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Learning disabilities: spotting the signs and supporting your child

5-15 years

Learning disabilities are problems with reading, spelling or maths. Although learning disabilities can be challenging for your child, your child can still learn and be successful.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a serious and ongoing difficulty with one or more of the following areas of learning – reading, spelling, writing and maths. A child with a learning disability will have a low level of ability in one or more of these areas when his educational opportunities, age and other abilities are taken into account.

Learning disabilities are sometimes called specific learning disabilities, learning difficulties, specific learning difficulties and dyslexia.

Learning disabilities must be assessed and diagnosed by professionals.

Causes of learning disabilities

We don’t yet fully understand the exact causes of learning disabilities. But we do know that when a child has a learning disability, parts of that child’s brain have difficulty handling information – this is called ‘neurologically based processing difficulties’.

Common ‘processing difficulties’ include difficulties working out the sounds in words, or trouble remembering unrelated pieces of information, like a new list of numbers or letters.

Learning disabilities have been associated with particular genes and can be inherited. If other people in your family have trouble with reading or spelling or have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, there’s a chance that children in the next generation might have learning disabilities. 

Signs of learning disabilities

If you think your child might have a learning disability, you can look out for some common signs. Having one or more of these signs doesn’t mean your child definitely has a learning disability. But if you’re worried, it’s a good idea to talk to your child’s teacher or your family GP.

If your child has a learning disability, your child might:

  • dislike reading and/or find reading hard
  • have lots of trouble spelling common words
  • find it hard to spot the sounds and syllables in words
  • tell you lots of interesting ideas but find writing them down slow and difficult
  • have very messy handwriting
  • not feel very confident about schoolwork.

Diagnosing learning disabilities: steps to take

Talk with your child’s teacher
If you’re worried that your child is having trouble at school and might have a learning disability, you could start by talking with your child’s teacher.

You can ask questions about whether your child is progressing as expected with reading, writing and maths. It might also be worth talking about the teacher’s impression of your child’s self-esteem and engagement at school.

The teacher can test your child and go through the results with you. This can help you see whether there’s a pattern of problems.

Ask for an assessment
If you’re still concerned, ask for a formal assessment through your school.

A speech therapist or a psychologist could be involved at this point. They’ll help to check all the possible causes. If there’s a long wait, or the assessment isn’t available through your school, you can arrange to see a specialist privately, but there will be a cost to you.

Another option that might be available, depending on where you live, is to contact your local university. Most universities have psychology and speech therapy clinics where postgraduate students assess children under the supervision of an expert professional.

For more information about assessment, you can try contacting your nearest AUSPELD state association.

It’s important to see your GP to check your child’s sight and hearing. This way you can rule out problems in these areas as the cause of your child’s difficulties.

Telling your child about a learning disability

Children who have learning disabilities can’t do things like reading as easily as their peers can. This can lead to them thinking of themselves as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’.

Telling your child that she has a learning disability can help her overcome this way of thinking. You can tell your child that having a learning disability means her brain thinks about information differently, but it doesn’t mean she’s not as smart as other children.  

Your child’s psychologist or speech therapist can give you advice and help you explain the disability to your child in a way that he can understand. 

You can also highlight the positive things your child can do to live and learn with the learning disability. You might mention that lots of really successful people have learning disabilities.

Some examples of successful people who have learning disabilities are Jessica Watson (youngest solo around-the-world sailor), Lindsay Fox (Australian businessman), Jamie Oliver (chef), Ann Bancroft (first woman to travel across the ice to the North Pole), Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Airlines) and actors Tom Cruise, Daniel Radcliffe and Keira Knightley.

Helping your child with a learning disability build resilience and self-esteem

Children with learning disabilities can suffer from low self-esteem. They’re also at a higher risk of dropping out of school if the disability isn’t picked up early.

This means it’s important to identify learning disabilities early, and help your child build resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from problems and setbacks. It’s an important life skill for all children, especially those with learning disabilities.

To help your child be resilient and positive about her ability and disability, you could try the following suggestions.

Be a role model
You can be a role model for your child by being positive, assertive and resilient yourself. For example, if you’ve baked a cake that doesn’t taste good, you can say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll try another recipe next time’. Or if you get some negative feedback at work, you can say, ‘That’s hard to hear, but I can also learn from it’.

Praise and encouragement

  • Always praise your child for having a go at something.
  • Celebrate your child’s abilities and achievements by pointing out the non-academic things your child is good at. It might be sport, music, drama, or being kind and friendly or an excellent cook. 
  • Encourage your child to notice the positive things in her life and see that her learning difficulties are only one small part of who she is.
  • Encourage your child to work out what he needs to get over difficulties – for example, do written instructions and diagrams help him, or does he prefer spoken instructions?
  • Make time to be with and listen to your child and to have fun together. This sends the message that she’s special, important and worth spending time with. 
  • Encourage your child to try new things. Realising that he can learn with practice and persistence will help your child keep going when things are hard.

Responsibilities and expectations

  • Give your child the chance to take on family responsibilities and make her own decisions and choices. A sense of control is a powerful self-esteem builder.
  • Support but don’t overprotect your child. You can do this by expecting your child to do his best and stick with tasks like homework, despite his extra challenges.
  • Give your child the opportunity to try new things like cooking, chess or photography. If you do these activities with your child, it’s a good way to make sure your child experiences success and has fun as she builds new skills. 
A learning disability is an accepted disability under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act. Your child has the right to the same educational opportunities as other students. You can read more in our articles on disability law in Australia, anti-discrimination law in Australia and educational rights for children with disabilities

Getting extra support for learning disabilities

Extra support can give your child the best chance of doing well at school. If health professionals recommend extra support, you’ll need to have a professional, documented assessment to prove that your child is eligible for things like extra examination time, tuition from a reading expert, or special computer software.

There are lots of different types of support outside school available for children with learning disabilities, including specialist tutors and technology. The best sort of support for your child will depend on your child’s learning disability. You can talk to your child’s teacher or other professionals working with your child to find out what will work best for your child and your family.

You might need to try a few different things before you work out what’s right for your child and family. This also shows your child how to be persistent and not give up. 

Software packages can help support your child’s learning. Speak to your child’s teacher about what your child uses at school.

If your child has or might have a learning disability, you’ll probably have lots of questions. You can find answers in our learning disabilities FAQs.

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Last updated or reviewed
13-12-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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