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Specific learning difficulties

dyslexia; specific; learning; difficulties; ;

A specific learning difficulty is when children (and adults) are able to do well in some areas of learning, but unexpectedly have problems with other areas. Dyslexia (or difficulty with reading) is the most common type of the specific learning difficulty, but children may also have problems with number skills (dyscalculia) and writing (dysgraphia), as well as some other less common language and learning difficulties.


Specific learning problems have really only 'existed' since people have had to learn to read, write and do maths. Most people with specific learning difficulties find it reasonably easy to manage well outside of school. Without extra help, school can be an unhappy place for some children, when they are continually reminded that they are not as 'clever' as other children.

Children and adults with specific learning difficulties are often misunderstood, and may be mistakenly seen as lazy, lacking in ability or poorly motivated. It is often said that 'they could do better if they tried harder'.

If children are losing skills which they already had, if they can't do things that they could do before, you need to have them seen by a doctor urgently.

Causes of learning problems

If a child is having difficulty learning, it might be due to a specific learning difficulty, but there are other causes of learning problems as well, including:

  • An intellectual disability or handicap
  • Physical health problems. Sometimes these cause a child to miss school and get behind. Sometimes illness or medicines make it hard to learn.
  • Eyesight or hearing problems - it is important to get children's ears and eyes checked if they are having problems with learning.
  • Attention problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD)
  • Family problems or problems at school (such as being bullied) that worry a child - so she is not able to think about her school work
  • Behaviour problems where a child does not want to do school work and does not listen in class.

Specific learning difficulties (eg dyslexia)

  • Children with specific learning difficulties can have a wide range of difficulties, such as problems in spelling, writing, reading, copying and number skills (such as learning times tables).
  • Each child with learning difficulties is different and will have different group of problems.
  • The learning difficulties do not happen because of low intelligence, poor teaching, family problems, emotional or behaviour problems, culture or social problems.
  • It is important to remember that learning difficulties worry children, and can lead to social or behaviour problems, and children need help with these as well as with the learning problem.
  • Learning difficulties tend to run in some families.
  • It is generally thought that learning difficulties happen when parts of the brain do not deal with information in the same way as in other people.
  • Sometimes children with learning difficulties do well in other areas such as sport, dance, science or art (although sports which require good eye-hand coordination might be hard).

Signs of specific learning difficulties

  • Children with specific learning difficulties do not do as well as expected in school, eg. in learning to spell, read or write. They may seem bright, because they can talk well and have a lot of good ideas, but they cannot put these ideas down on to paper, or they cannot learn to read as easily as expected.
  • They may:
    • Have difficulty copying or writing things down
    • Have poor handwriting
    • Take longer than other children to finish written work
    • Have had speech and language problems when younger - but often they will not have had these problems
    • Have trouble remembering times tables
    • Have poor memory for oral instructions
    • Have trouble following a line of print
    • Have concentration problems because it is hard to do the work. They may be being restless or fidgety, find it hard to stay on task or to ignore other things happening around them.
    • They may 'forget' homework books, 'switch off' when things get too hard, have behaviour problems due to feeling a failure or being frustrated because it is hard to get things right.
  • There is often a family history of similar problems.

Note: Many children under the age of eight also have difficulties with these things without having specific learning difficulties.

School problems

Children with specific learning problems usually have to work harder than other children do, to do as well as the others do, and often, even when they do work very hard, they can't do well. They may become tired and cross. Extra homework to help them 'catch up' is an added pressure.

Children with learning difficulties need support at school, including in the following ways:

  • Their own personal learning program and they may need the help of a special education teacher or tutor
  • Finding ways to help them avoid being distracted by what is going on around them - such as sitting next to quiet students, or near the teacher 
  • Building confidence - lots of opportunity to do the things that they can manage, not always having to work away at tasks they have problems with
  • Help to find other ways to do the things which cause them problems - eg using a computer, calculator or spellchecker
  • Having a set amount of time to be spent on classroom tasks - and not always needing to finish the task
  • Having a set amount of time on homework tasks - without always having to finish the task
  • If they have a lot of trouble copying things off a blackboard, they may need  to have the instructions written on a piece of paper too.

What parents can do

  • Early recognition of learning difficulties is important. If your child is not doing as well as expected, or is doing well in some areas but finding other work very hard, ask your child's teacher if an assessment can be done at school. If this is not possible, an assessment could be done by a child psychologist, educational psychologist or special education teacher.
  • Talk to your child's teacher about what your child needs, and keep persisting until he gets the support he needs - no-one cares about him as much as you.
  • Contact a support organisation for specific learning difficulties (for example SPELD in South Australia). They can offer information and may be able to help you find a tutor for your child.
  • Ask questions about how your child's problem will affect home, school and community life. Ask for an explanation if you don't understand what you are told.
  • Keep a check on your child's progress. If he is not making progress ask questions and ask the teacher to try something different. Ask the teacher what your child will get out of any particular program.
  • Don't encourage your child to opt out of trying or excuse bad behaviour because he has a learning problem.
  • Help her think about and practise all the things she can do well. This means she can improve her skills in these activities. This can give her some confidence that being at school will be alright some of the time.
  • It is never too late to get help, but the child or young person must put in an effort. Let her know that you appreciate the effort she is making - don't just keep her at it all the time.
  • Some children may also need help in learning social rules. They may have trouble working out how to act with friends and strangers. It can help to explain and show them how to ask to play with another child or join in a group. Don't just tell them what they are doing wrong, they need to know how to do it right.

Don't be afraid of children finding out they are dyslexic. They already know they are having problems and it often helps them to know why.

  • If you had the same sort of problem when you were a child, let your child know. It will help her to feel she is not alone.
  • Talk to him about all the things he can do to help the family apart from being good at schoolwork.
  • Encourage him to try doing things on his own and to be responsible for what he does.
  • Read to your child (even when she can read for herself) - reading helps her to see that what is written on paper is worth working hard to learn.
  • Help your child to organise his school things and what he does, so it will be easier for him to manage.
  • Find out how the teacher is doing things so you can help with homework in the same way. Make sure your child is not being asked to do a lot more homework than other children.
  • Tell the teacher if your child is finding the work too much, and ask for more time or more suitable work.

Building self esteem

Children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties soon realise they are not managing as easily as others. They may think it is because they are not clever or that they are 'lazy' even when they are working hard. They need help to find ways to manage so they can feel good about themselves, or they will soon stop trying so hard. Having some special help at school might be very helpful but other children sometimes tease them about it.

  • Let them know that you love them no matter what they can or can't do.
  • Notice what they do well and tell them that you have noticed it.
  • Give praise for trying as well as succeeding.
  • Notice especially when they have found a good way to manage a problem, such as being willing to use a spellchecker.
  • Make sure the child does not try to do things that are impossible for him. He needs to do things he can succeed at with a reasonable amount of work.
  • Teach your child ways of praising himself and others, eg. "Are you pleased with how you spelt that word?", "Dad made a great fruit salad today", "I'm pleased about how that cake turned out".
  • Give your child special time often - every day if you can. This needs to be time when your child chooses what you do and that she really enjoys.
  • Help your child join groups and activities such as scouts or sporting groups, if this suits the child.
  • Encourage hobbies.
  • Let children have lots of choices in their lives, eg. what they wear or do.
  • Go on outings, picnics, try gardening, find different ways that your child can do things where she feels good.
  • Help your child to manage things for himself, eg. use the phone, go to the shop with a written list of what to get, etc.
  • Remember that anger and behaviour problems may mean that your child is struggling and needs help.
  • Don't talk about the child's 'problem' unless you need to, she needs to be just a child most of the time, not always a child with a problem.
  • Talk to other people about what your child is good at.

Important Note
This information is to be used as a guide only. If you are concerned about a child's learning it is important that the child is assessed, for example, by an educational psychologist, child psychologist or special education teacher.


In South Australia

  • DECD (Department of Education and Children Development) - School Guidance Officers do assessments of children. Ask your child's teacher about this.
    https://www.decd.sa.gov.au/  (search on 'learning difficulties').
  • Catholic Schools - DECD School Guidance Officers may do assessments of children in some schools. Talk to your child's teacher or the school's special education teacher.
  • Other Independent Schools - Ask you child's teacher or special education teacher whether the school is able to provide some support for getting an assessment. An assessment by a psychologist within an independent school is usually not available, but a special education teacher may be able to do an initial assessment.
  • SPELD 298 Portrush Rd, Kensington. PH. 8431 1655.
    Open Mon-Thurs 9am to 4.30 pm.
    Membership includes newsletters, library, information about courses, parent and child support network, counselling. Some assessments are available but are limited to Health Care Card holders and very low income families.
    www.speld-sa.org.au (check their 'Links' page)
  • Private Educational or Child Psychologists: (Ask your school Special Education Teacher or do internet search)

Other resources

Raising Children Network 

Better Health Channel

Learning Difficulties Australia:

Learning disabilities online (USA):

British Dyslexia Association:

Dystalk - UK site with a lot of information about dyslexia and other developmental problems including dyspraxia

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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