What is learning disabilities?

Learning disability in children: Overview

A learning disability is a problem with how the brain takes in, makes sense of, or expresses information. This can affect how your child listens, speaks, reads, writes, spells, or does math. Your child won't outgrow a learning disability. But they can build new learning skills that help with success.

It's important to know what kind of disability your child has. It also helps to know what their strengths are. If your child hasn't been tested, talk to their school about doing a team assessment. Your child may be able to get help from a learning specialist at school. If so, your child will get a learning plan, such as an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

If your child doesn't qualify for special services and an IEP, work with the school to find the best ways to help your child learn. For example, your child may need extra time to finish tests and schoolwork.

Learning disabilities

Learning disabilities can affect the basic processes involved in understanding or using the spoken or written language. They can cause difficulty with listening, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing math calculations.

Learning disabilities are distinct from learning difficulties that are a result of visual, motor, or hearing problems.

Learning disabilities may be caused by:

  • Heredity. Learning disabilities tend to run in families.
  • Problems during pregnancy and childbirth. Learning disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth or by the use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Incidents after birth. Head injuries, poor nutrition, exposure to poisonous substances such as lead, and child abuse can contribute to learning disabilities.

What are the signs of a learning disability?

The signs of learning disabilities vary depending on age. They are often discovered in elementary school, when a child has trouble doing tasks that involve reading, writing, or math.

The most common signs are:

  • Trouble reading, such as slow reading that takes a lot of effort.
  • Trouble writing.
  • Not doing well in school, and with no clear reason.

Your child also may:

  • Talk later than expected and be slow to learn new words.
  • Find it hard to learn the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, colors, shapes, and how to spell and write their name.
  • Make consistent reading and spelling errors.
  • Mix up math symbols and misread numbers.
  • Have a hard time putting information or events in a correct order.
  • Not understand the "rules" of talking to others. For example, your child may stand too close to others when talking or may talk out of turn.

How is a learning disability treated?

A learning disability is treated with educational tools for your child. For most children, federal law requires that a public school create an Individualized Education Program (IEP). It details your child's disability, suggested teaching methods, and goals for the school year.

How is a learning disability diagnosed?

Your doctor or a school professional will ask you what signs of a learning disability you and your child's teachers have seen. Your child will also be asked questions. Your child may take reading, writing, personality, and learning style tests. Your child's language skills, problem-solving skills, and intelligence quotient (IQ) may also be tested.

How can you care for your child who has a learning disability?

You can help your child by finding out about their learning style. And then show your child how to plan and study based on how they learn. It may help to get a tutor. Give your child love and support by praising them when they reach a goal or do well at school.

What causes a learning disability?

Most of the time, experts don't know the reason for learning disabilities. But these disabilities tend to run in families.

Some learning disabilities may be caused by illness or injury during or before birth or by the use of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy.

After a child is born, a head injury, poor nutrition, exposure to toxins (such as lead), or child abuse can contribute to learning disabilities.

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities make it hard for your child to learn in certain areas. Your child may have trouble with listening, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing math. One example of a learning disability is dyslexia. A child with dyslexia has a hard time reading, writing, and spelling.

Learning disabilities aren't the same as learning challenges that are caused by problems with seeing, hearing, or moving. But many children with learning disabilities have other conditions that make school hard. These include ADHD and issues with behavior or memory.

Taking steps to manage a learning disability in early childhood can help with success in school and other areas. This success can continue into adulthood.

How can you care for your child who has a learning disability?

Learn more

  • Research and learn all you can about your child's learning disability. Your doctor can suggest the name of a specialist who can give you helpful information.
  • Find out your child's best learning style. Does your child do best through reading or listening? Would a demonstration or hands-on practice work better? For example, if your child understands more when listening, let them learn new information by listening to an audio book.

Support your child

  • Celebrate and support your child's gifts and strengths.
  • Be honest with your child about the disability. Explain it in a way that your child can understand. And offer your love and support. Tell your child that some things may be hard for them, but they can succeed.
  • Help your child set goals. Show your child how to do homework or a project as a series of smaller tasks instead of one large task.
  • Teach your child to stay with a task or project until it is done.
  • Help make time for your child to get daily play and exercise.

Get help

  • Teach and show your child that it is okay to ask for help. Whenever you make a mistake, talk to your child about how you learn from it.
  • Show your child how to plan and study, or find someone who can. Ask the school about getting a tutor.
  • Work as a team with your child's teachers.
  • If you have concerns about your or your child's mental health, look into counseling. Counseling may be able to help you and your child manage any feelings that you have.

Learning disability in children: When to call

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have questions about your child's learning disability.
  • You notice new or worsening symptoms or problems.
  • You have questions or concerns about a medicine your child is taking.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.