How to spot a learning difficulty in your child

Firstly, the article 7 Learning Disabilities Every Psychology Professional Should Study, whilst targeted towards upskilling psychologists with knowledge about the different learning difficulties children face, it is an excellent snap shot of what each specialised learning difficulty entails.

Below you'll find some behaviours that you might be seeing in your child, whether at school or at home. Just skip through the learning difficulties (Working Memory Deficit, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, APD) to find the one you're interested in learning more about.

Working Memory Deficit

Working memory increases in ability with age, so tasks that you might expect an adult to do easily in relation to using their working memory, may not be a realistic expectation of a young child. Remember when looking at task specific actions, to ask yourself whether it is an age appropriate expectation before rushing down the route of self-diagnosing your child with learning difficulties.

"Teachers often describe children with Working Memory problems as having poor listening skills, seeming “lost”, or having attentional issues. They are rarely identified as having memory problems, although they may also have difficulty consolidating learning into their long-term memory if can’t first use their working memory to practice the skills they are taught" - Melbourne Child Psychology and School Psychology Services, North Melbourne.

Poor WM might look like:

  • Not getting started with tasks quickly and independently in the classroom. This might seem a behavioural issue in defiance or being oppositional towards the teacher. However what's probably really going on is that the child is struggling to remember all of the information or instructions given to that child. Even if it may have been only one or two instructions, the child is still trying to remember what coloured pen they were told to use, or which book they were instructed to write it in, let alone remembering the content they just heard, or the instructions on what to do now at their desk. Often, these students are equipped to either ask their teacher without fear of being "annoying", or can watch their peers and figure it out that way, one step at a time.

  • Not able to copy information down from the board in the given timeframe. Students who have a poor-working memory find this task extremely challenging, mainly because they can only hold one or two words in their working memory at a time, so are finding themselves having to look at the board many times more than their peers. This behaviour is also exacerbated in younger children who are still trying to remember how to hold a pencil properly, or remember how to spell individual words.

  • Asking lots of questions, and even ones that have already been asked by another student already. If a child has a poor working memory, they are endlessly having to concentrate extra hard to remember content said at the beginning of the lesson, which often makes them miss content just heard. Then when they try to concentrate on the new information, the initial information has gone out the window. Therefore, they ask LOTS of questions and teachers can sometimes see this as a non-attentive behaviour rather than a working memory deficit. When students ask too many questions, their peers can start to get frustrated with them so they stop asking questions and fall even further behind because they can't remember anything.

  • Trouble following through on instructions. This happens at both home and school. If only just one instruction is given, and if their working memory is extremely poor, they might not even be able to complete it because that one instruction might require them to use parts of their memory that they struggle to use in order to complete the task. If two or more instructions are given, you've got Buckley's in getting them to complete either instruction as they are struggling to remember what you said first, then the second instruction has gone, and now the first has gone too. This relates to instructions such as 'go and clean your teeth', 'pack your lunch in your bag', 'get your maths books out' etc.

  • Older children and adolescents may struggle to take notes in class because, again, they can only remember a short about of information in the time it takes to write it down. Unfortunately, this often means that they are missing out on new information that is coming in because they are still trying to remember the important thing that was mentioned two minutes ago" - Melbourne Child Psychology and School Psychology Services, North Melbourne.

  • Writing can seem disconnected or have no 'flow' due to not able to keep their ideas in their train of thought whilst writing. Students are often encouraged to go back over their work continually so that they can make sure their writing makes sense or has a nice flow to it. Students with poor working memory find this terribly difficult as when they go back over their work, they either forget what they read and don't know how to continue, or they have forgotten what they wanted to write prior to reading back over their work. Because of this, these students produce writing that seems disconnected and hard to read.

  • Mental arithmetic is extremely hard. Students with poor WM find it next to impossible to do mental arithmetic as they are required to hold numbers in their mind whilst coming up with other numbers which they just can't do. An example from the Melbourne Child Psychology website is a great one - Say you are asked to solve some addition problems without using paper and pencil. The numbers you are given to add up are 16, 12 and 23. In order to solve this problem we need to hold those three numbers in our mind, but at the same time we need to use information about how to perform arithmetic to do the required sum. Everyone might have a different way of doing this but, if you are like me, you’ll first add 16 + 12 = 28. (And you’ll also mentally double-check that answer because you don’t trust your brain to do things without a calculator these days!). Okay, so we’re halfway there. Now, what was the other number again? 23, right? We now add 28 to 23. Then you add 20 + 20 first (=40) and then add 8 + 3 (+11). We arrive at an answer of 51. Now what were those three original numbers again?

Thankfully, working memory is a muscle that can be trained to become high functioning. Think about getting your child assessed for a poor working memory if you feel any of the above are constant struggles in your child's life. At Elevated Learning we can assist in diagnosing working memory deficits and use working memory training to alleviate the above problems for your child.


Healthway medical ( outlines dyslexia and what it looks like below:

The images below help parents to understand what people with dyslexia are looking at when reading and trying to write.


Dysgraphia manifests when a child has trouble with writing, spelling, handwriting, and organising thoughts onto paper. They are often seen as 'lazy' because they don't finish tasks in time or a reluctant to write anything. A child with dysgraphia has trouble accessing their working memory to organise thoughts onto paper, or to know what word to write or how to spell it when writing. A child with bad handwriting might present as having dysgraphia, but it's not always the case. It's much more than just bad handwriting. A child with dysgraphia presents with:

  • A tight or awkward pencil grip

  • Tires quickly while writing

  • Writing is illegible, inconsistent, and has poorly formed letters and numbers

  • Incorrect spacing and positioning of letters, words, and lines of written text

  • Writing is slow and labored

  • Complete avoidance of writing

  • Difficulty following spelling and grammar rules

  • Trouble aligning columns of numbers in math problems

  • Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper

  • Trouble with tasks that require concurrent thinking and writing

A checklist to self-diagnose your child with dysgraphia can be found below:

Download PDF • 104KB


Devon Frye from ADDitude Magazine defines Dyscalculia as "a math learning disability that impairs an individual’s ability to learn number-related concepts, perform accurate math calculations, reason and problem solve, and perform other basic math skills. Dyscalculia is sometimes called "number dyslexia" or "math dyslexia"." He further explains that "dyscalculia frequently co-occurs with dyslexia; about half of children with dyscalculia also have dyslexia. While figures vary, the estimated prevalence of dyscalculia in school populations is 3 to 6 percent." Additionally, approximately 45% of children (du Paul et al) with ADHD also tend to have a learning disorder such as dyscalculia, dyslexia or both.

Signs of dyscalculia include:

· Slow to develop counting and math problem-solving skills

· Trouble understanding positive versus negative value

· Difficult recalling number sequences

· Difficulty computing problems

· Problems with time concepts

· Poor sense of direction - poor visual and spatial orientation (including distinguishing between left and right)

· Difficulty completing mental math and problem-solving

· Difficulty linking numbers and symbols to amounts

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) defines APD as:

"a hearing problem that affects about 3%–5% of school-aged children.

Kids with this condition can't understand what they hear in the same way other kids do. This is because their ears and brain don't fully coordinate. Something interferes with the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, especially speech.

With the right strategies, kids with APD can be successful in school and life. Early diagnosis is important. If the condition is not identified and managed early, a child is at risk for listening and learning problems at home and school."

If a child has auditory processing disorder (APD), you might notice that they have difficulties with:

  • listening and hearing, especially if there’s a lot of background noise and distractions

  • following instructions

  • staying focused – for example, they might be easily distracted

  • remembering spoken instructions

  • telling the difference between letters that sound similar, like ‘k’ and ‘g’, or ‘t’ and ‘d’

  • remembering to say the beginning or end sounds of words when they're reading.

This means that APD can appear as problems with learning, listening and communication, as well as reading and writing.

Paul, G. J., Gormley, M. J., & Laracy, S. D. (2013). Comorbidity of LD and ADHD: implications of DSM-5 for assessment and treatment. Journal of learning disabilities, 46(1), 43–51. 2021. Auditory Processing Disorder (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2021].

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