Learning disorders: Know the signs, how to help
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Feb 25, 2021.
Many children with learning disorders, also called learning disabilities, struggle in school long before being diagnosed. This can affect a child's self-esteem and motivation. Understand how to recognize signs of a learning disorder and what you can do to help your child.
What is a learning disorder?
A learning disorder is an information-processing problem that prevents a person from learning a skill and using it effectively. Learning disorders generally affect people of average or above average intelligence. As a result, the disorder appears as a gap between expected skills, based on age and intelligence, and academic performance.
Common learning disorders affect a child's abilities in reading, written expression, math or nonverbal skills.
Learning disorders in reading are usually based on difficulty perceiving a spoken word as a combination of distinct sounds. This can make it hard to understand how a letter or letters represent a sound and how letter combinations make a word.
Problems with working memory — the ability to hold and manipulate information in the moment — also can play a role.
Even when basic reading skills are mastered, children may have difficulty with the following skills:
- Reading at a typical pace
- Understanding what they read
- Recalling accurately what they read
- Making inferences based on their reading
A learning disorder in reading is usually called dyslexia, but some specialists may use the term to describe only some of the information-processing problems that can cause difficulty with reading.
Writing requires complex visual, motor and information-processing skills. A learning disorder in written expression may cause the following:
- Slow and labor-intensive handwriting
- Handwriting that's hard to read
- Difficulty putting thoughts into writing
- Written text that's poorly organized or hard to understand
- Trouble with spelling, grammar and punctuation
A learning disorder in math may cause problems with the following skills:
- Understanding how numbers work and relate to each other
- Calculating math problems
- Memorizing basic calculations
- Using math symbols
- Understanding word problems
- Organizing and recording information while solving a math problem
A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills appears to develop good basic language skills and strong rote memorization skills early in childhood. Difficulties are present in visual-spatial skills, visual-motor skills, and other skills necessary in social or academic functioning.
A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills may have trouble with the following skills:
- Interpreting facial expressions and nonverbal cues in social interactions
- Using language appropriately in social situations
- Physical coordination
- Fine motor skills, such as writing
- Attention, planning and organizing
- Higher-level reading comprehension or written expression, usually appearing in later grade school
What causes learning disorders?
Factors that might influence the development of learning disorders include:
- Family history and genetics. A family history of learning disorders increases the risk of a child developing a disorder.
- Prenatal and neonatal risks. Poor growth in the uterus (severe intrauterine growth restriction), exposure to alcohol or drugs before being born, premature birth, and very low birthweight have been linked with learning disorders.
- Psychological trauma. Psychological trauma or abuse in early childhood may affect brain development and increase the risk of learning disorders.
- Physical trauma. Head injuries or nervous system infections might play a role in the development of learning disorders.
- Environmental exposure. Exposure to high levels of toxins, such as lead, has been linked to an increased risk of learning disorders.
What are the signs of learning disorders?
Your child might have a learning disorder if he or she:
- Doesn't master skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at or near expected age and grade levels
- Has difficulty understanding and following instructions
- Has trouble remembering what someone just told him or her
- Lacks coordination in walking, sports or skills such as holding a pencil
- Easily loses or misplaces homework, schoolbooks or other items
- Has difficulty understanding the concept of time
- Resists doing homework or activities that involve reading, writing or math, or consistently can't complete homework assignments without significant help
- Acts out or shows defiance, hostility or excessive emotional reactions at school or while doing academic activities, such as homework or reading
Seeking help for learning disorders
Early intervention is essential because the problem can snowball. A child who doesn't learn to add in elementary school won't be able to tackle algebra in high school. Children who have learning disorders can also experience performance anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, chronic fatigue or loss of motivation. Some children might act out to distract attention from their challenges at school.
A child's teacher, parents or guardian, doctor, or other professional can request an evaluation if there are concerns about learning problems. Your child will likely first have tests to rule out vision or hearing problems or other medical conditions. Often, a child will have a series of exams conducted by a team of professionals, including a psychologist, special education teacher, occupational therapist, social worker or nurse.
The determination of a learning disorder and the need for services are based on the results of tests, teacher feedback, input from the parents or guardians, and a review of academic performance. A diagnosis of severe anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders also might be relevant. These conditions can contribute to delays in developing academic skills.
If your child has a learning disorder, your child's doctor or school might recommend:
- Extra help. A reading specialist, math tutor or other trained professional can teach your child techniques to improve his or her academic, organizational and study skills.
- Individualized education program (IEP). Public schools in the United States are mandated to provide an individual education program for students who meet certain criteria for a learning disorder. The IEP sets learning goals and determines strategies and services to support the child's learning in school.
- Accommodations. Classroom accommodations might include more time to complete assignments or tests, being seated near the teacher to promote attention, use of computer applications that support writing, including fewer math problems in assignments, or providing audiobooks to supplement reading.
- Therapy. Some children benefit from therapy. Occupational therapy might improve the motor skills of a child who has writing problems. A speech-language therapist can help address language skills.
- Medication. Your child's doctor might recommend medication to manage depression or severe anxiety. Medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may improve a child's ability to concentrate in school.
- Complementary and alternative medicine. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of alternative treatments, such as dietary changes, use of vitamins, eye exercises, neurofeedback and use of technological devices.
Your child's treatment plan will likely evolve over time. If your child isn't making progress, you can seek additional services or request revisions to an IEP or accommodations.
In the meantime, help your child understand in simple terms the need for any additional services and how they may help. Also, focus on your child's strengths. Encourage your child to pursue interests that give him or her confidence.
Together, these interventions can improve your child's skills, help him or her develop coping strategies, and use his or her strengths to improve learning in and outside of school.