What are Learning Disabilities and how you can help spot and intervene with your Child

Published on May 9, 2023

Learning disabilities and learning disorders are umbrella words for a wide range of learning issues. A learning disability does not impair IQ or motivation, and children with learning problems are not lazy or less intelligent. Most are just as smart as everyone else. A learning disability is a neurological disorder that impairs the brain's ability to send, receive, and process information. Children with learning disabilities may struggle with reading, writing, speaking, listening, mathematical concepts, and general comprehension. Their brains are just wired differently, which influences how they receive and interpret information.

Many children may struggle in school with certain topics or skills at times. When children work hard yet continue to struggle with a certain set of skills over time, it may indicate a learning disability. A learning disorder means that a child struggles in one or more areas of learning, even if his or her general intelligence or motivation is not impaired.1

Signs and Symptoms of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities appear extremely differently in each child. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another enjoys reading but struggles with math. Another child may struggle to understand what others are saying or talking out loud. The issues are various, yet they are all related to learning disabilities. Learning impairments are not always easy to recognize. Because of the large range of symptoms and profiles, there is no single symptom or profile that can be used as evidence of a problem.3 However, at different ages, some warning signs are more common than others. If you are aware of what they are, you will be able to detect a learning impairment early on and take immediate action to get your child assistance.

Some of the symptoms of learning disorders at Preschool age are:2

  • Problems pronouncing words.
  • Trouble finding the right word.
  • Difficulty rhyming.
  • Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, or days of the week.
  • Difficulty following directions or learning routines.
  • Difficulty controlling crayons, pencils, scissors, or coloring within the lines.
  • The trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, or learning to tie shoes.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities at ages 5-9 are:

  • Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds.
  • Unable to blend sounds to make words.
  • Confuses basic words when reading.
  • Slow to learn new skills.
  • Consistently misspells words and makes frequent errors.
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts.
  • Difficulty telling time and remembering sequences.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities at ages 10-13 are:

  • Difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills.
  • Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems.
  • Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud.
  • Poor handwriting.
  • Poor organizational skills (bedroom, homework, and desk are messy and disorganized).
  • Trouble following classroom discussions and expressing thoughts aloud.
  • Spells the same word differently in a single document.

Causes of Learning Disabilities

According to experts, there is no single cause of learning difficulties. However, the following factors may contribute to a learning disability:

  • Heredity: A child whose parents have a learning handicap is more likely to develop the same issue.
  • Illness during and after birth: Learning difficulties can be caused by an illness or injury during or after birth. Other potential risk factors include drug or alcohol use during pregnancy, physical trauma, poor uterine growth, low birth weight, and early or lengthy labor.
  • Stress in infancy: A stressful event that occurs after delivery, such as a fever, a head injury, or insufficient nutrition.
  • Environment: Increased exposure to poisons like lead (in paint, ceramics, toys, and so on).
  • Comorbidity: Children with learning difficulties are more likely than the general population to have attention problems or disruptive behavior disorders. Up to 25% of children who have reading difficulty also have ADHD. In contrast, it is estimated that between 15% and 30% of children diagnosed with ADHD have a learning disability.4

What Happens if Learning Disability Remains Un-diagnosed?

While signs of learning difficulties typically develop while we are young, they are frequently misdiagnosed. Individuals with learning disabilities sometimes grow up without the assistance they require, which can result in intellectual problems, low self-esteem, and mental health issues. Learning-disabled children may feel irritated, lose interest in school, and shun problems. They may suffer from low self-esteem as well as emotional issues such as withdrawal, anxiety, depression, or anger. Social issues are also typical among children with learning challenges. Undiagnosed learning difficulties can cause children to become angry and upset. These emotions may result in emotional issues.5

For adults, having an undiagnosed learning disability can affect career choice, limit job advancement and lead to several psychological and emotional issues, including depression and feelings of low self-worth. This is particularly true when the person interprets his or her past educational failures as personal faults and experiences feelings of embarrassment and shame because of a perceived intellectual deficiency. Many adults struggle openly with learning disabilities, informing family, friends, and employers, and taking steps to address and manage their condition. Nonetheless, the percentage of undiagnosed and unreported cases is said to be extremely high.1

How is a Learning Disability Identified?

Identifying a learning difficulty is a difficult procedure. The first step is to rule out any vision, hearing, or developmental impairments that may be underlying learning difficulties. Following the completion of these tests, a learning disability is determined through psycho-educational assessment, which involves academic success testing as well as a measure of intellectual aptitude. This test assists in determining whether there is an important gap between a child's potential and performance capabilities (IQ) and academic achievement (school performance). Several forms of tests are required in public schools to diagnose a learning problem. Intelligence, achievement, visual-motor integration, and language tests are all commonly used to diagnose a learning disability. Other tests may be applied depending on the evaluator's preferences and the needs of the child.6

Intelligence Tests

The Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WIPPSI), Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), and Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) are the most regularly used intelligence tests (also known as IQ tests) to identify a learning problem. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, Differential Abilities Scales (DAS), the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, and the Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (CTONI) are some more common intelligence or cognitive tests. The results of these tests can assist identify areas of strength and weakness.

Achievement Tests

The Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement (WJ), the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT), the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), and the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (KTEA) are common achievement tests used to diagnose a learning disability. The tests concentrate on reading, writing, and math. If your child has fallen behind in an academic area, schools can provide remedial support, tutoring, and other resources to help them catch up.

Visual Motor Integration Tests

Common visual motor integration tests include the Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test and the Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration. Findings from these tests may help to determine if a child's brain is properly connecting visual cues to motor coordination.

Language Tests

The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF), the Goldman Fristoe Test of Articulation, and the Test of Language Development are all common language tests used in the diagnosis of learning disabilities. These assessments look at the ability of your kid to understand spoken and written language as well as reply vocally to questions or cues.7

How Psychologists/Therapists Can Help in Working with Learning Difficulties?

A learning disability is incurable. Children with learning difficulties, on the other hand, can achieve academic achievement with timely intervention and assistance. Parents and teachers are the first to notice when a youngster is struggling to read, write, or learn. If you suspect your child has a learning problem, seek assistance from a mental health professional or other skilled specialists for the necessary intervention program or therapy. The psychologist can help in working with learning difficulties in various ways such as:8

  • Performing the right assessments: Assessments can often be pricey, a trained psychologist can identify and perform only the appropriate tests to help identify any form of learning disorders present in the child or adult.
  • Extra help: A psychologist can educate your child on ways to help him or her improve academic skills. Tutors can also help children improve their organizational and study skills.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP): Your child’s school or a special educator may create an IEP outlining how a child can learn best in school.
  • Therapy: Depending on the severity of the learning disability, some children may benefit from therapy. Speech therapy, for example, can benefit children with language disorders. A child with writing difficulties may benefit from occupational therapy to strengthen his or her motor skills.
  • Alternative therapies: such as music, art, and dance have been shown in studies that help children with learning difficulties.



1. Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Morris, R. D., & Lyon, G. R. (2005). Evidence-based assessment of learning disabilities in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34(3), 506-522.

2. Waber, D. P. (2010). Rethinking learning disabilities: Understanding children who struggle in school. Guilford Press.

3. Lyon, G. R., Fletcher, J. M., & Barnes, M. C. (2003). Learning disabilities.

4. Büttner, G., & Hasselhorn, M. (2011). Learning disabilities: Debates on definitions, causes, subtypes, and responses. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 58(1), 75-87. https://doi.org/10.1080/1034912X.2011.548476

5. Ghimire, S. (2017). Knowledge of primary school teachers regarding learning disabilities in school children. Journal of Nobel Medical College, 6(1), 29-35.

6. Mazzocco, M. M., & Myers, G. F. (2003). Complexities in identifying and defining mathematics learning disability in the primary school-age years. Annals of dyslexia, 53, 218-253. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-003-0011-7

7. Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., & Speece, D. L. (2002). Treatment validity as a unifying construct for identifying learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 25(1), 33-45.

8. 8. Bager‐Charleson, S., & McBeath, A. G. (2021). What support do therapists need to do research? A review of studies into how therapists experience research. Counseling and Psychotherapy Research, 21(3), 555-569.

Category(s):Child Development, Learning Difficulties

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore