Learning Difficulties – An Introduction

learning difficulties

Learning difficulties is such a broad topic that this introduction is the first of a series of articles, here we will look at an overview of them, and in the coming weeks describe and define each. The aim of this series is not so you can diagnose anything, rather that in a conversation with a teacher be aware of some of the core principles and symptoms. They very much are a spectrum, and all of us will have symptoms of some, some more pronounced than others and some having more of an effect. We have an article about how to get the most our of parents evenings and how to have constructive conversations.

What Is the Difference Between Learning Difficulties and Special Educational Needs?

Learning difficulties and special educational needs (SEN) are related but distinct concepts. The key difference is learning difficulties represent difficulties in learning. They are a spectrum, and in their mildest forms may need no external intervention. For example mild dyslexia could mean that they find reading harder at a level at the lower end of their year group, but doesn’t have a meaningful effect on their attainment. They perhaps just need to read something twice. These become special educational needs when they needs some support from outside. For example, if their dyslexia is at a level where they need additional support or technology as their problems reading from a text book that they can’t study the subject.

So a child may have a learning difficulty but not have a special educational need. All children with special educational needs have a learning difficulty which is the reason for the need.

This is defined more specifically below:

Learning difficulties refer to difficulties that an individual may have in one or more areas of learning, such as reading, writing, or mathematics. These difficulties may be caused by a range of factors, such as a specific learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or developmental delay. Learning difficulties may impact a person’s ability to learn, but with appropriate support, they can still succeed in school and in life.

“A learning difficulty is a condition that can affect the way an individual learns. It can cause problems with reading, writing, speaking, listening, reasoning, and doing math. Learning difficulties are often caused by neurological differences in the brain and can be lifelong challenges.”

This comes from undertood.org. An excellent resource for people, of any age, ‘who think differently’.

Special educational needs (SEN) however, refer to a range of conditions or disabilities that require additional support in order to access education. These needs may be related to learning difficulties, but they can also include physical disabilities, sensory impairments, communication difficulties, and social, emotional, or mental health needs. Children with SEN may require additional resources, accommodations, or specialized instruction to meet their learning needs.
In summary, learning difficulties refer to specific challenges in learning, while special educational needs refer to a broader range of conditions or disabilities that may impact a person’s ability to access education. However, there can be an overlap between the two concepts, as some individuals with learning difficulties may also have SEN.

What Are the Main Learning Difficulties?

The table below aims to give a brief oversight of the main learning difficulties. It is in no way all, but gives the most common so that if you wish to raise a concern with a teacher you can give some broad reasoning. It can take months to years for a diagnosis to be obtained and requires a series of tests and assessments.

Learning Difficulty Percentage of Children Main Symptoms 
Dyslexia 5-10 Difficulty with reading, spelling, and writing, confusion with letters and words, trouble with phonetics and decoding words 
Dyscalculia 5-7 Difficulty with math, such as understanding numbers, counting, and performing basic arithmetic operations 
ADHD8-10Difficulty with attention and concentration, impulsivity, hyperactivity, forgetfulness, disorganization, procrastination, distractibility 
Autism Spectrum Disorder 1-2 Difficulty with social interaction, communication, repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory processing difficulties 
Executive Functioning Disorder Unknown Difficulty with planning, organization, time management, and decision-making. May also include difficulty with initiating tasks, sustaining attention and shifting focus. 

The percentages above come from a range of reputable sources (IDA, NCLD, DSM and CDC, However some pupils will be in more than one, the classification can be different for different organizations, and there are a range of severities, meaning that some pupils above may have been diagnosed generously, and others are not recorded as they have not been diagnosed.

What Should I Do if I Think My Child Has a Learning Difficulty?

There may be a number of reasons why you think your child may have a learning difficulty. Just because, for example, your child struggles to study independently, does not mean they have a learning difficulty. However, it may be that the frustration is causing them to avoid it.

If you think your child may have a learning difficulty, the first step is to talk to your child’s teacher or school counsellor to express your concerns and discuss any observations you have made about your child’s academic performance or behavior. The school may be able to conduct a screening or assessment to identify any areas of difficulty and recommend appropriate interventions. 

Additionally, you may want to consider seeking a professional evaluation from a qualified healthcare provider or specialist, such as a developmental paediatrician, neuropsychologist, or educational psychologist. These professionals can conduct a more comprehensive evaluation to assess your child’s learning abilities, identify any learning difficulties or disabilities, and recommend appropriate interventions and accommodations. 

It’s important to remember that each child is unique and may require individualized support and accommodations to succeed. If your child is diagnosed with a learning difficulty or disability, it’s important to work with your child’s school and healthcare providers to develop a comprehensive plan for support and accommodations to meet your child’s specific needs. 

Finally, it’s important to provide your child with emotional support and encouragement, and to help them develop a positive self-image and a growth mindset. Learning difficulties can be challenging, but with the right support, accommodations, and mindset, your child can still succeed and thrive. 

What Should the School Do if I Raise a Concern?

Legalities will vary by state and country. However the below is broad example of good practice and what would be reasonable to expect:

  1. Referral: You can request that the school evaluate your child for a learning disability by submitting a written request to the school principal or special education director. 
  1. Evaluation: The school will conduct an evaluation of your child to determine if they have a learning disability. The evaluation may include tests, observations, and assessments of your child’s academic performance, behavior, and medical history. 
  1. Eligibility determination: If the evaluation shows that your child has a learning disability, the school will determine if your child is eligible for special education services. 
  1. Individualized Education Program (IEP): If your child is eligible for special education services, the school will create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines the services and accommodations that your child will receive. 
  1. Implementation: The school will implement the services and accommodations outlined in the IEP and monitor your child’s progress. The IEP will be reviewed and updated annually. 

Final Thoughts on Learning Difficulties

No single article can cover such a complex topic in detail. The aim is an introduction as you may feel that ‘something is not quite right’ and want to talk to a member of teaching staff about it. This article, as well as our related ones, should hopefully give you enough information to start that conversation. A note of caution. It is very easy to google these issues and go to any conversation having already convinced yourself of the diagnosis and what should happen. You will be put in contact with the Special Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) who will have a degree and years of experience in this field. I would suggest for a strong working relationship that is to the benefit of your child that you work collaboratively if possible, but you will be frustrated by the speed of action if external bodies are involved. My advice is, if you can afford to, to try and pay for some of the services as a 2 year wait can change to 1 month.