What’s the difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty?

For any schoolchild learning a new subject can be difficult, but some may struggle more than others and this can sometimes be down to a learning disability or a learning difficulty. But just how different are they?

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What is a learning difficulty?

Learning difficulties are problems that can affect your brain’s ability to receive, process, analyse or store information.

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The most common types of learning difficulties are:

  • Dyslexia, which affects the processes of reading, writing, spelling and speaking
  • Dyscalculia, which affects the understanding of time, money and maths
  • Dyspraxia, which affects hand-eye coordination and balance

What is a learning disability?

Learning disabilities not only affect a way a person learns new things at school, but in the rest of their life too.

Children with a learning disability will find it hard to understand new information and cope independently.

The most common types of learning disabilities are:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes autism and asperger’s syndrome. Your child may have an ASD if they have trouble making friends, communicating or making eye contact.
  • Down’s Syndrome, which will affect your child’s memory, concentration and they may have a difficulty problem solving and understanding the consequences of their actions
  • Spina bfida, which affects language processing and the ability to read or solve problems

Children who have a learning disability or a learning difficulty may find they have more than one. Around 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability, according to the NHS. Nearly 20% of these are children who find it difficult to concentrate at school.

How do you know if your child has a learning difficulty or a learning disability?

If you pay attention to the normal developmental milestones for toddlers and preschoolers, you may notice early on if your child has a problem with learning. While school can be a tricky time for any child, it will become obvious if your child is finding it more of a challenge than normal.

Look out for changes in behaviour when you pick your child up from school and keep an eye on their progress by checking their homework, school reports and by asking teachers at parent evenings.

Every child’s special educational needs are different, so if you’re ever worried about your child’s progress or development at school, talk to their teacher or the SENCO (special educational needs coordinator).

Can your child’s teacher diagnose a learning difficulty or a learning disability?

No, your child’s teacher is not in the right position to say to you, “Your child has a learning disability”. However, they will be able to point out what area your child needs help in and may also be able to refer you to a reputable trained specialist, who will diagnose what type of learning difficulty or learning disability your child has.

You know you’re child better than anyone does, so if you think there is a problem, see your doctor or pediatrician. 

What does a learning difficulty or learning disability mean for your child’s education?

Your child’s teacher will be able to help you find the right learning style for your individual child’s needs. There are three types of primary learning styles:

  1. Visual learners, who learn by seeing, reading and benefit from written notes, diagrams and pictures
  2. Auditory learners, who learn by listening, love music and languages and benefit from classroom discussions and study groups
  3. Kinesthetic learners, who learn by doing and moving, love sports, dance and arts and benefit from hands-on activities.

By identifying the best way your child learns, you can then take steps to make sure this type of learning is reinforced in their classroom and at home.

Mencap is the leading UK charity for children with a learning disability and their families, so if you need more information visit their website, www.mencap.org.uk

How can you help your child learn when they’re at home?

Every child’s needs are different, whether they have a learning difficulty or a learning disability or not. However you can support their learning by being extra clear when giving your child instructions and by making sure you are face-to-face when you talk.

Just by including your child in plenty of conversation at home and encouraging them to participate in family activities will help your child to learn.

Children with learning disabilities will often be very good at a variety of other things. Find out what your child really enjoys doing, from dancing to sports for example. Praise them regularly and encourage them to pursue their strengths.

Make sure your child has a healthy diet, regular sleep and regular exercise as these will all also affect your child’s ability to learn.

Are there any other disorders that make learning difficult?

Yes. A problem in school doesn’t always mean your child has a learning disability or learning difficulty. If your child suffers from anxiety or depression, school may be a struggle for them, as their focus will be affected.

If your child’s behaviour disrupts lessons because they can’t sit still, stay focused or follow instructions, they may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

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