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A child with a learning difficulty or a learning disability will struggle to acquire new information, they may need help with independence and understanding complex ideas. No two people with learning difficulties are the same. 

Mild, Moderate or Severe learning difficulties? 

In some cases, as in an assessment by an Educational Psychologist, you will hear these descriptions, and there will be a specific numerical value denoting how far your child’s scores drop behind the average. However, often you will hear the terms ‘mild, moderate and severe’ used much more conversationally, suggesting the impact of their difficulty on their day to day functioning. It can be a challenge to recognise that a person struggles with a learning difficulty, and they may miss out on support and services, or be wrongly accused of poor behaviour. A disproportionate number of people with a learning disability find themselves in the criminal justice system. Learning difficulties can also co-exist with other conditions, eg one third of people with autism also have a learning disability. 

Mild learning difficulties 

A child with a mild learning difficulty is usually able to hold a conversation and communicate most of their needs and wishes. But they may need additional support in some areas of learning. 

For parents of children with mild special educational needs ranging from dyslexia to speech and language difficulties, accessing the right help at school can be particularly trying as often the child is just managing to keep up with the work, and their difficulties are not great enough to qualify for extra support, except from the school’s own overstretched SEND budget.  

Whether it’s dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, autism or speech and language difficulties, parents of children with mild SEN are often made to feel they’re making an unnecessary fuss. And whilst in 2014, new legislation was brought in to simplify a previously complex system, remarkably the percentage of children identified as having additional needs dropped from around 20 per cent to 15 per cent that same year. 

In fact, children with dyslexia and dyspraxia now fare worse because they do not automatically qualify for support, with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claiming that up to 200,000 children previously identified as having special needs were not transferred to the new system and are now slipping through the net. 

Moderate learning difficulties 

Children described as having moderate learning difficulties may appear immature and find it difficult to mix with their peer group; many are vulnerable and may experience bullying as a result. Often they are needy, with an over-reliance on adult support and low self-esteem. 

Children with MLD experience great difficulty in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills, despite receiving suitable help. They may have general developmental delay, which means that they reach developmental milestones later than their peers, and learn more slowly. They may also have speech and language delay, difficulty in concentrating and underdeveloped social and emotional skills. 

Generally children with MLD will have some or all of:  

  • Difficulty understanding basic concepts. 
  • Problems acquiring basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy, resulting in a lack of confidence in using and developing the skills they do have. 
  • A lack of logic. 
  • Poor problem-solving skills. 
  • An inability to generalise learning and apply it to new situations. 
  • Limited communication skills, coupled with immature social and emotional understanding. 
  • Poor fine and gross motor skills. 
  • Difficulty with personal organisation. 
  • Poor auditory/visual memory. 
  • Poor long and short term memory; difficulty remembering what has been taught. 
  • Speech and language delay. 
  • Social and behavioural difficulties. 
  • Sensory impairment. 

Severe learning difficulties (SLD) 

Children with severe learning difficulties have acute development delay, with an intellectual or cognitive impairment, coupled with possible sensory, physical, emotional and social difficulties, that make it difficult for them to follow the curriculum without substantial help and support. 

They may use basic words and gestures to communicate (using symbols and sign language may help), but are likely to find it difficult to understand, learn and remember new skills. They are likely to need a high level of support through an EHCP to help with independence and self-care. Their difficulties may be compounded by poor co-ordination and additional medical conditions. 

Profound and multiple learning difficulties 

Children with profound and multiple difficulties have a very severe intellectual disability, often combined with other significant problems, and complex needs. These may include physical disabilities, sensory impairment, autism and severe medical needs such as epilepsy. They have considerable difficulty communicating, very limited understanding, and many show challenging behaviour. They require a high level of adult support for both learning needs and personal care, and are mostly educated in special schools supported by an EHCP. 

They are likely to need sensory stimulation and a curriculum broken down into very small steps. Some pupils communicate by gesture, eye pointing or symbols, others by very simple language. Their attainments are likely to remain below the level of the national curriculum. 

School options for Severe and Profound and Multiple Learning Needs 

SLD and PMLD are generally diagnosed early on, and these children will attend a special school, (possibly a residential one), though some are supported in mainstream schools particularly at primary level. 

The curriculum and monitoring progress for SLD and PMLD 

The attainments of children with SLD and PMLD are likely to remain below the level of the national curriculum, and are assessed using the engagement model, providing a holistic measure of a child’s progress. The curriculum should encourage independence, life skills and communication, as well as learning, at a level appropriate both for their intellect and their age. They are likely to benefit from a multi-sensory approach, adapted to take account of issues such as visual difficulties and other sensory needs. The school is required to monitor and record progress according to criteria, such as initiation, persistence and exploration. We have seen some wonderful examples of these on our school visits.  

Choosing a school for mild or moderate learning needs 

The options for children with mild or moderate learning needs vary according to the local offer and the amount of support a child needs. 

Mainstream Options 

Children with mild learning needs or MLD may progress at a mainstream school. Look for the Local Offer and the Special Needs Policy, which can be found on the school’s website. These will provide a realistic picture as to what can be expected from the school and local authority. 

Within a mainstream class, the child with mild or moderate learning needs can be assisted not just by trained teachers, but also by learning support assistants (LSAs), who work under the direction of the classroom teacher and special educational needs coordinator (SENCo). These children will often qualify for an EHCP, and the school will assess, plan and review their needs and set annual targets.  

An EP report commissioned for the EHCP will specify the level of support and will also provide a list of classroom recommendations which less experienced schools may find particularly useful and which give parents top tips. The EP can also specify concessions such as extra time in exams for an older child. 

For milder needs, a child may not qualify for an EHCP but parents who can afford it will benefit from commissioning a private EP assessment.  Shop around, ideally phoning five or six recommended by organisations like the Good Schools Guide or professional organisations such as the British Dyslexia Association (BDA). Not only do rates vary enormously (you should expect to pay around £800 for a good one), but you need to make sure you find someone you can gel with. 

Talk to your child’s school too, starting with the class teacher – and be prepared to offer some gentle guidance. Until now, there’s been no mandatory module on SEN within teacher training, so there are huge variations. And if a teacher has had one child with learning difficulties, they often expect the next one to be exactly the same, but of course what works for one might not work for another. This is where your formal report will come in handy. 

If you don’t feel the class teacher is doing enough, it’s time to get to know the special educational needs coordinator (SENCo). This is the person who should ensure that all teachers in the school are given guidance about how to teach your child – for example, that they need visual instructions rather than verbal, or to take movement breaks. Ask how many children at the school have SEND? Do you have examples of how you’ve helped them? Is the SENCo on the senior leadership team? How many people work in the SEND team? The SENCo should also help prepare the support plan outlining how your child should be supported and monitored and this should be revised every year. 

Independent Schools 

Never assume private mainstream schools are better. In fact, some schools in the independent sector – although by no means all - are fast paced and results focused and only want the round pegs that fit in the round holes. 

Independent specialist schools for mild learning difficulties, e.g. dyslexia, are a good option, but without an EHCP, parents will be expected to pay the high fees themselves. See our article on specialist schools for SpLDs 

Special schools for moderate learning needs 

For a gentler pace of learning, especially at secondary level, when it is so important to keep up with the curriculum, a special school may be better.  The whole population of children will have a similar learning need, eg autism and MLD, and parents can find support from meeting other families who have had similar experiences of education. Being with a like-minded cohort and working at an appropriate pace can give a child just the confidence boost they need to thrive. 

‘My daughter has blossomed,’ said a parent whose child had joined Swiss Cottage special school. ‘In mainstream school she was always the least able in the class and she had very low self-esteem. She’s completely changed since coming here: she feels able, she’s got confidence and she’s happy.’ 

Resource Bases within Mainstream 

Alternatively a special resource base in a mainstream school which allows a child to access both mainstream classes and a separate class with a differentiated curriculum, is a popular option, but often over-subscribed. Sadly, they are also few and far between. Different local authorities have different provision available. 

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