Learning disorders

Photo of a schoolboy in class

Some children have major difficulties with reading, writing and math. This can cause problems at school and later on in their professional development. There are various ways to help these children.

Roughly 3 to 8% of children have a learning disorder. Some have difficulties with only reading, writing or math, but others have problems in two or all three areas. Troubles with reading and writing often go together. In many cases, these problems are accompanied by a language development disorder, which means that the child learned to talk at a relatively late stage, has a limited vocabulary or can't understand spoken language very well.

Writing disorders are more common in boys while math problems occur more often in girls. Reading problems are equally common in boys and girls.

What forms do learning disorders take?

The following can be signs of a reading disorder: The child

  • reads very slowly or makes lots of mistakes when reading,
  • takes a long time to start when reading aloud,
  • says the first letter and then guesses the rest of the word,
  • has difficulty understanding what they have read, or
  • omits or adds letters when reading or mixes up parts of words.

The issue may be a writing disorder if the child

  • continues to completely misspell words for quite some time,
  • writes letters that sound completely different from the word they've been asked to write,
  • omits, confuses or adds letters,
  • can't apply writing rules like when to use upper and lower-case letters, or
  • has illegible handwriting.

Signs of a math learning disorder may include when a child

  • has problems even with simple math such as addition or subtraction,
  • continues to use their fingers for counting for an unusually long time,
  • can't learn or has extreme difficulty learning basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division,
  • confuses numbers or puts them in the wrong order,
  • has difficulty remembering spatial and visual information for a short amount of time,
  • finds it difficult to identify sizes and quantities correctly, or
  • has problems developing strategies to solve math problems.

How do these developmental disorders evolve?

Problems with reading, writing or math usually don’t become apparent until the child starts school. An extreme disorder will cause significant difficulties within the first few months at school. But there can also be initial signs at pre-school age. These include problems distinguishing between sounds or with simple counting.

Reading skills often improve more quickly than writing or math skills. Some people still find simple math problems difficult even as adults. The difficulties usually don’t disappear on their own, and the right kind of support is important. About 1 out of every 100 children have a reading/writing disorder (dyslexia) that’s so severe that they’re hardly able to read or write.

What are the potential consequences?

Children with these types of disorder tend not to do as well in specific subjects. Some also have basic learning difficulties. Often, they show no or little interest in reading and writing, and schoolwork related to reading and writing is stressful for them. They often feel overwhelmed. This can result in them being frightened of school, refusing to go or complaining of stomach ache or headache in the morning. These problems usually go away during vacation time.

The situation can be stressful for the whole family. Often, the parents are worried about their child’s future. They spend a lot of time – and sometimes money – supporting the child.

Reading, writing and math disorders can have a negative impact on how the child does at school and later on their career. These problems make it harder to obtain a school-leaving qualification that reflects their talents and embark on their chosen career path.

Children and teenagers who have learning difficulties often have other problems, such as behavior issues.

How are learning disorders diagnosed?

If you notice problems, it makes sense to seek the advice of your child’s teachers first and perhaps consult the school psychologist service too. Special psychiatrists for children and teenagers, or pediatricians who have additional training in social pediatrics and child psychology can help determine whether your child does actually have a developmental disorder. The examinations required for can be done at a doctor’s practice or a center for social pediatrics.

They include intelligence tests and special reading, writing and math tests. Physical examinations such as vision and hearing tests can play an important role in ruling out problems that aren't related to development.

What forms of treatment and support are available?

The type of support that makes sense for the child depends on various factors, including how severe the developmental disorder is. The following forms of support and treatment are available:

  • Special help at school: Parents can consult the child’s teachers and the school psychologist(s) to decide on the best type of support. It is also possible to have the child’s learning impairments taken into account in any academic assessments or examinations.
  • Integrated learning therapy, which involves reading, writing and math exercises in small groups or individually – either using a computer or pen and paper. How often the child attends learning therapy and for how long depends on the severity of their disorder and the progress they make. In Germany, there are specialized learning therapy centers, but learning therapy services are also available at occupational therapy and special education centers (“heilpädagogische Praxis”).
  • Parental counseling: Parents can get advice on how they can support their child at home or improve the general atmosphere within the family.

In Germany, it’s possible to get financial help to pay for this support. For example, the local youth welfare service (Amt für Kinder, Jugend und Familie) can pay for integrated learning therapy.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinder und Jugendpsychiatrie, Psychosomatik und Psychotherapie (DGKJP). Diagnostik und Behandlung von Kindern und Jugendlichen mit Lese- und/oder Rechtschreibstörung (S3-Leitlinie, in Überarbeitung). AWMF-Registernr.: 028-044. 2015.

Schlack HG, Esser G. Umschriebene Entwicklungsstörungen. In: Schlack HG, Kries R (Ed). Sozialpädiatrie. Berlin: Springer 2009. P. 157-187.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on August 30, 2023

Next planned update: 2026


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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