Updated 18 March 2015

Concerned about learning disabilities?

Children with learning disabilities have a 'glitch' in how their brains are wired, and this affects how they receive and process information.


Does your child dread reading out loud, writing an essay or tackling a maths problem? Every child has a problem with homework from time to time, but if a certain area of learning is consistently problematic, it might indicate a learning disability.

Learning disabilities can be extremely frustrating for children. Imagine having trouble with a skill all of your friends are tackling with ease, worrying about embarrassing yourself in front of the class, or struggling to express yourself.

According to recent studies approximately 10 to 30% of all children have learning difficulties, and without help, nearly 40% of these children and adolescents drop out of school. Learning disabilities and their accompanying challenges, can lead to low self-esteem, isolation and behavioural problems – but they don’t have to.

What is a learning disability?

This is an umbrella term used to describe many neurological disorders. Children with learning disabilities have a "glitch" in how their brains are wired and this affects how they receive and process information. These disorders are often described as disabilities because they may interfere with the student’s ability to learn. Many students with a learning disability have average or above average intelligence. The most common learning disabilities involve problems with reading, writing, maths, reasoning, listening and speaking.

Red flag list for learning disabilities:

Remember that children who don’t have learning disabilities may also experience some of these difficulties at times. The time for concern is when there is a consistent inability to master certain skills.

A learning disability is usually only identified when a child enters formal schooling. When a child’s achievement in reading, maths or written expression is below what is expected in relation to his or her age, schooling and intelligence, a learning disorder may be present.


During early development, the following signs and symptoms may be observed in a child with a learning difficulty:

•  Slower than average developmental milestones (sitting, walking, speaking)
•  Difficulty communicating needs or desires
•  Difficulty following instructions
•  Poor attention span

At school level the following signs and behaviours may be indicative of a learning disability:

•  Difficulty following verbal instructions
•  Repeated asking of questions about work already explained
•  Repeatedly losing their place when reading
•  Erratic spelling
•  Difficulty working from written instructions
•  An awareness of a mistake but difficulty correcting the mistake
•  Can’t distinguish main idea from details
•  Difficulty making choices, identifying priorities and initiating tasks
•  Continuously forgetting homework and assignments
•  Difficulty completing tasks in a given time
•  Inconsistent performance in school work
•  Poor handwriting
•  Difficulty sustaining attention

What should you do?

Children with learning disabilities can and do succeed. They need organised parents and teachers. Supportive measures can be put in place to assist children to work around these problems and reach their potential, despite learning problems. In South Africa, the Department of Education offers special dispensation for learners with special educational needs.

These must be applied for by the school and may include:

• Extra time for exams
• Spelling concession
• Handwriting dispensation
• Oral exams
• A planning aid for exam writing
• Questions on tape
• The use of a computer/laptop/tablet during exams

Trust your instincts. If you suspect a learning disability, talk to your child’s teacher and paediatrician about an evaluation. Create a strong support system by helping them to express themselves and deal with frustration and challenges. By focusing in your child’s growth as a person, and not just on academic achievements, you’ll install good emotional habits that will set the stage for success throughout life.