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Learning Difficulties

by Dr Noor Aishah, Consultant Psychologist

What are Learning Disabilities? 

Learning disabilities can be expressed in children and adolescents in different forms and cause significant impairment to the individual’s academic performance as well as impact social functioning and self-esteem.

This a neurological processing problem that can interfere with their learning basic skills such as reading, writing and math. It can also interfere with higher-level skills such as organisation, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory and attention. It is important to realise that learning disabilities can affect an individual’s life beyond academics and can impact relationships with family, friends and in the workplace.

Most psychologists found that people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as ‘hidden disabilities’. The person looks perfectly ‘normal’ and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age.

A learning disability cannot be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong challenge. However, with appropriate support and intervention, people with learning disabilities can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community.

Common signs that a person may have learning disabilities:

  • Difficulty with reading and/or writing

  • Problems with math skills

  • Difficulty remembering

  • Problems paying attention

  • Trouble following directions

  • Poor coordination

  • Difficulty with concepts related to time

  • Problems staying organized

The Five Most Common Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia - It is a learning disorder that impedes the child’s ability to read and comprehend text. There are a variety of ways in which this disability can be manifested. Some people struggle with phonemic awareness, which means they fail to recognize the way words break down according to sound. Similar problems can occur with phonological processing, wherein the child cannot distinguish between similar word sounds. Other issues relate generally to fluency, spelling, comprehension and more. The child may experience one reading issue or multiple issues when struggling with dyslexia.

ADHD - Child who has ADHD has difficulty paying attention and staying on task. He/she can be easily distracted and often have difficulty in traditional school settings.

Dyscalculia - Math is another major area of concern when it comes to learning disabilities. While difficulty with reading can affect a child’s ability in math, some children also suffer from dyscalculia, which is a disorder that specifically affects one’s math capabilities. Dyscalculia can range from an inability to order numbers correctly and extend to limited strategies for problem-solving. Children with math disorders may have trouble performing basic math calculations, or they may have difficulty with concepts like time, measurement or estimation.

Dysgraphia - While reading disabilities receive the most attention, writing disabilities can be equally difficult to overcome. These disabilities are known as dysgraphia. Dysgraphia can be related to the physical act of writing. These children often cannot hold a pencil correctly, and their posture may be tense while trying to write. This leads them to tire easily, causing discouragement that further inhibits progress. Dysgraphia can also refer to difficulty with written expression. With this type of disability, children have trouble organizing their thoughts coherently. Their writing may be redundant or have obvious omissions that affect the quality and readability of the text. Dysgraphia may also cause children to struggle with basic sentence structure and grammatical awareness.

Processing Deficits - Learning disabilities are also connected to processing deficits. When children have a processing deficit, they have trouble making sense of sensory data. This makes it hard for children to perform in a traditional classroom without instructional supports. These deficits are most often auditory or visual, and they can make it hard for students to distinguish and remember important information that is needed to succeed.

Testing for Learning Disabilities

Learning Disability (LD) tests focus on the types of ability-deficits that may prohibit learning. The use of intelligence tests to demonstrate deficits or developmental imbalances in psychological processing is very important in order to evaluate the cognitive performance of the child.

There are different types of LD tests. 

Currently, the most commonly used assessment for measuring intelligence in children with learning disabilities is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Fifth Edition (WISC-V). Other commonly used tests include the cognitive section of the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, and the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children. The use of intelligence tests to document any deficit in cognitive performance of the child. The developmental imbalance may best be understood as an uneven pattern of development, such the child may function on grade level in math but significantly below grade level in reading. Thus, an imbalance will be shown when his or her academic scores in these areas are compared.

The Dyslexia Screening Test – Secondary and The Dyslexia Screening Test – Junior may provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses which can be used to guide the development of in-school support for the child. The DST-J is designed for early identification of children who are at risk of reading failure so that they can be given extra support at school.

Visual-Perceptual and Visual-Motor Tests. The most common visual-perceptual and visual-motor tests used today are the Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test and the Developmental Tests of Visual Motor Integration. Although most intelligence tests include some subtests that are basically visual in nature, IQ tests are not included in this general domain of tests because IQ tests also assess things other than visual perception and motor performance. The test items generally involve copying various geometric designs in order to demonstrate an ability to adequately perceive and reproduce information, though there may also be figure-ground discrimination problems and reversals.

Auditory and Language Processes Assessments. Among the common tests to measure the auditory and language ability are the Illinois Test of Psycho-Linguistic Ability, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, and the Wepman Auditory Discrimination Test. The test items generally involve a set of pictures and the child will be asked to point to the mentioned picture.

It is recommended to the parents to visit the child psychologist if you notice your child is having difficulties in his/her studies. The earlier intervention is better to avoid any serious issues in the child’s life later on.   

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