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Children & Learning Difficulties

  • What is the difference between learning difficulties and having a learning disorder?
  • How are learning problems diagnosed?
  • What are the causes?
  • Assessment & Treatment

Sending your child to school for the first time is an anxiety provoking experience. You not only worry about whether they will fit in, socialise and have fun, but you also worry about whether they will cope academically. All parents deal with the concern that their child may have a learning difficulty or disorder. It is a topic fraught with anxiety and often misunderstood.

What is the difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disorder?

The terms learning disorder, learning disability and learning difficulty are often used interchangeably, but they do really refer to slightly different problems. A learning disorder refers to a condition that relates to a set of diagnostic criteria used in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. In this sense, there are three main types of learning disorders – reading disorders (often referred to as Dyslexia), math disorders (referred to as dyscalculia) and writing disorders (referred to as dysgraphia). However, difficulty with school work does not always stem from one of these learning disorders. Sometimes children struggle with anxiety, or depression, or even with attention problems, sensory integration difficulties and hyperactivity, to name but a few. These issues certainly impact on the child’s ability to learn and, as a result are referred to as learning difficulties even though the child is not diagnosed with a specific learning disorder.

So how are learning disorders diagnosed?

Mental health professionals will use the criteria stipulated in the DSM to guide a diagnosis of a learning disorder. The criteria stipulate that if the child’s achievement in particular tests is substantially lower than the expected achievement for children of that age, intelligence and level of education AND the difficulty is significantly interfering with the child’s academic achievement and activity then a learning disorder can be diagnosed. Usually a battery of assessments are given to the child to ascertain the child’s ability or level of difficulty.

What does assessment entail?

A child is normally sent for an assessment after the parents have begun to notice certain signs that the child is struggling – These normally include a delay in achieving milestones, a particular difficulty in language development, attention, and/or school work. Learning difficulties are often observed through watching the child’s behaviour and achievement, but a formal diagnosis of a learning disorder requires particular assessment by a psychologist using specific standardised tests. These tests compare the child’s level of ability to the norm for their age and level of education. Before this testing happens, other possible causes for learning difficulties are ruled out, such as sensory problems, emotional difficulties and intellectual disability.

Can learning disorders be treated?

Once a formal diagnosis of a learning disorder has been given, the child, parents and teachers have a better idea of where assistance is required. If the child has a reading disorder, for example, then assistance is given in that area. The overall attitude toward treating learning disorders is to focus on the child’s strengths and abilities while teaching him strategies to compensate for his particular learning difficulties. In general there will be a team of professionals working at helping the child – normally there is a psychologist, a speech and language therapist and an occupational therapist, as well as the teachers and the parents.

Delany Skerrett | CFHP
Delaney Skerrett

Delaney is a senior registered psychologist working with people of all backgrounds and with a special interest in LGBTI+ people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous people.

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