Reading, writing, and math are the building blocks of learning. Mastering these subjects early on can affect many areas of life, including school, work, and even overall health. It’s normal to make mistakes and even struggle a little when learning new things. But repeated, long-lasting problems may be a sign of a learning disability.
Learning disabilities aren’t related to how smart a child is. They’re caused by differences in the brain that are present from birth, or shortly after. These differences affect how the brain handles information and can create issues with reading, writing, and math.
“Typically, in the first few years of elementary school, some children, in spite of adequate instruction, have a hard time and can’t master the skills of reading and writing as efficiently as their peers,” says Dr. Benedetto Vitiello, a child mental health expert at NIH. “So the issue is usually brought up as a learning problem.”
In general, the earlier a learning disability is recognized and addressed, the greater the likelihood for success in school and later in life. “Initial screening and then ongoing monitoring of children’s performance is important for being able to tell quickly when they start to struggle,” explains Dr. Brett Miller, a reading and writing disabilities expert at NIH. “If you’re not actively looking for it, you can miss opportunities to intervene early.”
Each learning disability has its own signs. A child with a reading disability may be a poor speller or have trouble reading quickly or recognizing common words. A child with a writing disability may write very slowly, have poor handwriting, or have trouble expressing ideas in writing and organizing text. A math disability can make it hard for a child to understand basic math concepts (like multiplication), make change in cash transactions, or do math-related word problems.
Learning difficulties can affect more than school performance. If not addressed, they can also affect health. A learning disability can make it hard to understand written health information, follow a doctor’s directions, or take the proper amount of medication at the right times. Learning disabilities can also lead to a poor understanding of the benefits of healthy behaviors, such as exercise, and of health risks, such as obesity. This lack of knowledge can result in unhealthy behaviors and increased chances for disease.
Not all struggling learners have a disability. Many factors affect a person’s ability to learn. Some students may learn more slowly or need more practice than their classmates. Poor vision or hearing can cause a child to miss what’s being taught. Poor nutrition or exposure to toxins early in life can also contribute to learning difficulties.
If a child is struggling in school, parents or teachers can request an evaluation for a learning disability. The U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act requires that public schools provide free special education support to children, including children with specific learning disabilities, who need such services. To qualify for these services, a child must be evaluated by the school and meet specific federal and state requirements. An evaluation may include a medical exam, a discussion of family history, and intellectual and school performance testing.
Many people with learning disabilities can develop strategies to cope with their disorder. A teacher or other learning specialist can help kids learn skills that build on their strengths to counter-balance their weaknesses. Educators may provide special teaching methods, make changes to the classroom, or use technologies that can assist a child’s learning needs.
A child with a learning disability may also struggle with low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and frustration. In the case of a math learning disability, math anxiety may play a role in worsening math abilities. A counselor can help children use coping skills and build healthy attitudes about their ability to learn.
“If appropriate interventions are provided, many of these challenges can be minimized,” explains Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke, a math learning disability expert at NIH. “Parents and teachers should be aware that their own words and behavior around learning and doing math are implicitly learned by the young people around them and may lessen or worsen math anxiety.”
“We often talk about these conditions in isolation, but some people have more than one challenge,” Miller says. Sometimes children with learning disabilities have another learning disorder or other condition, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“ADHD can be confused with a learning problem,” Vitiello says. ADHD makes it difficult for a child to pay attention, stay focused, organize information, and finish tasks. This can interfere with schoolwork, home life, and friendships. But ADHD is not considered a learning disability. It requires its own treatments, which may include behavior therapy and medications.
“Parents play an important role in treatment, especially for children in elementary school,” Vitiello says. Medications and behavioral interventions are often delivered at home. Teachers can usually advise parents on how to help kids at home, such as by scheduling appropriate amounts of time for learning-related activities. Parents can also help by minimizing distractions and encouraging kids to stay on task, such as when doing homework. Effective intervention requires consistency and a partnership between school and home.
Many complex factors can contribute to development of learning disabilities. Learning disorders tend to run in families. Home, family, and daily life also have a strong effect on a child’s ability to learn starting from a very early age. Parents can help their children develop skills and build knowledge during the first few years of life that will support later learning.
“Early exposure to a rich environment is important for brain development,” Mann Koepke says. Engage your child in different learning activities from the start. Before they’re even speaking, kids are learning. “Even if it’s just listening and watching as you talk about what you’re doing in your daily tasks,” she says.
Point out and talk with children about the names, colors, shapes, sizes, and numbers of objects in their environment. Try to use comparison words like “more than” or “less than.” This will help teach your child about the relationships between things, which is important for learning math concepts, says Mann Koepke. Even basic things, like getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, can help children’s brain development and their ability to learn.
NIH is continuing to invest in research centers that study learning challenges and their treatments, with a special focus on understudied and high-risk groups.
Although there are no “cures,” early interventions offer essential learning tools and strategies to help lessen the effects of learning disabilities. With support from caregivers, educators, and health providers, people with learning disabilities can be successful at school, work, and in their personal lives.
Learning Disabilities Research Studies: Findings from NICHD funded Projects.
Miller B, Vaughn S, Freund L. J Res Educ Eff. 2014;7(3):225-231. PMID: 25485027.