Learning disorders: Know the signs, how to help

Learning disorders can make it hard for a child to read, write or do simple math. Understand the signs and what you can do.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Many children with learning disorders, also called learning disabilities, struggle in school long before being diagnosed. This can affect a child’s self-esteem and motivation. Understand how to recognize signs of a learning disorder and what you can do to help your child.

What is a learning disorder?

A learning disorder is an information-processing problem that prevents a person from learning a skill and using it effectively. Learning disorders generally affect people of average or above average intelligence. As a result, the disorder appears as a gap between expected skills, based on age and intelligence, and academic performance.

Common learning disorders affect a child’s abilities in reading, written expression, math or nonverbal skills.

Reading

Learning disorders in reading are usually based on difficulty perceiving a spoken word as a combination of distinct sounds. This can make it hard to understand how a letter or letters represent a sound and how letter combinations make a word.

Problems with working memory — the ability to hold and manipulate information in the moment — also can play a role.

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

  • Reading at a typical pace
  • Understanding what they read
  • Recalling accurately what they read
  • Making inferences based on their reading
  • Spelling

A learning disorder in reading is usually called dyslexia, but some specialists may use the term to describe only some of the information-processing problems that can cause difficulty with reading.

Written expression

Writing requires complex visual, motor and information-processing skills. A learning disorder in written expression may cause the following:

  • Slow and labor-intensive handwriting
  • Handwriting that’s hard to read
  • Difficulty putting thoughts into writing
  • Written text that’s poorly organized or hard to understand
  • Trouble with spelling, grammar and punctuation

Math

A learning disorder in math may cause problems with the following skills:

  • Understanding how numbers work and relate to each other
  • Calculating math problems
  • Memorizing basic calculations
  • Using math symbols
  • Understanding word problems
  • Organizing and recording information while solving a math problem

Nonverbal skills

A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills appears to develop good basic language skills and strong rote memorization skills early in childhood. Difficulties are present in visual-spatial skills, visual-motor skills, and other skills necessary in social or academic functioning.

A child with a learning disorder in nonverbal skills may have trouble with the following skills:

  • Interpreting facial expressions and nonverbal cues in social interactions
  • Using language appropriately in social situations
  • Physical coordination
  • Fine motor skills, such as writing
  • Attention, planning and organizing
  • Higher-level reading comprehension or written expression, usually appearing in later grade school

What causes learning disorders?

Factors that might influence the development of learning disorders include:

  • Family history and genetics. A family history of learning disorders increases the risk of a child developing a disorder.
  • Prenatal and neonatal risks. Poor growth in the uterus (severe intrauterine growth restriction), exposure to alcohol or drugs before being born, premature birth, and very low birthweight have been linked with learning disorders.
  • Psychological trauma. Psychological trauma or abuse in early childhood may affect brain development and increase the risk of learning disorders.
  • Physical trauma. Head injuries or nervous system infections might play a role in the development of learning disorders.
  • Environmental exposure. Exposure to high levels of toxins, such as lead, has been linked to an increased risk of