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Learning difficulties

If a child has a learning difficulty, it will either be a general (or global) learning difficulty or a specific learning difficulty.

A general learning difficulty means the child takes longer to understand and process information than other children. They find learning anything more difficult, no matter how it's taught. It may be an intellectual disability, but that can be hard to identify in young children.

A specific learning difficulty means a child of average or above average intelligence has difficulty with particular aspects of learning. Specific learning difficulties aren't caused by an intellectual disability, but by other factors.

Dyslexia (difficulties with language), dyscalculia (difficulties with maths) and dysgraphia (difficulties with handwriting) are all examples of specific learning difficulties. Children can often have more than one at the same time. Children with a specific learning difficulty usually learn very successfully if the teaching style meets their needs.

Children with general learning difficulties often also have other developmental delays. Children with specific learning difficulties can have other difficulties such as dyspraxia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder.

Signs of a learning difficulty

Signs that your child may have a learning difficulty depend on their specific issue and the age when it starts showing.


If your child's learning difficulty shows before they go to school, you may notice that they develop as expected in some areas but fall behind in others. It may take longer than usual for them to reach some milestones, such as crawling or walking and speaking. Other members of your family may also have learning difficulties.

Primary school children

Your child may have difficulty with some skills that they try to learn at school, such as reading, spelling, writing and maths. They may also have difficulty paying attention and remembering things or difficulties with coordination.

They may find it difficult to get on with others socially or to follow instructions. They may clown about or daydream at school.

Children with learning difficulties can have low self-esteem and often complain about going to school. They may have frequent after-school meltdowns because they feel overloaded.

Intermediate and high school children

At this age, a child may have difficulty with some teaching styles. For example, they may find listening and reading hard but learn better when they're doing things. They may also find it hard to manage emotions, be organised (time management), take notes and write essays. A child with a learning difficulty may also have low self-esteem.

Causes of learning difficulties

The term "general learning disability" is often used in young children before it's obvious what the issue is. So, the cause will depend on the final diagnosis.

Specific learning difficulties are usually caused by a difference in the way a child's nervous system handles information. There is a mismatch between the child's potential, given their intelligence, and the way they can learn and express themselves. Genetics may play a part, as learning difficulties often run in families.

Diagnosing learning difficulties

If you think your child may have a learning difficulty, the first step is to discuss it with your GP, Well Child nurse or early childhood teacher. They will ask you questions about your child's history (if they do not know your child well) and what you're worried about. An early childhood teacher who looks after your child may already have a good grasp of their learning style and needs. You can find a lot of information about what to do and expect from the Ministry of Education.

A psychologist may do a learning difficulty assessment. They will ask questions about what your child does well and what they find hard. They will also do some tests to find out how your child's brain processes information. This will help them identify whether your child has a general or specific learning difficulty and how they are best able to learn. Tests for specific learning difficulties can be very detailed.

Helping my child with a learning difficulty

Gathering all the information you can about your child's precise difficulties, and what their strengths are will help you advocate for their needs.

When your child goes to school, it can help to have one of the health professionals working with them go with you to explain what difficulties they have. This may make it more likely that they get the support they need at school.

There are community child development support services that can help. Your GP or child's school may also know what services are available for you and your child.

Long-term effects of learning disabilities

Learning difficulties affect different people differently, and some people go through life without ever being diagnosed. Most children with learning difficulties will have full, happy lives, especially if they have had good support as a child. People with learning difficulties tend to choose jobs and hobbies that suit their strengths, minimising the difficulties they face.

Specific learning difficulties are unique, as the person usually has average or above average intelligence but has difficulty expressing it. This can contribute to poor mental health, such as increased levels of anxiety and low self-esteem. So, it's important to advocate strongly for them, to make sure their needs are understood and met.

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Written by a private occupational therapist, Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created August 2021.


See also:

Auditory processing disorder

Page reference: 375397

Review key: HICDG-40335