Specific learning disabilities

for parents and carers  

This webpage explores what a specific learning difficulty is, and gives advice on where and how to get help.


This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

A child with a specific learning difficulty is as able as any other child, except in one or two areas of their learning. For instance, they may find it difficult to recognise letters, or to cope with numbers or reading.

There are many different types of specific learning difficulty, but the best known is probably dyslexia. In dyslexia, the child has difficulty with spelling and reading. It may be difficult for parents and teachers to realise that a child has this sort of problem, especially if their development has progressed without concern in the early years.

Often, the child will appear to understand, have good ideas, and join in storytelling and other activities, as well as other children, and better than some. Sometimes it can take years for adults to realise that a child has a specific difficulty.

Specific difficulties can make lessons challenging for a child.

  • They may struggle keeping up with classmates, and may come to see themselves as stupid, or no good.
  • They may find it difficult to concentrate on lessons and, because they may not be able to follow them properly, they may complain of lessons being `boring'.
  • The child may search for other ways to pass the time and to succeed.
  • They may try to avoid doing schoolwork because they find it impossible to do it well.

Doing badly in school can undermine their self-confidence. This can make it harder for the child to get along with other children and to keep friends.

Children with specific reading difficulties often become angry and frustrated, so behavioural problems are common. If they don't get suitable help, the problems may get worse. Older children may become disillusioned, fail exams or get into serious trouble - both at school and outside.

A specific learning difficulty is not a mental illness. However, children with a specific learning difficulty are more likely to develop mental health problems, for example anxiety, or have additional developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), than other children.

Parents can discuss their concerns with the teacher or Special Educational Needs Coordinating Officer (SENCO).

The Education Act 1990 means that all education authorities must identify which children have special educational needs and make sure that they get the additional help that they require. Schools have the Special Educational Needs `Code of Practice', drawn up by the Department of Children, Schools and Families, to help them to recognise and help children with this type of problem. The Department has also produced a helpful Guide for Parents (see sources of further information at the end of this leaflet).

If there are concerns, the school may offer extra help using different ways of teaching to suit the child’s specific needs. If this is not enough, then they can offer interventions that are additional or different from those provided as part of the schools usual curriculum and strategies (School Action and School Action Plus).

If a child continues to make little or no progress, despite these interventions, a statutory assessment of the child may be triggered.  This will take into account the views of parents, as well as professionals involved such as an educational psychologist. Once the assessment has taken place, the educational department may prepare a Statement of Special Educational Needs, which will describe what type of additional help the child will benefit from.

If the child's learning problem has resulted in possible emotional or behaviour problems, due to frustration or loss of self-confidence, more specialised help may be needed. The child's school or GP will also be able to help. If necessary, the GP can refer the child to the local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) who will be able to offer help and support.

When I was 6, I had trouble learning the alphabet and could not spell words. I couldn’t concentrate and always found excuses to not do my school work. My friends thought I was lazy and stupid. I was too shy to tell my teacher that I could not do my work; I thought I was just thick.

My parents would get upset with me when I couldn’t do my school work or read my school books as they wanted me to keep up with my friends. I had a hard time at school and was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Then, when I was 7, my teacher told my parents that I could have Dyslexia because I could not read properly and my handwriting was messy and jumbled. I had some tests and then they told me that I was Dyslexic. Suddenly, I felt like they understood me and I was not a lazy boy after all.

The school has now given me a lot of help and has made so many changes for me so that I can learn and achieve. Now I use a word processor with grammar and a spell checker quite well and I am pleased to say that I am doing so much better. I have made friends and my confidence has got a lot.



  • Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Fifth Edition (2008). Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

    Gillberg, C. Harrington, R. & Steinhausen, H-C. (Eds) (2006) ‘A Clinician’s handbook of child and adolescent psychiatry’ (1.st edn) University Press Cambridge.

  • Information for people with learning disability and their carers

    The Royal College of Psychiatrists' Faculty of the Psychiatry of Learning Disability and the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust have produced accessible information for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities. All these materials have been written and tested with people with learning disabilities and their carers. 


Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).

With grateful thanks to Dr Lakshmiprabha Ramasubramanian, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas Kennedy.

This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.

Published: Jul 2015

Review due: Jul 2018

© Royal College of Psychiatrists