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. They aren't linked to emotional problems or to your culture, environment, or income. But many children with learning disabilities have other problems that make school hard. These include ADHD and problems with behavior or memory.
A learning disability is lifelong. Your child will continue to have it as an adult. But taking steps to manage it early during childhood can help. Children with a learning disability are often able to deal with the disability and succeed in school and other areas. This success can continue into adulthood.
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.
Experts think that some children have learning disabilities because their brains use and process information in a different way than other children's do. A learning disability doesn't mean that your child is less intelligent than other children or has "lazy" school habits.
Some learning disabilities may be caused by a mother's illness or injury during or before her child's birth or by her 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 the signs?
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.
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 his or her 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.
What should you do if you think your child may have a learning disability?
If you think your child has a learning disability, speak with your child's doctor, teacher, or school counselor.
You can also ask your child about any problems that he or she may be having in school.
You may want to have your child tested. 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.
A single test can't diagnose a learning disability. Tests may include reading and writing tests, as well as those that focus on your child's personality, learning style, language and problem-solving skills, and IQ (intelligence quotient).
How is a learning disability treated?
A learning disability is treated by using educational tools to help overcome it. Medicines and counseling usually aren't used.
For most children, federal law requires that a public school create an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP details your child's disability, appropriate teaching methods, and goals for the school year. The IEP changes, based on how well your child is doing. You have the right to ask for a change in the IEP if you don't agree with it.
What can you do to help your child?
Learn about your child's learning disability. This can help you better understand and help your child.
You can also talk to other parents whose children have learning disabilities.
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 him or her learn new information by listening to an audio book or watching a DVD.
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 will be hard for him or her, but this doesn't mean that he or she is a failure.
Look into finding a tutor to help your child. Or learn how to tutor your child yourself.
Focus on more than school and the learning disability. Encourage your child to explore many different types of activities.
Praise your child when he or she does well in any school or recreational activity.
Find small tasks that your child can do around the house. Use simple instructions, and break the tasks into many small steps. Finishing these tasks can help your child build specific skills and self-confidence.
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 deal with frustrations you may feel.
Build a good relationship with your child's teacher. Keep each other up to date on how well your child is doing at school and at home.
Levine MD (2009). Differences in learning and neurodevelopmental function in school-age children. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 535–546. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Reiff MI, Stein MT (2011). Learning problems. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 327–331. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Tannock R (2009). Learning disorders. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3475–3485. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Williams.
Primary Medical Reviewer
Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer
Thomas Emmett Francoeur, MD, MDCM, CSPQ, FRCPC - Pediatrics
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.