Learning difficulties in children
Learning difficulties are challenging for you and your child. But with the right treatment, he can learn to learn, says a remedial education specialist

There may be many reasons why a child’s progress at school does not meet the expectations of parents and teachers. For one, it has been proven that a child’s environment has an effect on his performance at school.

Other factors include emotional disturbances, poor teaching practices, or limited intellectual potential. Another reason may be that the child has a learning difficulty.

What is a learning difficulty?

A learning difficulty is a neurological condition that interferes with a child’s ability to store, process and/or produce information.

Learning difficulties can affect a child’s ability to read, write, speak, spell, do mathematics and reason. They can also affect a child’s attention, memory, coordination, social skills and emotional maturity.

A child with learning difficulties works below his potential, lags behind peers and cannot cope with
the demands of school despite the appropriate efforts.

What causes learning difficulties?

No one knows for sure what causes learning difficulties, but most researchers today think that they are caused by differences in how a child’s brain works and how it processes information.

The central nervous system is responsible for learning. It is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. Nerves all over the body pick up sensory stimuli and send messages via the spinal cord to the brain so that it can interpret what has been seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted. The brain integrates this new sensory knowledge with previously stored information and, based on that process, decides what to do with the new information.

It would appear from many researchers that children with learning difficulties have a maturational lag in the development of their central nervous system.

What are the signs?

Children mature at varying rates, with girls generally maturing faster than boys. There is nothing that can be done to hurry up neural maturation – the brain requires its own time to develop.

However, there is a fairly predictable sequence of developmental events, such as speech at the age of 2 years. When these predictable events do not happen on schedule, and when the delays are significant, this could indicate potential problems.

Such delays may include problems with language, motor delays, or problems with socialisation. Research has found that approximately 80% of children who have delayed language development go on to have reading, writing, and spelling deficits.

Often a child’s problems are only recognised when he begins Grade R or Grade 1. It’s here that teachers will notice that the child is “out of step” when seen against a background of other children the same age.

It’s important to pick up on these problems early so that they can be addressed and children be brought up to grade level within a short time.

What are some types of learning difficulties?

The term “learning difficulties” includes a variety of disorders that affect the ability to learn, and that affect each child differently. Some of the most common examples are:

Reading disability

Most of the children identified as having learning difficulties have problems with reading. Research has shown that difficulties in learning to read arise from a core deficit in phonological awareness, a skill that is needed to associate spoken words with written language.

Phonological processing skills include our awareness and ability to identify sounds within words (phoneme discrimination), our ability to learn these symbols of the language and to recall their sounds quickly (phonological memory), and our ability to generalise this information to a variety of oral, written and reading tasks.


Dyslexia is characterised by problems in expressive, receptive, oral or written language and evident in the performance skills of reading, spelling, writing, listening or speaking.

Symptoms include difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor spelling and decoding abilities, leading to poor comprehension and impeded vocabulary and background knowledge.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, 15-20% of the population has a reading difficulty – and 85% of those have dyslexia.

Perceptual disorders

These learning diffi culties indicate problems with a child’s ability to use the information that is taken in through the senses – seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. The conditions affect the way the brain recognises, responds to, retrieves, and stores sensory information. Perceptual skills play an important role in the learning process and deficits make academic learning very difficult, no matter how intelligent a child is.


Those with dyscalculia have difficulty understanding maths concepts and solving even simple maths problems. Children with reading diffi culties and underdeveloped perceptual skills or concentration diffi culties often develop problems with mathematics.


Children with this condition have problems forming letters as they write or have trouble writing within a defined space.

What are the symptoms?

Children with learning difficulties exhibit a wide range of symptoms, but typically, learning difficulties

Spoken language:

Delays, disorders, and deviations in listening and speaking.

Written language:

Difficulties with reading, writing and spelling.


Difficulty in performing mathematical operations or in understanding basic concepts.


Difficulty in organising and integrating thoughts.


Difficulty in remembering information and instructions.

Consistent problems with a group of behaviours in the areas described is a good indication that your child may have a learning difficulty.

When to worry

Early intervention with a child who is behind in social, cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, or language development can make a world of difference. If these delays are undetected or ignored at
preschool level and carried into formal schooling, problems like the following develop as a result of prolonged academic failures.

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low motivation to learn
  • Poor coping skills
  • Withdrawal
  • Feigned illness
  • Absenteeism
  • Anxiety
  • Overdependence on others
  • Behaviour problems

In this event, seek professional help immediately.

What is the treatment?

There is no direct cure for a learning difficulty but early screening and intervention can greatly improve the chances for a child to succeed in school. It is a team effort, involving parents, teachers and the school, and often consultations with an array of specialists.

Assessments determine exactly what and how severe the difficulties are. They provide a basis for making educational recommendations and determining the baseline from which remediation programmes can begin. Any or all of the following may be required:

  • An assessment by an educational psychologist to determine learning potential, whether he has a learning difficulty and in which areas the weaknesses lie.
  • A scholastic assessment provides a child’s actual performance level and information about the nature of reading, spelling, writing and mathematical problems.
  • An occupational therapy assessment will indicate deficits in gross and fine motor coordination, visual-spatial organisation, motor disabilities or visual perception disabilities.
  • A speech and language assessment will highlight problems with specific language difficulties and auditory perception disabilities.

Once the assessments have identifi ed specifi c diffi culties, parents and teachers can make decisions as to how best to support the child – extra learning support at school, after school or placement in a school which caters for children with learning difficulties.

Parents can help their children by encouraging their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, understanding the education system, working with professionals and learning about strategies for dealing with specific difficulties.

A research paper published in 2006 by the National Dissemination Centre for Children with Disabilities, showed that when parents participated in academic enrichment activities with their children outside of school, children recorded a marked improvement in reading or maths performance.

Good news

Having a learning difficulty is puzzling and scary for a child. He may start off trying his best to keep up with his peers, but will often end up being left behind. He is likely to be teased by his peers and labelled negatively by his teachers.

It’s important to remember, however, that a child with learning difficulties has the ability to learn almost anything – if his problems are identified and appropriate intervention is put in place.

Children with learning diffi culties are just as intelligent as their peers – their brains are simply wired differently for learning. They need to be taught in ways that are best adapted to how they process information.

Many children with learning difficulties grow up to be achievers, successful in their own right. Many may never excel in reading, and may be poor spellers, but they may still become successful in business, mechanical fields, architecture, the arts and so on. But without help, nearly 40% of adolescents with learning difficulties drop out of school.

Parents are equipped with instinct, and parents do know when something is wrong with their child. Trust your instincts and if you are concerned, seek professional advice without delay. Whatever his age, your child can learn how to learn.

Resources for parents

Schools and associations

  • Oakley House School:

Independent primary school for children with learning difficulties. Consultations and assessments by multi-disciplinary team of specialists (021) 713 3885

  • Bellavista School:

Independent preparatory school for children with learning difficulties (011) 788 5454


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Association of South Africa (011) 888 7655


  • How Can I Help This Child? by Lynn Gould
  • Help Me to Help My Child by Jill Bloom
  • Perceptual Development. A guide by MC Grove and H.M.A.M. Hauptfleisch
  • Complete Learning Disabilities Handbook by Joan M Harwell
  • No Easy Answers: Learning Disabled Child at Home and at School by Sally L Smith.
  • Helping Your ADD Child: Hundreds of Practical Solutions for Parents and Teachers of ADD Children and Teens (With or Without Hyperactivity) by John F Taylor


  • www.ldonline.org
  • www.readingrockets.org
  • www.ldaamerica.org
  • www.interdys.org
  • www.learning-workshop.co.za
  • www.adhasa.co.za

About the writer Lynn Gould

Lynn Gould is principal and remedial education specialist at Oakley House Remedial School.

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