Learning Difficulties: What Is It, Symptoms, Types and Intervention?

Does your child have difficulty reading, doing math problems, writing, centering his attention, or coordination? Perhaps these problems could be due to a learning difficulty. In this article, you will find everything you need to know about learning difficulties. What are learning difficulties, symptoms and how to identify them? Discover the most common types of learning difficulties and how we can work on them as a family.

Learning difficulties can be presented in different ways: Difficulties in pronouncing words, calling things by name, difficulties in learning letters and/or reading, difficulties with writing, unintelligible calligraphy, problems with numbers, etc.

Learning Difficulties
Learning Difficulties

What are Learning Difficulties? – Definition

Learning difficulties is a generic term that we use to refer to a fairly heterogeneous group of disorders that affect the learning process. They are manifested by significant difficulties in speaking, reading, reasoning, writing, or understanding math and arithmetic. These disorders are inherent to the person and usually due to a structural dysfunction in the individual’s nervous system. Therefore, it’s normal that learning difficulties remain a part of a person’s life.

The basis of learning difficulties is often found in basic cognitive processes such as attention, memory, perception, language, ability to self-regulate, as well as emotional and motivational factors. They are usually identified in the early stages of development (childhood or adolescence). This is because during these stages there are delays in the development of important and essential learning skills in school.

Let’s look at the following case: a child has difficulty expressing his or her ideas, it is difficult for him to tell a story, he organizes his sentences in the wrong order making it impossible to understand him. Frequently, he may not know how to play with his peers and behave aggressively with them. He tends to be clumsy, falling constantly and doesn’t excel in any game. Some people might refer to him as “a bit slow”, “immature”, “needs to improve his motor skills”, etc. 

“John is a 6-year-old 1st grader who shows difficulties in recognizing letters and writing words correctly. He reverses the order of the letters, his rhythm is very slow and what he learns, he forgets. After going on to the next course, John continues with the difficulties to read, write and understand mathematics “

Learning Difficulties have evolved throughout history and have been influenced by the social, political and educational context at the time. As well as, by the predominant discipline of the moment, such as medicine and/or psychology. Thus, studying learning difficulties and how they influence a person’s life has not always been there.  A long time ago, learning difficulties were not even considered important since it was believed that they didn’t influence daily life.

Learning difficulties are a set of disorders that often create confusion between them. This is due to the lack of a clear definition, the coincidences between the different disorders and the differences between the school population to which it refers to. Sometimes learning difficulties can happen in a large group of students and it can be because of the environment. Detection, diagnosis, and intervention of a learning difficulty are no easy tasks.  

Keep in mind, for example, that learning to read is an activity that requires a lot of time and effort, something we must keep in mind. Learning how to read and write is essential in language development since it is not only learning to write but learning to communicate through a written message. Both modalities are reflected in the two aspects of language, comprehension (ability to understand oral and written language) and productive (ability to express themselves in oral and written form). Although oral and written language shares common characteristics, written language presents more difficulties.

Every child has a particular learning rhythm.  It is very important to encourage them to learn new skills, but it is also important not to force their development if the child is not yet ready for it. If development is slow, the more difficulties the child will have as he progresses in age, and in comparison to his peers. Now let’s think about the following: children with learning difficulties, how do they feel among their peers, in their family and, above all, how do they feel about themselves?

Historic evolution of Learning Difficulties

Interest in learning difficulties goes back to 1880 when it was seen hand in hand with the educational evolution of society. Later, in 1962, the concept is used for the first time, thanks to Samuel Kirk (psychologist and American educator). To understand more about the complexity of this subject and the evolution of the concept of Learning Difficulties, experts like Wiederholt, in 1974, establish four key periods in history.

In the Foundation Stage (1880-1940), attention was focused on the neurobiological basis of learning disorders, relating these to some brain injury.  Francis G.Gall (1800), concluded that each area of the brain was related to mental abilities and that injury to one of them couldn’t alter the abilities of the other areas. Broca (1816) and Wernicke (1908), found a specific area of speech and language comprehension, respectively, making them pioneers in learning disabilities.

A curious fact is that after World War I, Kurt Goldstein observed soldiers with brain damage had symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsivity or distractions. After that, Strauss and Werner observed the same symptoms in children with mental retardation, then called “exogenous brain damage”. These authors, together with Lehtinen proposed teaching these children by adapting the contents to their needs and limitations.

Next is the Transition Stage (1940-1963), where we move from a more neurological area to an educational and psychological one. This explanation understands learning difficulties as a delay or alteration in one of the basic processes (auditory, visual, linguistic, attentional, memory, etc.) instead of brain damage. It emphasizes the appearance of several tests focused on evaluating perceptive-motor processes and linguistic processes.

We proceed to the Integration Stage (1963-1990), aiming to analyze the concept of learning difficulties and the intervention models for these disorders. There is a great interest in this area, integrating them into society. A number of partnerships are formed by parents and teachers involved in the intervention with their children.

In addition, laws were put into effect to regulate educational programs for children with learning disabilities.  This period also welcomed magazines like “Journal of Learning Disabilities” or “Learning Disability Quarterly” and “Learning Disabilities Research and Practice”.

Finalizing the tour, we find the current Stage, Contemporary Stage (since 1990), which seeks to consolidate learning difficulties as a new discipline. This implies certain debates about the great diversity of definitions and characteristics of learning difficulties, which makes it arduous to create a stable framework.

Learning Difficulties
Learning Difficulties

Symptoms of Learning Difficulties – How to identify them?

It is necessary to detect these learning difficulties as soon as possible, to be able to intervene and reduce the seriousness and future repercussions. Detection is up to the children’s family, teachers, counselors. Teamwork is what makes this process possible. Here are the different symptoms that warn us of possible learning difficulties in a child!

1- Children between 2 and 4 years old:

Some early signs of learning difficulties may include:

  • Hyperactivity: Children who do not stop moving and find it hard to remain seated.
  • Attention Difficulties: They don’t look at you when you speak to them. They don’t follow instructions, get distracted easily, and don’t finish tasks.
  • Difficulties understanding what is said: They change the subject or interrupt constantly.
  • Difficulty expressing what they mean: They have trouble communicating.
  • Problems learning new concepts, such as shapes, numbers, etc. Behavior problems, such as bothering or hitting peers, and flashy behaviors such as screaming, crying, or breaking things.
  • Behavior problems, such as bothering or hitting peers, screaming, crying or breaking things.
  • Social difficulties: They are less independent and need the adult’s presence constantly. They prefer playing with smaller children.
  • Lack of coordination: they are rigid when walking, they stumble easily, and have difficulties when coloring, cutting, or gluing.

2- Children between 5 and 6 years old:

This is the age when formal learning of reading, writing, and calculus starts. This can be a complicated process for them, especially if the child has dyslexia: They don’t progress in comparison to their peers and low self-esteem, lack of motivation, lack of interest and failing grades begin to emerge. Their intellectual capacity is usually normal however there are specific areas that are affected.

Returning to John’s example, the parents start to worry about his difficulties. They don’t want to just assume their son is lazy or simply a bad student. So they start to focus on what symptoms they can observe:

  • Presence of errors in reading and writing: He tends to confuse letters, changing them for other similar ones.
  • They find it difficult to learn simple calculations: They can’t order the numbers or learn temporal sequences. Difficulties in remembering information learned, problems of attention, motivation, and behavior.
  • Difficulties in remembering information learned, attention problems, motivation, and behavior.

3- Children from 7 onwards:

At this point, if the child has not learned well to read and write, we must start to worry. Some signs are:

  • Inefficient reading: confuses letters, changes words, reads slowly with choppy rhythm, and mistakes.
  • Difficulties with the written expression: It is difficult to understand his handwriting and the context of what he is trying to say. Reading and writing comprehension exercises can be a very difficult task.
  • Difficulties understanding math problems
  • Emotional factors such as anxiety, daydreaming constantly, concentration problems, school rejection or low self-esteem.

4- Adolescence:

Usually, at this age, these difficulties must be already detected and being worked on. What might be the symptoms if it hasn’t been detected before?

  • Reading, writing and calculus difficulties continue.
  • A low ability for exam preparation, as well as for planning or task organization.
  • Anxiety and other emotional factors.
  • It is important to make sure the learning difficulties are not related to eyesight or hearing issues, cultural differences, lack of educational opportunities, changing schools frequently or low intellectual capacity.

After knowing the symptoms, their parents must become their main support to undertake the therapies needed. Therapies include professionals such as psychologists, counselors, language and/or occupational therapists, etc.

The first step is to accept these difficulties and to listen to your child’s emotions and feelings. This will create a safe environment for them to start their therapeutic process.

Types of Learning Difficulties

Learning difficulties can be approached from many fields such as medicine, education, psychology, socioeconomics, etc. In each of these areas, the approach is different depending on their interests. What does this mean? This section will show some definitions and subtypes of learning difficulties.

Learning difficulties are equivalent to special educational needs, which aim to unite all traditional categories of special education and eliminate any negative connotation towards children and their problems.  The Learning Difficulties integrate five differentiated groups, distributed from lower to higher severity, from lower to higher affectation and from higher to lower chronicity.

The Learning Difficulties combine five differentiated groups, distributed from lower to higher severity, from lower to higher impact and from higher to lower chronicity.

1. School Problems

Are the least serious group, they don’t extend in time and usually, a specialized intervention is not necessary, only an occasional tutor. They are probably the most common of these learning difficulties. These are students with low or medium-low academic achievements, but with sufficient intellectual ability to achieve better results.

They study little and have bad studying habits. They read well but their reading comprehension and writing skills are poor. They have difficulties and often refuse to learn specific subjects, such as mathematics or language, although in other subjects there are no problems.

These problems usually start predominantly before and during adolescence. Its appearance is related to inadequate family educational guidelines. Students with school problems skip classes and are not motivated to achieve their goals. The consequences of school problems are performance below capacity and failed subjects. If their needs are not met, the consequences can be more serious. Student orientation from parents, counselors, and teachers is important.

2. Low School Performance

These are problems of moderately severe, although they can be recovered if school and family educational needs are adequately addressed. These students tend to fail most subjects. They forget entire lessons, do not study, are unmotivated and show no interest during class. They often annoy their peers or their teachers throughout the lesson.  They are not adjusted to school life, engage in disruptive behavior and skip lessons. This leads them to perform below their abilities.

These students also have difficulties in basic learning processes such as language understanding and expression. Also, difficulties to organize, elaborate and transfer information.

These difficulties can happen throughout school life, although it is usually more frequent in adolescence. It can result in students being behind by 2 to 4 grades below. The older the student the harder it will be to overcome this difficulty, leading up to school failure.

Low school performance is usually related to family, social and/or school environment factors. Inadequate family educational patterns such as lack of interest, support, and availability can hinder the student. Relationship with peers and social conditions, such as bullying, are also important factors.

Prognosis of this learning difficulty is good since it’s easily overcome with some good incentives and habits. Other great options to move forward are special needs teachers and curricular adaptations.

Learning difficulties
Learning difficulties

3. Specific Learning Difficulties (SLD)

Specific Learning Difficulties (SLD) are present from the early stages of development, impairing normal learning processes. These are the difficulties that students sometimes have in learning reading, writing, and mathematics.

It can happen throughout life, although it usually occurs before adolescence, especially at the beginning of primary education, although it can also occur in adults. Their causes are not known although they emphasize biological factors along with learning and teaching opportunities.

They assume a moderate to high severity, which is why specialized and prolonged intervention is necessary. If the detection happens early in life, it might recede however it’s usually detected later and consequences have already settled.

Specific learning difficulties don’t have the same consequences and don’t always happen in similar settings. Students with SLD can reach a degree of learning necessary for a regularized education if the SLD is diagnosed before 8 years old. 

Padget (1998) differentiates three types of learning difficulties:

  • Difficulties in reading, poor performance in accuracy, speed or reading comprehension. To work the reading speed and verbal fluency there are several activities. You can use dictionary word search, synonyms-antonyms, gender and singular and plural change, or drawing on the text.
  • Difficulties in math. Different skills, including linguistic, perceptual, attention skills, and basic math skills, may be affected. The tasks that might help would be: to estimate the result, to estimate the missing data, to draw the problem, to select the necessary data, to choose the operations, and to search for all possible solutions.
  • Difficulties in written expression. Difficulty writing texts, they are usually filled with grammatical errors or punctuation. There is also poor paragraph organization and multiple spelling errors. Some games to work on this issue are the hangman, word search, crosswords, crazy words or riddles. 

4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a difficulty that is due to serious personal factors that are combined with inadequate responses from the environment. It refers to a group of school and non-school disorders, based on significant difficulties in learning and family, school, and social adaptation.

The person with ADHD tends to act first and then think, although they have a medium or high intelligence, they don’t allow thought to happen first but instead are driven by impulsive behaviors.

They are said to be “forgetful” and “just live the present” without paying attention to the future. They also change activity quickly and show bursts of emotions. ADHD is a topical issue, which is sometimes diagnosed lightly, without clear criteria, by the coincidence of its characteristics with other disorders.

It can happen throughout life, but it is especially reflected before adolescence. These difficulties are due to a neuropsychological alteration affecting attention, work memory, motivation, emotion, and language. Students with ADHD have an inability to control their behaviors, to self-regulate their thinking, and to limit the influence of outside stimuli. They have difficulty focusing on one stimulus and several at the same time. As a consequence of ADHD, children have difficulties adapting to school, lower their grades, and seem to create chaos at school or in the family due to their lack of control.

There are three subtypes of ADHD:

  • Prevalence of attention-deficit: difficulties in maintaining their attention, in carrying out activities, or two activities at a time. They ignore details, have organization problems, among others.
  • Hyperactive-impulsive prevalence: difficulties in controlling information processing, to wait his turn, in addition to hyperactivity signals such as moving frequently or being “in continuous motion.”
  • Combined subtype: can’t focus attention for a long time. He is nervous, sensitive or tense, disobedient at home, does things without thinking, likes to attract attention, gets angry very easily and tends to cheat. He cries a lot, has tantrums, anger outbursts, talks too much and prefers playing with younger children.

ADHD doesn’t improve spontaneously, it needs continuous treatment. The truth is that when he reaches adolescence the fundamental symptoms diminish significantly, but they do not disappear. Thus ADHD diagnosis is also frequent in adults. As we have already mentioned in other difficulties, it is essential to detect and treat it as soon as possible.

5. Intellectual Disability or Intellectual disorder:

This is a serious and chronic developmental delay, that is to say, progress is achieved but not the total remission of the problem. There are important learning difficulties, however, they are capable of taking care of themselves, even though their pace of development is slower.

It is a neurological alteration that causes delays and alterations in attention, reasoning, in addition to a low IQ (70 to 80-85). They are distracted and have little capacity for attention, in addition to other self-regulation difficulties and learning strategies. They have difficulty expressing feelings, and sometimes they exhibit aggressive behavior. They may also have difficulties in language development and poor academic performance.

The origin can be due to genetic conditions, pregnancy problems, problems at birth (anoxia: lack of oxygen in the blood) and health problems such as meningitis or extreme malnutrition. Even though school might be difficult for them, its important to integrate them with their peers.

Intervention in learning difficulties: Family and school

How to deal with learning difficulties in the family? When parents are informed that their child has learning difficulties, they often have questions about what to do with them, and why is this happening. That is why it is very important that they receive guidance on how to stimulate those aspects of their child’s deficit and understand their real possibilities. Here are several tips that parents will find helpful:

  • To begin, it is important for parents to be informed what is happening to their child, information about the possible diagnosis and the meaning of these difficulties. It is very helpful for parents to receive bibliography, material to work with their children, activities, and recommendations.
  • Try to understand the situation from your child’s point of view, that is, be empathic with it. Identify his emotions and accompany him on this path. Listen carefully to his needs, giving them the importance they deserve. At the same time, control your own feelings of anger, grief or frustration.
  • Don’t force the child to work more, but understand the effort he is making and give him the time he needs.
  • Encourage him and raise his self-esteem by highlighting the achievements he is achieving. Reinforce the activities he is doing and encourage him to continue working despite his difficulties. Give your child the opportunity to do different activities such as painting, playing sports, riding, playing guitar, etc.
  • Try not to focus conversations on school issues, but focus on other topics beyond that, such as what he liked best in class, his favorite movie or his best friend.
  • Find the right balance between aid and independence. It is essential to recognize those situations where he needs your help but to promote independence and autonomy as soon as possible. For example, listen to your child read a few minutes each night and then review spelling words. Parent’s role should be a guide, that is, not solve problems, but give them more alternatives so that they can make their own decisions and allow for them to make their own mistakes.
  • If the task at hand is long, try to divide them into sections or separate them into segments. Choose the best time of the day to do these tasks and assess the possibility of having breaks every 15 or 20 minutes.
  • Read with your child and let him read to you. It is important to be clear about the level of success your child might have while reading, otherwise it will be a frustrating activity. You can also play with voice changes and intonation and word search in the dictionary, synonyms, and antonyms. Help them with spelling by teaching them one or two words at night and review them in later.
  • When dealing with math problems, help him to understand the problems using concrete materials like lentils, matches, coins, paintings, etc.  Work with only one concept at a time, so don’t skip from multiplying by 2 to 3 without being sure he understood fully the first one. Make desserts to help him be familiarized with mathematical calculations and concepts.
  • Try to have a notebook between you and his teacher so you can monitor your child’s performance and reinforce what is needed at home. It’s important to keep a strict routine and schedule.
  • Use visual aids such as a bulletin board or magnets to remind your child about schedules, tasks, etc.

All these guidelines will allow you to create a pleasant and comfortable learning environment for your child.  

How to deal with learning difficulties at school?

Coordination with the school and teaching staff is essential to determine the need to receive aids and curricular adaptations. It is also necessary to evaluate the possibility of changing to a school in which his needs are met.

  • Make the classes more practical, give step-by-step instructions and assign special tasks.
  • Divide learning into smaller parts, in a logical order, and with a clear goal. Include visual aids, graphics, drawings, etc. It may be helpful to write down the script of the syllabus taught in class so that they can follow the order.
  • Use mnemonic rules, for example, by remembering the first initial of each word or the order of mathematical operations.
  • Encourage children to use all their senses.
  • Praise a child’s answer, but don’t point out when you think he is wrong. For example: If he says, “Bats suck blood”, the teacher says, “there are some bats that suck blood and others that don’t.”
  • Ask open and progressive questions so that you can later make a full story and repeat it back to him. For example: “what did you do before bed?”, “Brushing my teeth”, “and what else?”, “Read a story”, ” And with whom did you read the story? “,” With mom “,” ah then, before bed you brushed your teeth and read a story with mom.”
  • Carry out different activities where the child is motivated to describe the situation and predict outcomes.
  • Give him enough time to express himself without pressure or warning that he has a limited amount of time to answer. This can make him feel inadequate with his peers and lead to low self-esteem.
  • In order for children to become more aware of the articulatory movements, encourage them to lengthen the syllable sounds and observe the sensations like tingling on the lips.
  • Take into account where the child is sitting, whether near or far from the teacher and depending on the distracting stimuli such as windows, doors, and peers. Important to minimize these distractors especially in children with attention problems and have only the materials you need for the task.
  • Give very simple, brief and sequential orders. For example, “Vanesa, take your pencil case and your reading book”, “very well”, “when you finish call me”. It is also possible to use posters with drawings that indicate the sequence of activities to be carried out.
  • Maintain eye contact with the child, to focus their attention on what the teacher is explaining.

Conclusion and consequences associated with learning difficulties

After a detailed approach to learning difficulties, the consequences of these are:

  • Low academic performance, rendering below their abilities, which can end in school failure or drop out of school.
  • Low self-esteem. In addition, children may experience various distressing emotions because of these difficulties. The child doesn’t feel valid and doesn’t understand what happens to him, no matter how hard he tries.
  • Low motivation and decreased effort.
  • Behavioral problems, because they don’t understand what happens to them and don’t want to appear “silly” in front of others.
  • Impact on their education and learning process, in addition to their relationship with others and in daily activities.

If you think about John, from our previous example, he has been diagnosed a learning difficulty with emotional and behavior problems. He has started therapy and the school has been collaborating with the family in order to adapt the school’s curriculum to fit the child’s needs. John has started to progress.

Each case is different and the impact on children and adults depends on several factors, such as the severity of the diagnosis, its early detection and the support received.

Therefore it is essential to know what difficulties your child has and whenever there are doubts, consult the team of professionals dedicated to this area, psychologists, psychologists, educational counselors, teacher, etc. Follow your own pace, be aware that your emotions influence your child’s emotions and above all understand that the learning process is going to be a challenge but it’s not impossible.

Psychologist Gabriela Paoli believes that it is important to detect these cases in time to be able to start treatment.

“Children that don’t do well in school, or that have a hard time studying, or have attention difficulties. In these cases, they should do a more in-depth assessment to find out what learning difficulties they have, learn about their strengths, figure out which processes are more difficult for them, in order to make a proper diagnosis, and start a re-education learning program for each child.”


Aprender A Comprender Eduardo Vidal-Abarca Gámez (I.C.C.E). Programa de comprensión verbal dedicado a apoyo y ayuda a los alumnos con dificultades de comprensión.

Magaña M; y Ruiz P. Trastornos específicos del aprendizaje. Hospital Infantil Universitario Miguel Servet, Zaragoza y Asociación Española de Psiquiatría Infanto-Juvenil, Huesca.

Programa para mejorar la velocidad y la fluidez de la lectura Antonio Valles Arandiga.

 Romero JF; y Lavigne R. Dificultades en el Aprendizaje: unificación de Criterios Diagnósticos. Consejería de EducRomero JF, Lavigne R. Dificultades en el Aprendizaje: unificación de Criterios Diagnósticos.Consejería de Educación. Junta de Andalucía.

Ya leo! Cuadernos de apoyo a la lecto-escritura José Martínez Romero. Editorial: Ediciones Aljibe15 cuadernos: Educación Infantil y Primer ciclo de Educación Primaria.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Ana Muñoz Miguez, translated by Alejandra Salazar.