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Learning Difficulties


What  is a Learning Difficulty?


In general terms a learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. A learning difficulty can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are:

  • reading,

  • writing,

  • listening,

  • speaking,

  • reasoning, and

  • mathematical ability.

A learning disorder can be described as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.


Learning difficulties are often due to:


  • Visual perceptual problems – the incapacity to interpret or give meaning to what is seen. This can lead to difficulty with reading, writing, spelling and mathematics for which a child requires recognition, insight and correct interpretation of what is seen.

  • Auditory perceptual problems – the inability to interpret auditory stimuli. Leads to difficulties in distinguishing subtle differences in sounds and in hearing instructions against a background of noises. Also leads to difficulties with reading, spelling and with comprehension. Auditory perception is the ability to process auditory stimuli and to make sense of it.

  • Motor problems – a child can have difficulty on a gross motor co-ordination level (involving large muscles of the body) or fine motor co-ordination level (involving more complex finer movements executed mainly by the hands). This can lead to difficulty in participation in sport and in classroom activities, eg posture, pencil grip, handwriting and cutting out.

  • Neurological disorders and/or physiological disorders – such as ADD and ADHD. Without adequate focussing of attention and concentration there can’t be learning.

  • Memory – auditory-, visual-, rote visual- and long term-, short term – and working memory are all essential to learning and important for academic success.

  • Language – a developmental language delay, language confusion or language pathology prevents the child from understanding fully the information which is heard in the classroom, or what he must read, as well as preventing him from expressing himself orally or on a written level.

  • Emotional problems – can impact on successful learning


Common Types of Learning Disabilities:


Type                                             Definition                                                              Difficuluties


Dyslexia                                Difficulty processing Language                       Problems reading, writing, spelling, speaking

Dyscalculia                            Difficulty with Math                                      Problems doing math problems, understanding time, using money

Dysgraphia                            Difficuty with writing                                    Problems with handwriting, spelling, organizing ideas

Dyspraxia                              Difficulty with fine motor skills                      Problems with hand-eyecoordination, balance, manual dexterity

(Sensory Integration Disorder)  

Auditory Processing Disorder     Difficulty hearing differences between sounds  Problems with reading, comprehension, language

Visual Processing Disorder        Difficulty interpreting visual information          Problems with reading, math, maps, charts, symbols, pictures


Does my Child Have a Learning Difficulty?

The following checklist contains the common warning signs of learning disabilities but it is important to note that all children show one or more of these behaviours at some point in their childhood. It is only if your child consistently shows a number of these behaviours that you should consider the possibility of a learning disability and seek professional help. You can approach any of the following for assistance; your paediatrician, a psychologist, the specialised education department at a university, a learning disability organisation or a remedial school.

Potential signs of learning difficulties:

Does your child have consistent difficulties with…



  • Learning new vocabulary

  • Following directions

  • Understanding requests

  • Pronouncing words 

  • Discriminating amongst sounds

  • Spelling

  • Writing stories and essays

  • Reading comprehension

  • Responding to questions



  • Knowing the time, date,year, etc.

  • Completing assignments

  • Organising thoughts

  • Completing work in a given time

  • Managing time

  • Setting priorities

  • Carrying out a plan

  • Finding their belongings

  • Making decisions



  • Spelling

  • Studying for tests

  • Remembering names

  • Remembering events

  • Learning the alphabet

  • Learning new procedures

  • Remembering phone numbers

  • Identifying letters

  • Learning new mathematical concepts



  • Acting before thinking

  • Poor organisation

  • Daydreaming

  • Restlessness

  • Completing a task

  • Waiting

  • Distractibility



  • Social judgement

  • Working cooperatively

  • Making and keeping friends

  • Easily frustrated

  • Accepting changes to routine

  • Interpreting nonverbal cues

  • Sportsmanship



  • Climbing and running

  • Drawing

  • Cutting

  • Sports

  • Manipulating small objects

  • Handwriting


My child fits many of these criteria. What now?


If you think your child may have a learning disability it is advisable to have your child assessed. This involves contacting a psychologist (usually, but not exclusively, an educational psychologist) who will administer a number of test batteries and will then be able to determine if your child has a learning disability, as well as what their specific strengths and weaknesses are. Once this has been done, the psychologist will make suggestions and recommendations for how best to help your child. Then, in conjunction with you, as the parents, the school and the psychologist involved, accommodations for your child can be made at school (this may involve creating an individualised education programme), remedial assistance may be provided or you may need to consider placing your child in a remedial school. The specific action taken will depend on the severity and the specific nature of the learning disability.


What happens when help is not provided?


There are a number of possible outcomes for an unassisted child with a learning disability. Many fail a number of times at school and may not even complete school. There is a high correlation between learning disabled children and drug and alcohol abuse as well as delinquent behaviours (especially if the learning disability is undiagnosed). Low self-esteem is common amongst children with learning difficulties and frustration and despair are common. Poor social relationships are also prevalent in these children.

It’s important to diagnose a learning disability as early as possible in order to provide the best possible support and assistance for your child. Successful intervention at an early stage can prevent or improve academic and social failure. Please try to get your child seen by a professional as soon as you or the class teacher suspect there are learning problems. The frustration and consequences of living with an undiagnosed learning disability can have a profound effect on many areas of a child’s life and well into the adult years.



Melanie Hartgill
Educational Psychologist
Pr. no. 0860000115134











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