What are learning disabilities?

As adults we are quick to categorize people according to their skills or intelligence. As teachers we must be cautious about categorizing our students. What some may perceive as laziness or lack of intelligence may be instead explained by professionals as a learning disability. A learning disability has nothing to do with intelligence or motivation and people with learning disabilities may be as smart as anybody else. What makes the difference is that people with a learning disability will learn things differently simply because their brains work differently.

The range of learning disabilities that can affect students is wide. It can affect their reading, writing, communication, understanding skills etc. The earlier we spot our students’ difficulties the easier it will be for us to help them and find appropriate strategies to support them in their learning. However it’s not always easy to identify children with learning disabilities as it can vary a lot from one student to the other. Nevertheless there are some signs that should raise some concerns. For example here’s a list of signals that should help use diagnose some possible learning disabilities: the difficulty in pronouncing words, trouble finding the right word, difficulties with learning simple items, issues with directions, troubles with simple motor skills, inability to make connections between sounds and letters, confusion when reading, difficulty in memory skills, trouble with numbers, poor organizational skills, difficulty in understanding and following a discussion, poor handwriting etc. If some of your students present these signs it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a learning disability but it should alert you.

Over the past decades, acronyms to talk about learning disabilities have flourished and it’s sometimes difficult to get to know which acronyms refer to which learning disabilities. Here’s a simplified list where you should find the most common acronyms with a brief definition:

ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder. Students find it hard to focus in lessons

ADHD- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ASD- Autistic Spectrum Disorder

AS- Asperger Syndrome

BESD – Behavioural, Emotional, Social Difficulties

Dyscalculia inability in maths reasoning

Dyslexia inability to read properly

HI – Hearing Impaired

IEP – Individual Education Plan

LSA – Learning Support Assistant

MLD – Moderate Learning Difficulties

PMLD – Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties

PRU – Pupil Referral Unit (short stay school)

SA – School action

SA+ – School Action+

SEN – Special Educational Needs

SENCO – Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator

SLD – Severe Learning Difficulties

SpLD – Specific Learning Difficulties

TA – Teaching Assistant

VI – Visually Impaired


When it comes to learning in the classroom you will find that students with learning disabilities are quite unable to manage their time efficiently, therefore they don’t work at the same pace as the group and they tend to finish their assignments late.     They may also have issues copying from the board and writing in general and it may take them more time to understand instructions. They can get confused with numbers, spelling etc. The consequence of this is that their learning is affected but also their motivation and self-esteem. Students with learning disabilities are aware of the fact that they learn differently and realizing their inabilities often results in low self-esteem and this usually affects their social skills and behaviors.


Providing efficient support to students with learning disabilities is challenging for all teachers. Despite our trainings we may often feel overwhelmed by some situations with Special Education Needs students. It does take time to understand how to adapt lessons for the benefits of each student but it’s worth trying. You won’t operate miracles in the first weeks but with perseverance and the help of your Learning Assistant you should see some improvements in the learning of students with learning disabilities but also in your lesson planning in general. The strategies that you will use for your students with learning disabilities will have a positive impact on your teaching in general as you will acquire some automatism. Here are just some key strategies that work for teaching students with learning disabilities: First remember to use short and clear instructions. Second, have them to repeat the instruction in their own words. Then, outline the progression of the lesson on the board and tick every time you have completed a task. Adapt the work to their needs and abilities (change the font for VI students), vary the types of activities to suit their styles (for e.g. ADHD students will learn better with kinesthetic activities). Last but not least, pay a visit to your SEN departments, review the IEPs and get in touch with the parents. They will be able to give your some valuable hints for your teaching.


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