Learning Difficulties


Learning requires complex skills. Input through vision, hearing, touch, emotion, physical movement and balance will be processed together. To learn, an individual needs to be able to concentrate, remember, analyze and apply i.e. must have cognitive ability. Any problems with the processing the system or getting input will affect the ability to learn, Learning disorders can be minimized for example in cases of visual impairment or hearing problems that can be corrected with glasses or hearing aids and given adequate stimulation as early as possible.


Some definitions of learning disorders;

The child’s inability to achieve an expected level of proficiency within a particular learning field as measured by standard tests the i.e. mathematics, reading etc (DSM IV)


A generic term that refers to a group of disorders that may be manifested by delayed development and / or difficulties in any of the following areas;

  • Attention,
  • Memory,
  • Reasoning,
  • Coordination,
  • Communicating,
  • Reading, writing, spelling, calculation,
  • Social competence and emotional maturation.

Signs of Learning Disorders in Young Children

Early signs of problems in learning can be identified as early as three years of age. Usually the problem is detected by parents or care givers. Children, who have delayed development in other areas, also have a risk of having learning difficulties. Among the signs of learning disabilities include the following:-

Signs during Pre School Signs during early primary school (7-8 years)
  • Short attention span
  • Problem in saying words
  • Does not use many words (lack vocabulary)
  • Does not make friends easily
  • Unable to follow instructions
  • Delayed speech
  • Problems with alphabets and numbers
  • Difficulty learning to match letter symbols and speech sounds..
  • Confused with simple words e.g. eat, run, etc.
  • Makes mistakes when using alphabets (b and d) and (m and w)
  • Problems with transposition i.e. mistake in spelling fail
  • Confused  with mathematical symbols  (+, -, x, /,), right and left, etc
  • Depends on memorising
  • Poor planning ability.
  • Problems socialising

Categories of learning difficulties / disorders

According to the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, problems in learning can be divided into the following categories:-

  • Global Developmental Delay (for children under 4 years)
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Autism
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder)
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Specific Learning Disabilities e.g. Dyslexia

In this context learning disability is defined as a subset of learning difficulties

Early Detection

Early detection is important to enable early intervention to take place. Often it the parents and care givers who first detect the problems among children. Other development problems leading to learning difficulties maybe be identified during;-

  • Development assessment in children during child health visits to the clinic
  • There are specific screening for included in the development assessment :-
    • Screening for autism at 18 months and,
    • Early detection of behavior problems at 4 years
  • Teachers may notice that child’s performance may not be the same as other children e.g. child may be having problems reading but is able to speak fluently and tell stories. .
  • Screening for vision should be done for all children in standard 1. Visual acuity should be done yearly as the child’s eye is still growing and can cause increase in refractive error that can still be corrected with spectacles
  • Hearing screening should be done for all children suspected of having hearing loss and children who are exposed to loud music

Children with learning disability have to be seen by a doctor for confirmation so that early intervention can be instituted.

Early intervention

Early intervention needs to be started as early as possible. Effective interventions depend on proper identification of problems faced by the child and the development of an Individual Care Plan.

Intervention for each child and adolescent is different as problems faced is different in each child. There is no standard care plan. Development assessment needs to be carried out for each child to identify:-

  • Cause of delayed development
  • Strengths and weakness of each individual.

Children with impaired vision due to refractive error should be corrected with suitable spectacles as soon as possible. For children who are blind mode of learning include use of Braille, however for children who have low vision (poor vision that cannot be corrected by spectacles) they need to be provided with assistive devices or magnifying glasses for reading.

Hearing loss also causes learning difficulties because children are unable to understand what is being said. Hearing aids can be used to correct some children with hearing loss. For children who can hear with the aid of hearing aids, it is best to place them in regular classes. Children who cannot hear even with hearing aids, placement for learning is best in special classes where they can learn sign language. However children, both the blind and deaf need to be given interventions as soon as they are detected and not wait until it is time for school. Children with physical disability only should be placed in regular classes.

There are also children who have lack of stimulation and present with learning difficulties (sometimes referred to as slow learners). These children need and stimulation that is provided by remedial education. In these classes, children are given intensive teaching to increase their ability to read, write and count.

Children with mild learning difficulties due to poor cognitive function or behavior problems may improve with early stimulation and be able to follow mainstream curriculum.

However there are children who have moderate to severe learning difficulties who will have difficulty adapting to regular classes. These children require a different curriculum that is provided by special education and focus on self help skills, social skills training and vocational training.

If the child does not learn the way we teach, then we must teach him the way in which he learns (Pollock and Waller).

Adolescents with learning difficulties

Adolescents with special needs are like any other adolescent. They need basic care (food, clothes, shelter), love, learning to make friends, education and preparation for adulthood (indepencdence, work, social and living skills, marriage etc.).

Adolescents with learning difficulties undergo bio-physical and psychological changes just as any adolescent does. Girls get periods, period pain and premenstrual mood changes, They also undergo physical and emotional changes same as all girls. Boys with learning difficulties same as all boys also develop secondary characteristics changes. Therefore it is very important that children with learning difficulties are taught sexual health education same as any other adolescent which includes hygine and personal safety tips.

What happens to the child in future?

Children and adolescents with special needs grow into adults with special needs,. Challenges for the child with speical needs increase and responsibilities increase. We need to tell the child and prepare them for adulthood which includes prepartion for work, marriage and setting up a family as well as being a member of the society. Children and adolescents with learning difficulties have a right to lead their lifes the same as others however they must understand and be responsible for certain actions. For this to happen, parents and caregivers must help the child attain live skills and be given the opportunities to experience.

Links and resources

www.nasom.com.my http://dyslexiainmalaysia.wordpress.com/
http://downsyndromemalaysia.org http://www.mab.org.my/

Last Reviewed : 21 July 2011
Writer : Dr. Aminah binti Bee