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Definition of a Learning Disability: Symptoms and Types

Updated on March 25, 2022
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Angela was a foster parent for eight years and has four daughters, one in which is adopted.

Children with a learning disability will often strongly dislike reading.
Children with a learning disability will often strongly dislike reading. | Source

A learning disability, also known as a learning problem, occurs when a child of average intelligence has difficulty attaining specific skills such as reading or mathematics. The disorder mainly affects those in childhood, although it can be a lifelong condition affecting school, work, and even social situations with friends and family. Learning problems are due to the brain incorrectly interpreting what it sees and hears; information from different brain parts does not connect properly. Some people are only affected in one area, while others may have many learning disabilities, which impact their lives more intensely.


Preschool Age
Kindergarten through Fourth Grade
Fifth through Eighth Grade
Difficulty in pronouncing words
Difficulty learning to read
Avoids reading out loud
Unable to understand the concept of rhyming
Trouble understanding the connection between letters and their sounds
Strong dislike towards reading and writing
May have difficulty finding the right word
Difficulty blending letter sounds together to form words
Difficulty answering word problems and open-ended questions
Trouble learning the alphabet, colors, days of the week, numbers, or shapes
Confuses basic words with one another
One word within the same assignment will be spelled differently
Slow at learning routines
Consistenly misspells words
Very disorganized
Trouble following simple directions
Trouble learning basic math concepts
Appear confused during classroom discussions
Unable to properly use or hold crayons, pencils, and scissors correctly
Slow in learning to tell time and understanding time units
Trouble communicating their thoughts
Difficulty coloring inside the lines
Understanding Sequences is very difficult
Sloppy handwriting
Has a difficult time buttoning, zipping, snapping, and learning to tie shoes
Overall slowness in learning new skills
Poor grades

Understanding the Symptoms

Just because a child has a couple of these symptoms does not mean they have a learning disability. It is essential to look at outside factors before assuming a child has a disability.

Children grow at different speeds. It is crucial to keep in mind the many other reasons a child may suddenly or consistently do poorly in school that have nothing to do with their learning ability. If a child is in a stressful situation at home, experiencing emotional trauma, or suffering from anxiety or depression, they will fall behind in school. The child may have difficulty concentrating due to life's stresses, not because of a disconnect in their brain.

Another reason children may have trouble learning that does not include a learning disability is due to another disorder such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a form of autism. Children with ADHD have trouble focusing and following instructions, which will result in symptoms that mimic a learning disorder.

Children with autism also may have difficulty at school. The average child on the autism spectrum has an average to above-average intelligence. Their inability to communicate well may cause them to seem less intelligent than they are or unable to explain their answers appropriately. They also may have difficulty learning the necessary skills due to their desire to focus on impertinent information. Children with autism will struggle in more areas than just academics.

Classroom Participation

Children with a learning disability may have trouble joining a conversation because of an inability to express thoughts.
Children with a learning disability may have trouble joining a conversation because of an inability to express thoughts. | Source

Types of Learning Disabilities

Suppose it is clear that the child is not under any unusual stress, nor has a diagnosable disorder such as ADHD or autism. In that case, you may want to consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability. Many different learning disabilities affect different areas of one's academics or life. Some will inhibit the ability to read; others will impede learning math, while others may even affect someone socially or physically.


Dyslexia is the most well-known learning disability, which affects one's ability to learn to read. Someone with this disability often has difficulty understanding how individual letters make a particular sound, or they may have an inability to comprehend the meanings of words, phrases, or sentences. Some clues someone may have dyslexia is that they will have difficulty when...

  • Recognizing letters, despite having reviewed them repeatedly.
  • Being able to read basic words.
  • Understanding words or ideas despite being able to read fluently.
  • Expanding their vocabulary
  • Reading a word correctly previously in a sentence or paragraph, yet struggles when the word comes up later.

Each Child Learns Differently

Understanding the difference between learning disabilities, will help you understand where your child needs the most support.
Understanding the difference between learning disabilities, will help you understand where your child needs the most support. | Source


Dyscalculia is the mathematics equivalent of dyslexia. Keep in mind that these disorders can be separate or work in conjunction with one another. For instance, a child may have great difficulty doing word problems because they do not understand what they are reading. In this case, dyslexia needs to be treated before the dyscalculia.

Problems that arise in someone who only suffers from dyscalculia appear during sequencing, memorizing, or organizing. Memorization is an essential part of math because math facts such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are the building blocks of all mathematics. If they struggle with memorization, then more challenging mathematics will become nearly impossible for the individual.

Having trouble sequencing would reveal itself if a person has trouble with:

  • Counting by twos or fives.
  • Doing simple addition without using fingers.
  • Judging quick, simple calculations.


Dysgraphia is the writing equivalent of the other two. When a child suffers from dysgraphia, they have trouble organizing their thoughts on paper, which may extend to forming letters or words on paper to express those thoughts. If a child has this difficulty, you may notice that they:

  • Write very sloppily.
  • Incorrectly copies letters or words.
  • Consistently misspell things.
  • Has trouble writing coherently and with the organization.

Supporting Your Child's Learning

The single most important thing for your child's academic success is to encourage them and be an ally in their learning.
The single most important thing for your child's academic success is to encourage them and be an ally in their learning. | Source


Dyspraxia involves one's motor skills. Someone who struggles with their fine motor skills, which includes using scissors or writing, or their gross motor skills, including running or jumping. Dyspraxia results from the brain's inability to communicate with one's limbs. Someone who suffers from this will:

  • Appear clumsy.
  • Have great difficulty buttoning shirts or zipping.
  • Have sloppy handwriting.
  • Trip or fall frequently.


Dysphasia affects one's language, whether understanding the spoken word or organizing thoughts. This learning disability can affect one's social life. Therefore, a child who has trouble with dysphasia is often picked on or becomes very quiet to the point of timidity and shyness. Those who struggle with dysphasia may:

  • Struggle to retell a story.
  • Unable to speak fluently in their first language.
  • Inability to understand the meaning of words or directions.
  • Refuse to answer questions in class.

Many of these disabilities will overlap with one another and can sometimes be mistaken for one another. There are fine lines that define the characteristics of each learning disability. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of all five types and have a professional assessment.

Sleeping at School

A child with a learning disability that is not being properly treated will feel like a failure and begin to hate school.
A child with a learning disability that is not being properly treated will feel like a failure and begin to hate school. | Source

Support for Children

The first thing you need to do if your child has a learning disability is turn to specialists who can help. Also, educate yourself. The Learning Disabilities Association of America is a great resource. One of their strongest beliefs is that every person with a learning disability can succeed at school, work, and all other aspects of their life.

So what can you do to help your child become a success?

  • Recognize that a learning disability is not catastrophic. We all have struggles in our lives, and this is just one small struggle to overcome.
  • Contact your child's school to make sure that they utilize all possible avenues to help your child succeed at school. If you homeschool, look into programs that can help your child, such as those listed in the next couple of bullet points.
  • Educate yourself by reading about available services, as well as research treatments.
  • Hire a therapist or tutor to help your child with their learning problem.
  • Focus on your child's strengths, not their weaknesses. If they are passionate about something, foster the things they do well. Gaining confidence in one area will help them strive in another.
  • Be your child's advocate. You may be the only voice for your child. Speak up if you feel your child needs extra help. Please don't be ashamed of it.
  • Don't look down on learning disabilities. Your view of learning disabilities will transfer to your child. If you think it is a bad thing, then they will too. If you believe it is just another obstacle they have to go through, like all the others, they will view it the same — a friend of mine who has a learning disability and has excelled in school and life. What made the difference was her father. Her father said to her, "You are just as smart as everyone else. It just takes you longer to get from point A to point B. So if you want to keep up, you have to work twice as hard." She is now a nurse and graduated second in her class.

Learning disorders are not a death sentence. It may affect your child, but by getting the proper help for them, you can set them ahead of children who do not have the support system your child has. A learning disability is a setback but doesn't have to stop them from the future they want.


  • Accessed February 27, 2018.
  • "Learning Disabilities Association of America." Learning Disabilities Association of America. Accessed February 27, 2018.
  • "Learning-styles-online.comDiscover your learning styles - graphically!" Overview of learning styles. Accessed February 27, 2018.

© 2012 Angela Michelle Schultz


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