Learning disorders: Know the signs, how to help

Learning disorders can make it hard for a child to read, write or do simple math. Know the symptoms and find out what you can do.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

It can be hard to figure out that a child has a learning disorder. Some children have learning disorders for a long time before they are diagnosed. These children can have such a hard time in school that their self-esteem and drive to succeed goes down.

That's why it's a good idea for parents to know the symptoms of learning disorders. The sooner you spot the symptoms, the faster you can help your child succeed.

What is a learning disorder?

A learning disorder is present when the brain takes in and works with information in a way that is not typical. It keeps a person from learning a skill and using it well. People with learning disorders by and large have average or above-average intelligence. So, there's a gap between their expected skills, based on age and intelligence, and how they do in school.

Common learning disorders affect a child's ability to:

  • Read.
  • Write.
  • Do math.
  • Use or understand language.
  • Socialize.
  • Learn other skills that don't involve words.


Reading is based on understanding speech. Learning disorders with reading often are based on a child's trouble understanding a spoken word as a mix of distinct sounds. This can make it hard to understand how a letter or letters represent a sound and how letters make a word.

Problems with short-term memory, also called working memory, can play a role.

Even when basic reading skills are mastered, children may have trouble with the following skills:

  • Reading at a typical pace.
  • Understanding what they read.
  • Recalling correctly what they read.
  • Making conclusions based on their reading.
  • Spelling.

One of the most common types of learning disorders is a reading disorder called dyslexia. It causes you to have trouble picking out different speech sounds in words and learning how letters relate to those sounds.


Writing requires complex skills that involve vision, movement and the ability to process information. A learning disorder in writing, also called dysgraphia, may cause the following:

  • Slow handwriting that takes a lot of work.
  • Trouble recalling how to form letters, copy shapes and draw lines.
  • Handwriting that's hard to read.
  • Trouble putting thoughts into writing.
  • Written text that's poorly organized or hard to understand.
  • Trouble with spelling, grammar and punctuation.


A learning disorder in math, also called dyscalculia, may cause problems with the following skills:

  • Understanding how numbers work and relate to each other.
  • Doing math problems.
  • Learning basic math rules.
  • Using math symbols.
  • Understanding word problems.
  • Organizing and recording information while solving a math problem.

Speech and Language

Children with speech and language disorders can have trouble using and understanding spoken or written words. They may have trouble:

  • Reading and writing.
  • Doing math word problems.
  • Following directions.
  • Answering questions.

A variety of speech and language disorders can affect kids. A few examples are:

  • Stuttering — trouble saying words or sentences in a way that flows smoothly.
  • Articulation errors — difficulty forming certain words or sounds.
  • Childhood apraxia — trouble accurately moving the lips, jaw and tongue to speak.

Children with speech or language disorders often can understand and work well with visual information. They also can use visual cues well in social situations.

Nonverbal skills

Children with nonverbal learning disorders often have good basic language skills. They can excel at memorizing words too. But these children may have trouble with some skills that don't involve speaking, such as:

  • Perceiving where objects are.
  • Understanding abstract concepts.
  • Reading people's emotions through facial expressions and other cues.
  • Moving the body, also called physical coordination. This type of trouble is known as dyspraxia.
  • Fine motor skills, such as writing. This issue may happen along with other learning disorders.
  • Paying attention, planning and organizing, as seen in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD).
  • Understanding higher-level reading or writing tasks, often appearing in later grade school.

What causes learning disorders?

Things that might play roles in learning disorders include:

  • Family history and genes. Having a blood relative, such as a parent, with a learning disorder raises the risk of a child having a disorder.
  • Risks before birth and shortly after. Learning disorders have been linked with poor growth in the uterus and exposure to alcohol or drugs before being born. Learning disorders also have been tied to being born too early and having a very low weight at birth.
  • Emotional trauma. This could involve a deeply stressful experience or emotional abuse. If either happens in early childhood, it may affect how the brain develops and raise the risk of learning disorders.
  • Physical trauma. Head injuries or nervous system illnesses might play a role in the development of learning disorders.
  • Poisonous substances. Exposure to high levels of toxins, such as lead, has been linked to a larger risk of learning disorders.

What are the symptoms of learning disorders?

At times, all children have trouble learning and using academic skills. But when the symptoms last for at least six months and don't get better with help from adults, a child might have a learning disorder.

The symptoms of a learning disorder in a child can include:

  • Not being able to master skills in reading, spelling, writing or math at or near the expected age and grade levels.
  • Trouble understanding and following instructions.
  • Problems remembering what someone just said.
  • Lacking coordination while walking, playing sports or doing things that use small muscles, such as holding a pencil.
  • Easily losing homework, schoolbooks or other items.
  • Trouble completing homework and assignments on time.
  • Acting out or having defiant, angry or large emotional reactions at school. Or, acting any of these ways while doing academic tasks such as homework or reading.

Seeking help for learning disorders

Early treatment is key, because the problem can grow. A child who doesn't learn to add numbers in elementary school won't be able to do algebra in high school. Children who have learning disorders also can have:

  • Anxiety about their grades.
  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Tiredness.
  • Less motivation.

Some children might act out to distract attention from their challenges at school.

If you suspect your child has trouble learning, you can ask the school to check for a learning disorder. Or you can get a private evaluation outside of the school system. A child's teacher, parents or guardian, and health care provider are some of the people who can request an evaluation. Your child will likely first have a general physical exam that checks for vision, hearing or other medical problems that can make learning harder. Often, a child will have a series of exams done by a team of professionals, including a:

  • Psychologist.
  • Special education teacher.
  • Occupational therapist.
  • Social worker or nurse.
  • Speech and language specialist.

These professionals work together to decide whether a child's trouble meets the definition of a learning disorder. They also figure out what special-education services are needed if the child has a disorder. The team bases its decisions on:

  • The results of tests.
  • Teacher feedback.
  • Input from the parents or guardians.
  • A review of how the child does in school.

A child's health care provider also might do tests to look for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and ADHD. These mental health conditions can contribute to delays in academic skills.

For example, some children with ADHD struggle to finish classwork and homework. But ADHD might not necessarily cause them to have trouble learning academic skills. Instead, it may cause them to have a hard time performing those skills. Many children have ADHD along with a learning disorder.

Treatment options

If your child has a learning disorder, your child's provider or school might suggest:

  • Extra help. A reading specialist, math tutor or other trained professional can teach your child ways to do schoolwork, study and get organized.
  • Individualized education program (IEP). This written plan sets learning goals and describes the special-education services your child needs. Public schools develop IEPs for students whose challenges meet the school system's guidelines for a learning disorder. In some countries, IEPs are called individual education plans.
  • Changes in the classroom. These are also known as accommodations. For instance, some students with learning disorders get more time to complete work or tests. They may be asked to do fewer math problems in assignments. And they may get seated near their teachers to boost attention. Some students are allowed to use gadgets. These could include calculators to help solve math problems and programs that turn text into speech you can hear. The school also might be willing to provide audiobooks to listen to while reading along with a physical copy.
  • Therapy. Different types of therapy may help. Occupational therapy might improve writing problems. A speech-language therapist can help with language skills.
  • Medicine. Your child's health care provider might suggest medicine to treat depression or anxiety. Medicines for ADHD may help a child's ability to focus in school.
  • Complementary and alternative treatments. More research is needed to find out if these treatments work for learning disorders. They include diet changes, use of vitamins, eye exercises and a treatment that works with brain waves called neurofeedback.

Your child's treatment plan will likely change over time. You always can ask the school for more special-education services or classroom changes. If your child has an IEP, review it with the school at least every year. Your child may need less treatment or fewer learning aids over time. Early treatment can lessen the effects of a learning disorder.

In the meantime, help your child understand in simple terms the need for any other services and how they may help. Also, focus on your child's strengths. Encourage your child to pursue interests that boost confidence. Many kids with learning disorders go on to lead successful lives as adults.

Together, these tactics can boost your child's skills. They also use your child's strengths and help with learning in and outside of school.

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Feb. 18, 2023 See more In-depth