Parents and teachers: Work together to identify learning disorders in kids and help them learn and live well

Learning disorders usually present in children at a young age. However, that doesn’t always mean that a diagnosis will be made promptly. Often, parents wonder if their child’s delays or behaviors are normal (because what’s normal, anyhow?) or think they’ll “grow out of it.” Fortunately, there are other key figures who are often able to pick up on learning disorders more quickly and easily: teachers.

This comes as no surprise, as teachers spend 7-8 hours a day with their students. In addition, they have unique training, education, and expertise working with these young individuals. Therefore, it’s important that parents and teachers work together to understand, identify, and address learning problems in kids. This will help to ensure that children with learning disabilities learn and live well alongside their classmates.

So, first and foremost: What do learning disorders look like? We’ll look at the different types of learning disorders as well as common early symptoms. Also, what are autism spectrum disorder and ADHD exactly? While neither autism nor ADHD are learning disabilities, children with autism and ADHD both often have a special way of learning. We’ll talk more about it below. And finally, how can parents and teachers best partner to help a child with a learning disorder?

Note for parents: You are not a bad parent if you don’t pick up on signs of a learning disorder in your child. However, it is important that you listen to your child’s teacher when they say something seems off and to seek out professional help sooner than later.


What Are Learning Disorders?

Learning disorders are a group of disorders that are characterized by an extreme difficulty to learn, use, and apply academic knowledge and skills. Learning disorders include a wide variety of specific academic impairments 

Learning disorders interfere with areas of learning and cause children to struggle with certain topics and/or skills. For example, a child might have trouble writing, drawing, or even understanding and following instructions. While these problems might surface in childhood, these disorders are a lifelong challenge — they don’t just simply “go away.” With the right support and interventions, though, someone with a learning disability can achieve great success in school, work, and their relationships.

When learning disabilities are diagnosed, they’re referred to as “specific learning disorders.” They are then designated specifiers from two different categories in order to gauge how treatment should proceed. The first specificier will address the area that is affected by the disorder. For example:

  • With impairment in reading (to include identifying words, identifying letters, comprehension)
  • With impairment in written expression
  • With impairment in mathematics

The second group of specifiers addresses the intensity of the learning disorder, which is listed with the subtypes above: 

  • Mild (some impairment in 1 or more areas, but might be able to compensate and function well)
  • Moderate (impairment in most areas and would require specialized focus teaching, time, etc.)
  • Severe (impairment in most areas that is so intense that the person is unable to learn any skills without receiving specialized, individualized treatment and schooling)

Learning Disability Symptoms

Learning disorders, while seemingly similar, are extremely different from one another and do not always correlate (i.e., one impairment in writing does not mean you are unable to read). Common symptoms of specific learning disorder (learning disabilities) include:

  • Poor academic performance in one or more area
  • Struggling with writing letters and constructing sentences
  • Trouble identifying numbers and performing basic mathematical operations such as addition and subtraction
  • Difficulty with reading out loud 
  • Problems with spelling
  • Difficulty understanding written communication and expression

Though learning disabilities can inhibit a child’s ability to learn in certain ways, children with learning disabilities can be just as capable of succeeding as students as those without them. In order to help them reach their potential, they’ll require additional support and ways to work through and around their particular needs.

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What Are the 7 Main Types of Learning Disabilities? What Is an Example of a Learning Disorder?

There is a wide range of learning disorders, and they can affect people in varying degrees of severity. Some common early symptoms of learning disorders include struggling to read, write, and/or do math; poor memory; trouble following instructions; difficulty telling time; trouble staying organized; problems paying attention; and clumsiness.

Some examples of types of learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia: This presents as late talking, slowly learning new words, and a delay in their reading abilities. This affects one’s ability to read and write with varying degrees of impact.
  • Dyscalculia: Dyscalculia affects one’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based problems.
  • Dysgraphia: This learning disability predominately affects writing abilities including spelling, handwriting, and trouble putting thoughts onto paper.
  • Auditory processing disorder: Individuals struggle to process sounds — they may confuse the order of sounds or struggle to separate two different sounds from each other; for example, they may not be able to separate someone’s voice from background music.
  • Language processing disorder: This is a subset of the former disorder and is characterized by challenges in processing spoken language or communications.
  • Visual perception/visual motor deficit: Those with this deficit have poor hand-eye coordination and struggle with fine motor skills. They might also have difficulty navigating their surroundings.
  • Non-verbal learning disorders: With these, children have problems with interpreting nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.

It’s important to know and keep in mind that having a learning disability does not mean the individual has below-average intelligence. In fact, many people struggling with something on this learning disorder list have average or even above average intelligence. This is one reason why it can be difficult to diagnose a child with a learning disorder.

Is Autism a Learning Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not a learning disorder; instead, it’s a neurological developmental disability that affects one’s ability to communicate, interact, behave, and learn. The ASD scale ranges from mild to severe symptom presentation, involving impairment across a number of areas including social skills, speech, and behavior. ASD starts presenting before the age of 3 and can continue to develop and change over time.

As with most disorders, ASD is not just one thing — it can’t be packed neatly into a box. The symptoms and severity vary from person to person. However, there are some common “red flags” to look out for in children. These include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over
  • Getting upset over minor changes
  • Having obsessive interests
  • Not responding to their name by 12 months old
  • Having difficulty talking about their feelings or understanding others
  • Reacting unusually to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

ASD centers around behavioral, developmental, cognitive, and emotional areas. Behavioral areas include inappropriate social interaction, poor eye contact, compulsive behavior, impulsivity, repetitive movements, or persistent repetition of words or actions. Individuals with ASD may also have developmental delays in speech and language, in addition to difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.

Cognitive features can include intense interest in selected things or topics. Emotional signs of ASD focus on lack of eye contact, limited connection or awareness of others including siblings and peers, and emotional disconnect from parents and others.

Is ADHD a Learning Disability?

No; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized as a neurodevelopmental disorder. Though both learning disorders and ADHD are meant to be diagnosed in childhood, ADHD is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness, which can cause children to struggle in school. Learning disorders directly inhibit a child’s ability to learn depending on the type of information they’re presented with.

Learning Disorders in Children vs. Learning Disorders in Adults: How Are They Different?

Learning disorders in children are often easily identifiable and diagnosable in childhood because, at some point, the academic pressures and expectations will exceed the child’s functional level. Also, in U.S. education, children are monitored at least every nine weeks, and there are a number of standards and objectives that their performance is measured by. 

However, though most learning disorders are diagnosed in elementary school, it is also possible to receive a diagnosis later in life. 

In adults, learning disorders are typically less visible and less intense since they develop early in a person’s life. By the time they reach adulthood, they’ve lived with these symptoms long enough that they’ve either learned ways to be successful and to achieve their goals despite this limitation or received proper treatment. However, if no treatment has taken place and one’s coping skills aren’t completely effective or beneficial, learning disorders can still be problematic for adults and affect one’s daily life.

Parents and Teachers Unite

As we touched on earlier, it’s extremely important for teachers and parents to work together to not only identify potential learning problems in children but to create the best environment possible for kids based on their unique needs.

Dr. Tom DeGeorge, PhD of Thriveworks Counseling in Philadelphia, PA—specializing in children, adolescents, relationships, and families—says parents and teachers must create a healthy partnership when working with a child who has a learning disability. And being candid about establishing that relationship is vital.

“The best thing a parent can do to assist a teacher with their child is to establish a supportive and informative relationship, letting the teacher know that you want to work with him/her to provide support,” Dr. DeGeorge explains. “By establishing an open dialogue early in the school year, you avoid any miscommunications, and both parties are better equipped to handle any future issues.”

Parents should also divulge both their child’s strengths and weaknesses to teachers. “Sharing with your child’s teacher the areas of strengths and concern for your child allows that teacher to connect in a more positive manner,” says Dr. DeGeorge. “Appropriate connections allow both parties to stay connected throughout the school year and show your child that you are invested in their education.”

Supporting Your Child Every Step of the Way

Whether you have an inkling that your child has a learning disorder or your teacher has raised their own concerns, it’s important to speak with a professional. Psychologists can perform psychological testing, which will allow all invested parties to better understand the child’s behavior, personality traits, intelligence, strengths, and weaknesses. Ultimately, these tests can help to identify and diagnose a learning disability or developmental delay. This also gives other mental health professionals (whom you may consider working with) a starting point for treatment.

Once you better understand your child’s unique needs, you can work with their teacher(s) as well as healthcare providers to address those needs — and, in turn, give them the best experience possible at school and every other facet of life.

Table of contents

What Are Learning Disorders?

Learning Disability Symptoms

What Are the 7 Main Types of Learning Disabilities? What Is an Example of a Learning Disorder?

Learning Disorders in Children vs. Learning Disorders in Adults: How Are They Different?

Parents and Teachers Unite

Supporting Your Child Every Step of the Way

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Alexandra Cromer, LPC

Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on 05/04/22

    Author: Taylor Bennett

  • Updated on 02/15/23

    Author: Hannah DeWitt

    Reviewer: Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

    Changes: Rewritten by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding updated information about what constitutes a learning disorder and what symptoms look like; created additional sections regarding whether ADHD is a learning disorder and how learning disorders present differently in children versus adults; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.

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