Bringing up a child with learning difficulties

by Veronica Jenkins. A child with learning difficulties will take longer to achieve developmental milestones, but there are lots of things you can do to help your child make progress.

Woman reading to young girl


All children need love, all children need to belong, all children need to have the chance to develop through play and interaction with others. Only the last of these statements is any different for a child with learning difficulties.

With these children, the steps to learning are higher, longer, steeper and a lot more uneven. As a parent you are the person supporting your children up these steps.

Children with 'normal' learning patterns astound you with the knowledge they pick up from a brief conversation, a programme on TV, a creative thought or idea developed through play. This is not so for a child with learning difficulties - each step of learning will be directed, supported and repeated time and time again. Even play itself needs to be taught.

Each child will achieve milestones in development whether physically, mentally, creatively or emotionally. With a child with learning difficulties these milestones will take longer to achieve.

So don't worry that you might baby talk to a three-year-old, play peek-a-boo with a four-year-old, do the actions for 'Row, row, row your boat' with a five-year-old or cuddle a six-year-old like a newborn baby. You will naturally be adapting your interactions with your child to the level they need.

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The importance of play

Play is such a great teacher, yet our children can need a great deal of help in developing the creative, language and interaction skills necessary to take part in play with other children. Having a time of day specifically set aside for you and your child to play together can be invaluable - for you both!

Play can take many forms - from creative play (such as painting) and acting out favourite stories/nursery rhymes (e.g. 'I'm the big bad wolf and I'm going to blow your house down’ - cue lots of tickles with the blowing) to object play (building towers from blocks) and physical games (e.g. ‘catch’ or ‘Ring a ring o’ Roses’.)

Making play as physical as possible will both strengthen bonds between you and support their physical development. Lots of eye contact and talking through play will also encourage language and communication development.

Physical activity

It is well recognised that physical development aides mental development. This is especially so when physical milestones, such as crawling, are missed.

If physical skills are not naturally developing then specific work in these areas can be of great benefit – e.g. passing a toy from one hand to another, rolling, modelling clay sausages, reaching across from left to right for snacks, or jumping up and down on a trampoline. Specific programmes for your child can be developed with you by an occupational therapist or physiotherapist.

Language development

Language can be in many forms. Babbling, no words for years to suddenly talking in sentences, signing, giving you symbols, giving you pictures, taking you by the hand and showing you what they want. All are forms of communication, ways of letting you know their needs and wants.

To encourage your child's language development be prepared to use anything you child responds to. Don't be afraid to sign to your child, this gives your child the knowledge that signs are okay to use and gets them want they want. It is a myth that signing delays speech – in fact it can encourage a reluctant communicator to communicate and eventually learn to speak.

Also, symbols and pictures of objects can encourage a non-speaking child to 'tell you' what they want by giving you the symbol of what they want.

If your child has tantrums for no reason, it may be due to a need they cannot communicate to you. By finding a way for your child to communicate you many find a big drop in the number of these tantrums. But if your child isn't starting to talk by three, then your health visitor or doctor should be able to get you a referral to a speech therapist who will advise you on the best way of supporting your child to communicate.

Emotional development

Emotional development is often an unexpected area of delay. Parents, understandably, can get very confused and frustrated by a five-year-old going through the Terrible Twos for two or three or four years! You need to remember that your child is a child and needs to be treated in the same way as any other child of that age of development (i.e. two).

Your child's age may be five, but their understanding and emotional state is not. Most parents are able to tell whether their child's behaviour is because of a 'want' (e.g. 'I want more chocolate NOW') or a difficulty in communicating (e.g. 'I need the toilet').

If behaviour is the 'want' tantrum, don't bargain and talk through the issues. You wouldn't with a two-year-old - you would be firm to ensure that they knew how you felt and what they did was wrong. The same goes for your child who is five but has the emotional age of two.

A plea from the heart is not to laugh at your child's misdemeanours. It may be cute for a four-year-old to stick their tongue out, but not for a 15-year-old. Children with learning difficulties do NOT grow out of habits. They have to be taught that an action is wrong.

How to make a magic moment

You know your child better than anyone - doctors, teachers, grandparents, health visitors, etc. Use this knowledge to support your child.

You know which activities will stretch them, and which activities will discourage them. You know what interests your child and what can be used to encourage them to find out more.

A fascination of trains can lead to some lovely steam train rides and trips to the train station. An interest in people means lots of playgroups and mother and toddler sessions, trips to friends’ houses, swimming, anywhere there are lots of other little people for your child to explore their interest in people.

Enjoy your child. Time is a gift you have together and, when wisely spent, it will benefit both of you. Make your time together loving, playful and fun.

How CBeebies can help

‘Something Special’ is specifically aimed at children with learning difficulties.

If you haven’t watched the show, why not a get a flavour of it by visiting the Something Special web pages on the CBeebies website? There are lots of printable Makaton sheets which are a great way for your child to learn the Makaton signs for key words. Each word is written out and also represented by a photo, picture and sign image.

As well as the Makaton sheets, there are Something Special games, songs, video clips and stories, and printable colouring-in sheets for your child to enjoy.

The CBeebies website also has a range of games which are ‘switch compatible’. ’Switch’ is the name of the technology which makes access to computers easier for children who have difficulty using a mouse or keyboard. To take a look at the games which children with learning difficulties would find easier to access, select ‘Switch and special needs’ when you are browsing the ‘Play Games’ section of the website.

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Expert opinion

With a child who has learning difficulties, the steps to learning are higher, longer, steeper and a lot more uneven. As a parent you are the person supporting your children up these steps.

Your child will probably not have the career you planned. But they will enjoy life. They will help you to see life in a different light. They will help you make the most of your life - a life you will not have planned, but a life that will be richer from the gifts given by your child.

Veronica Jenkins, Teacher in field of Special Educational Needs

Top tips

  • Play is such a great learning
  • tool. Set aside time each day specifically for you and your child to play
  • together. Get creative (have fun making something arty or crafty), sing, dance,
  • act out stories, get out the building blocks and play figures, or get outdoors
  • and kick a ball about in your garden/local park.You know your child better than
  • anyone. Use this knowledge to support your child. You know what activities your
  • child enjoys, what interests your child. Build on these activities and
  • interests - and encourage your child to explore and find out more.Investigate lots of different
  • forms of communication. Have a go at signing or using symbols or pictures of
  • objects to encourage your child. See our articles on Makaton as a form of
  • communication (Makaton is the sign and symbol language used by Justin on
  • CBeebies show ‘Something Special’).If you child isn’t starting to talk by the age
  • of three, then ask your GP or health visitor to refer you to a speech therapist
  • who will advise you on the best way of supporting your child.