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Helping your child with a learning disability

What does having a learning disability mean?

A learning disability is an overall impairment of intellectual ability causing difficulty with learning and everyday activities. It affects someone for their whole life.

To diagnose a learning disability professionals need to show:

  • impaired intelligence, meaning significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information and learn new skills
  • difficulty with adaptive functioning, meaning a reduced ability to cope independently in many aspects of life
  • evident in childhood


As well as ‘learning disability’ you may also hear the terms that include:

Intellectual disabilities

Intellectual disabilities has not been as commonly used in the UK. It is has the same meaning as a learning disability and is used by some diagnostic manuals and professional bodies such as the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology.

Learning difficulty

Learning difficulty is generally used in educational settings to indicate difficulties with a particular aspect of learning (such as reading, maths, or writing).

Global developmental delay (GDD)

Global developmental delay is usually used to describe delay in development in infants when they have not reached key milestones of development in a number of areas such as:

  • communication
  • motor skills
  • social interaction
  • processing information
  • remembering skills

You may also hear the term general developmental delay, or early developmental impairment.


A person with a learning disability may experience difficulties with:

  • Learning new information. Teaching new skills may take a long time and need many repetitions for example to do up a zip or use the toilet
  • Generalising learning to new situations, for example if a child is taught how to queue in the dinner hall, they may find it hard to transfer the skill to queuing in a shop
  • Abstract concepts. This means imagining ideas that are not visual or concrete for example time (such as later, soon), feelings, good behaviour, respect
  • Communication, meaning understanding and processing what is being said and expressing needs. Their speech may not be clear
  • Problem solving, weighing up information and make informed decisions. It may be difficult to think of different ideas and solutions and think through consequences.

Helpful support strategies

Provide effective means of communication.

Being able to communicate needs and have meaningful interactions with others reduces frustrations and increases well-being. People with learning disabilities may have lost confidence.


  • Give regular opportunities for communicating needs and general chat.
  • Provide strategies suitable to the child such as symbols, pictures or sign.
  • Be patient, check out, and do not assume.

For example:

  • Having a chat about their day over tea.
  • Using pictures and sharing items related to the day.
  • Ensure everyone supporting the child understands their means of communication.

Use clear communication

To ensure messages have been understood and prevent frustration.


  • Where possible use short, concrete sentences.
  • Use visual supports and environmental cues.

For example:

  • Give instructions one at a time.
  • Visual cues such as getting someone’s shoes when it is time to go out.
  • Being ‘concrete’ – telling someone to “sit down quietly” rather than “be good”.

Predictable routines

This will help to know what is expected, reduce anxiety and pick up learning. Building in breaks and fun prevents the build-up of stress and improves well-being.


  • Generally doing things in the same way and in the same order.
  • Having structure to the day including built in breaks and enjoyable activities, as well as more challenging activities.

For example:

  • Use visual timetables and social stories to explain what is happening.
  • Prepare where possible for changes in routine.

Clear rules and expectations

Everyone can be supported to learn positive behaviour. Children with a learning disability may struggle to know what behaviour is expected if not directly told.


  • Avoid abstract concepts and instead state exactly what you want them to do.

For example:

  • Positive phrasing such as “Sit on your seat” instead of “Stop messing about”.
  • Model or show what to them do.

Give choices

Gives a sense of control and independence. Preferences may change so assumptions can be frustrating.


  • Provide opportunities for choice in everyday life. At a level appropriate to the child’s ability. Often 2 is 3 choices is enough.
  • It may help to give visual cues.
  • Where a child does not understand the concept of choosing, pay close attention to their reactions and preferences.
  • On occasions, such as when a child is very upset, an adult may need to decide what is best.

For example:

  • Choices regarding clothing, food, who to work and play with, how to do an activity.
  • Show the object or activity directly or use pictures where this is not possible.
  • Be careful that the child is making a choice rather than just saying the last option – vary the order in which you give choices.

Encourage strengths, interests and abilities

Ensures a child is not defined by their needs. Promotes strong self-esteem and wellbeing.


  • Schedule in regular times for favourite activities.
  • Provide new opportunities for activities and skills that the child may be good at and enjoy.

For example:

  • Daily chill out or relaxation.
  • Trying new clubs or interests.

Repeat learning opportunities

Learning is likely to take longer and the child may need help to transfer it into different situations.


  • Repeat teaching or experiences.
  • Practice skills in different situations.

For example:

  • Practicing buying food in shops, starting with a small list and building up to a bigger list in different places.

Support learning step by step

A child is more likely to try if they believe they are likely to succeed.


  • ‘Scaffolding’ by starting from what the child already knows and providing guidance and encouragement to move onto the next step.
  • Set up activities so they can be carried out most easily.

For example:

  • Breaking down tasks.
  • Demonstrating.
  • Guiding the child by placing your hand over their’s for trickier tasks.
  • Arranging clothes for dressing.
  • Help generalise to different places using portable prompts cards for sequences, such as pictures on a key ring (such as hand washing, ordering food)

Provide motivation and reward

We all need to get something back. Some activities can be more challenging for people with a learning disability and more motivation may be needed.


  • Ensure this is something the child likes rather than fitting in with more general reward systems.
  • More immediate rewards help to motivate and are easier to learn from.


  • Use praise as well as rewards (such as stickers, prizes, time doing an activity).
  • Be specific about what they need to do to get a reward (such as after answering 10 questions they can have a sticker) and what they have done well (such as kept quiet whilst the teacher was talking, rather than ‘being good’)

Try to understand difficult behaviour

There is always a reason for challenging behaviour but sometimes we may not understand it.


  • Consider what might be triggering the behaviour (this might be from within the child such as thought, feelings pain or external such as what other people are doing or the environment).
  • Consider what results might be making it more likely to happen.


  • Look for patterns and ideas for helping using monitoring charts.
  • STAR monitoring looks at the Setting, Triggers Actions (the behaviour) and Results of the behaviour. Speak to a professional if you want some help to try this.

Developmental progression

Like all children and young people, children with learning disabilities will continue to progress and learn throughout their childhood, but at a slower rate.

A child with a learning disability will not reach every milestone at the same time as other children of the same age and may never reach some milestones fully. This is because a learning disability is a neuro-disability. This means that thinking skills will always be reduced as compared to most people their age.

However, with appropriate understanding and support they can still make progress and achieve. Thinking skills are only one part of a person and everyone will have their own personality and pattern of strengths and interests, as well as needs. The level of support someone needs depends on individual factors, including the severity of their learning disability.

Typical challenges and dilemmas

Rates of emotional and behavioural difficulties are much higher in people with learning disabilities than in the general population. Children or young people who have a learning disability are still aware of what goes on around them. However, their ability to understand and communicate their feelings and needs may be limited. Some children can become frustrated and upset. Life changes, such as new homes, changes in the family, new schools and puberty can be particularly challenging times.

Around 2 percent of the population have a learning disability, so there are many children and families with similar experiences.

Information and support

British Institute of Learning Disabilities contains useful information to support people with a learning disability and their families

Contact a Family offers information and advice for parents of children with any special needs or disability.

Contact Family global developmental delay offers more information about the condition

MENCAP leading UK charity for people with learning disabilities

Foundation for people with learning disabilities

Bernardo’s disability and inclusion for disabled children and works with children from pre-school age to 16 years and over.

Local Support

Sheffield Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information, Advice, a Support Service (SENDIASS) – 0114 273 6009

Sheffield Child Disability Register (CDR) statutory disability register for children and young people, up to 19 years of age, in Sheffield. Receive a unique CDR membership card and regular copies of our popular newsletter, “What’s Going On”. Email sheffieldcdr@sch.nhs.uk or telephone 0114 271 7626.

Sheffield Parent Carer Forum is an independent group of parents and carers of children and young people with disabilities and special educational needs. Telephone 0300 321 4721.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

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