stay engaged with school and learning.
The best support for your child will depend on your child’s learning disorder. You can talk to your child’s teacher or other professionals working with your child to find out what will work best for your child and your family.
At school, support might include:
- more intensive or frequent work with a learning support officer to support your child’s individual needs
- changes to the learning environment – for example, your child might learn better if they sit closer to front of the classroom or away from distractions
- changes to learning and assessment activities – for example, your child might be able to have extra time to do assessment tasks or exams
- assistive technology – there are many devices and software that can make things easier for your child by turning text to speech, checking spelling, predicting words, presenting information visually and so on.
Outside school, you could look into support like specialist coaching or tutoring in your child’s specific areas of difficulty.
It’s also a good idea to ask your child’s teacher and other professionals what you can do to support your child’s learning. For example, the teacher or other professionals can probably suggest books to suit your child’s reading ability or give you tips for reading with your child. Or there might be literacy and maths software programs or apps that can reinforce what your child is learning at school.
Your child might have difficulties like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or language problems, which are contributing to their learning disorder. If so, your health professionals will work with you and your child on a plan to address these difficulties too.
When you’re choosing therapies or supports for your child, look for ones that are backed by scientific evidence. Therapies or supports that haven’t been scientifically tested might not be worth your money and time. It’s always a good idea to talk to a professional to get reliable advice about therapies and supports.
Supporting children with learning difficulties and learning disorders
When your child feels good about themselves, they’ll be better able to deal with learning and other challenges.
Here are some ideas to help with this:
- Explain to your child that having a learning disorder doesn’t mean they’re not as smart as other children. Your child’s psychologist or speech therapist can suggest ways of explaining your child’s learning disorder in a way your child can understand.
- Always praise your child for having a go at something and sticking with tasks like homework.
- Celebrate the non-academic things your child is good at. These might be sport, music or drama. Or your child might be kind and friendly, great at cooking and so on.
- Help your child challenge negative thoughts. For example, ‘Don’t let what happened today get you down. Think about how much you’ve improved this year. You just might need a bit more time and practice to get this right’.
- Encourage your child to work out what they need to get over difficulties – for example, do written instructions and diagrams help? Do they prefer spoken instructions? And make sure your child knows that it’s OK ask for help if they need it.
- Use calming down strategies for children and calming down strategies for teenagers to deal with strong emotions like frustration and embarrassment.
You can help your child feel good about themselves by building their confidence, resilience and self-compassion. Find out how in our articles on resilience for children, self-compassion for children, self-esteem for children, resilience for pre-teens and teenagers, self-compassion for pre-teens and teenagers and confidence for pre-teens and teenagers.
Causes of learning disorders
We don’t yet fully understand what causes learning disorders. It’s likely that the causes vary among children.
Some learning disorders might happen because parts of a child’s brain have difficulty processing information.
They might also happen if a child has difficulty staying focused and maintaining attention in class – for example, if they have a condition that affects their behaviour, like ADHD.
In other children, language problems can contribute to learning disorders.
A learning disorder is an accepted disability under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. Your child has the right to the same 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.