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Child Development: Specific Learning Disability

What is Specific Learning Disability?

Learning disability is a term used for children who have difficulty in acquiring academic skills. These children usually have normal intelligence but process information differently. This will lead to difficulty in learning new information and skill.

Most common specific learning disability involves skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, reasoning, understanding spoken word and speaking.

How common is Specific Learning Disability?

The World Health Organization estimates the incidence of Specific Learning Disability to be 3% in industrialized countries.

In the United States of America, about 5% of children attending public school have learning disability.

The Ministry of Education Malaysia recorded approximately 7% of students screened in 2015 were diagnosed to have dyslexia, a type of specific learning disorder involving reading.

Usually boys are more commonly affected compared to girls.

When should I worry my child may have specific learning problems?

0-5 years
Any child who does not achieve his or her developmental milestones appropriate for age should be seen by a doctor to be assessed.

If the child has difficulty in:

  • Pronouncing words clearly
  • Finding the right word when communicating
  • Rhyming words
  • Learning the alphabets, numbers, colours, shapes, days of week
  • Following directions
  • Using pencils, crayons, scissors or colouring within the lines
  • Buttoning, using zippers and learning to tie shoelaces, he or she would benefit from an assessment from a doctor

School age (lower primary school)
Parents should be concerned if a child:

  • has trouble learning sounds of the alphabets
  • has difficulty in joining syllables to form words
  • problems reading basic words
  • makes frequent spelling errors
  • difficulty in reading
  • inability to learn mathematical concepts
  • is unable to remember sequences and tell the time
  • difficulty learning new skills

School age (upper primary school)
The following problems should be a cause of concern for parents:

  • Unable to answer open ended questions
  • Has difficulty comprehending what he or she reads
  • Has difficulty in learning and differentiating mathematical concepts
  • Dislikes reading out loud and tries to avoid doing so
  • Spelling mistakes
  • Dislikes writing and copying from the board
  • Poor organizational skills in school and at home
  • Difficulty in following discussion and expressing thoughts
  • Poor handwriting

How Is The Diagnosis Made?

The child can present to the doctor in various ways.

  • If parents are worried or have concerns regarding a child’s development or learning, they can bring the child to the nearest health centre or any health facilities nearby. Parents can also highlight their concerns to the Maternal and Child Health Clinic Nurse during the child’s regular visit to the clinic.
  • All children attending school will undergo assessment on their skills in reading, writing and counting. If the child has difficulty attaining the basic skills, the child will be enrolled into the LINUS programme in Standard 1 and re-assessed after a stipulated time. The child will be referred to the nearest health clinic via the Education Department for assessment.

The child will then be referred to a doctor who will ask a few questions regarding the child’s problem and do a physical examination inclusive of  the examination for vision and hearing. The doctor will then proceed to do an assessment on the child’s basic academic skills. The child will also be seen by the occupational therapist. The child may be referred to the nearest hospital with paediatrician for further evaluation.

The assessment may take a few hours and may require multiple visits. Once the diagnosis is made, the doctor will then discuss with the parents regarding his or her problem and advice accordingly.

Managing a child with learning problems require a multidisciplinary approach. The doctor might refer the child to a child psychiatrist, child psychologist, occupational therapists, clinical audiologists, speech therapists if required.

Source: Dr. Aina Mariana bt Abdul Manaf

How Can I Help My Child?

If your child have been diagnosed to have specific learning disability, it is natural for any parent to worry on how he or she will cope in school. How will he learn?

The learning disability that he or she faces is only one aspect of the child. As parents, we should try to look at the bigger picture. What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? How can I help my child to achieve the best of his or her abilities?

As parents, we can help our child in a few ways:

  • Recognize the type of learning disability the child has. Find out local resources such as centres available for making the diagnosis and provide support to the child. There are also nongovernmental organizations for the various types of learning disabilities that may provide help and support.
  • As parents, we may not be able to find a ‘cure’ for our child’s learning disability However, what we can do is to look for strategies for our child to help himself. We can provide our child with support and encouragement as well as social and emotional support for our child to work through his or her challenges. This will enable our child to grow stronger and become more resilient to overcome adversities and difficulties.
  • Be an advocate for our child. There will be times when we will have to speak up to seek special help for our child. We have to be proactive in seeking help. It can be frustrating and daunting, but approach it in a firm, calm and reasonable manner. Our positive actions will have a lasting impact in our child’s outcome.

Role of Teachers/ Parents

Children with specific learning disabilities may learn in various ways. Some children learn by seeing, others by listening or touching and experiencing. Both parents and teachers may be able to maximize the child’s learning capabilities by using aids that can assist the child to learn.

Children who learn better by seeing or reading will do better with visual aids such as diagrams, charts, mind maps and pictures. These children may enjoy activities involving drawing.

Other children may learn better by listening. They learn better in group discussion and oral learning. They may also be able to answer questions better verbally than in writing.

Some children learn by experiencing and touching the surrounding elements. They love activities especially hands-on. They can learn through performing experiments, arts and crafts and field trips.

As parents, we can work together with teachers to identify the best method of learning for our child. Suitable learning aids such as computers, audio books, flash cards or other methods of learning can be employed to facilitate learning.

We should also identify our child’s strengths and weaknesses. Identifying and nurturing skills that the child display will also help to build confidence and empower them.

Source: Dr. Aina Mariana bt. Abdul Manaf

In Summary

Children with specific learning disabilities are children who have difficulty in learning specific skills.  As parents and teachers, we should try to identify the problem, address the problem by seeking medical help and support. We should do our best to help the child overcome the difficulties to achieve the best of his or her potential.


  1. Laporan Program Outreach Tahun 2015, Bahagian Pendidikan Khas, Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia
  2. Gina Kemp et al. Types of Learning Disabilities and Learning Disorders and their signs. Available at http://www.helpguide.org/articles/learning-disabilities/learning-disabilities-and-disorders.htm
  3. Gina Kemp et al. Helping Children with Learning Disabilities. Practical Parenting Tips For Home and School. Available at http://www.helpguide.org/articles/learning-disabilities/helping-children-with-learning-disabilities.


Semakan Akhir :  27 Januari 2017
Penulis : Dr. Aina Mariana bt. Abdul Manaf
Akreditor : Dr. Ranjini S. Sivanesom