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Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) is a term applied to children who have difficulties resulting in school attainments below expected levels in many areas of the curriculum, despite academic support and differentiation.

There may be other, specific special needs such as dyspraxia or it may occur as part of a larger condition such as Down's syndrome. It is sometimes called Intellectual disability or generalised learning difficulty. However MLD is not a recognised international diagnostic term and tends to be applied fairly loosely when a child’s IQ test results fall below the normal range. This should be ascertained in an assessment by an educational psychologist.

Children with MLD may have some or all of the following:

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

Mainstream or special school?

Most children with MLD are educated in mainstream schools, certainly for the primary stage. But often by secondary school age, the gaps between children with MLD and other learners have widened to such an extent that the child may find the demands of secondary education too stressful: different teachers; a wide range of subjects; the need to move around the school; to be organised; to change for PE. At this stage intellectual gaps tend to widen too. A school should also rule out other conditions or causes of difficulty through an educational psychologist assessment.

Many local authorities have closed down MLD-specific schools, and parents are now faced with a tough choice between placing their child in a special school, where a good proportion of the children are likely to have more severe needs, and placing them in a mainstream school, where the special needs support available may be lacking, and the child may lag behind their classmates and lose confidence.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to deciding between the two. It depends on your child’s abilities and limitations, and also on the quality of support in the mainstream school choices available to you, and the type of special school on offer. Some factors to consider are:

In a mainstream school:

  • How good and experienced is the special needs co-ordinator (SENCo)? She will be key to the support your child gets, and how well briefed teaching staff are about your child’s needs.
  • How far can the school meet your child’s therapy needs? If your child has speech and language therapy, OT or physiotherapy requirements listed in their Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), how will the school meet these?
  • Will your child have a 1:1 teaching assistant to enable her to focus and access the curriculum?
  • How much of the timetable will be delivered individually to your child? When children spend much of their day being taught alone by a teaching assistant, this is not most parents’ idea of inclusion.
  • How will your child be supported outside of lessons? Will he have 1:1 help over lunchtime and breaks if need be? Will he have support to access after school clubs if he wishes?
  • What is the head like? How welcoming is he or she to children with special needs, and how knowledgeable about your child’s needs?
  • What is the school’s track record with children with special needs? Ask them to demonstrate how similar children have made progress in the school.

In a special school:

  • What are the need types of the other children there?
  • Are there some children at the same ability level, with similar verbal skills and sociability, to form a suitable peer group for your child and are children of differing levels taught separately to others?
  • How will your child’s therapy needs be met? Therapy support is usually much better in special schools, but ensure that this is not concentrated on those with the highest needs
  • What proportion of children have behavioural challenges, and how is this managed? Is this likely to impact on your child’s learning or sense of security?
  • Does the school offer any after school clubs? When many children arrive by taxi, there can be a lack of out-of-school life, which can be isolating.
  • How far will it enable you child to progress? Some schools will, for example, make arrangements for a child to attend lessons at a mainstream school for a particular area of aptitude.

If you need help finding the best school for a child with MLD, our SEN consultants can help.

How a mainstream school can help

A good school will provide your child with an EHCP or learning plan which details the child’s needs and targets. Targets set should be closely monitored and regularly reviewed, usually at least every half term.

If your child needs a lot of individual attention, or has difficulty with independent learning, the school will need to provide (and your local authority will have to agree to fund) a learning support assistant (LSA) for him or her. The LSA should be guided and supported by the SENCo.

Good practice in school for children with MLD includes:

  • Routine and structure.
  • Giving the child responsibilities.
  • The potential for success. Encourage, praise, reward - not just for work and achievements but for positive behaviour too.
  • Building on the child's knowledge and understanding.
  • Ensuring learning objectives are realistic for every lesson, and that success is achievable.
  • Giving clear instructions. Careful questioning to ensure a child knows what is expected of them and of the task.
  • Checking understanding at every stage.
  • Carefully planned and differentiated work, broken down into small manageable tasks.
  • Regular reinforcement of tasks to be mastered and the opportunity to practise and apply skills in everyday situations.
  • Showing how things are done rather than just explaining. Providing plenty of opportunities for multi-sensory, practical learning.
  • Visiting tasks, such as handling money and telling the time in short, frequent bursts.
  • Writing frames to help structure work.
  • Use of ICT, including where applicable, modified hardware.
  • Monitoring, recording and reporting of progress and the strategies that are successful.
  • Ensuring support is a tool, not a crutch.
  • Facilitating friendship groups.
  • Having positive role models.
  • Opportunities to participate and be fully included.

How we can help

The Good Schools Guide website features reviews of recommended schools for MLD or consult our SEN team for one-to-one help.

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