SENCO Week explains the different types of cognitive and learning difficulties, and provides a useful help sheet for identifying pupils with dyslexiapdf-6661317

SENCO Help Sheet 2 – Identifying Dyslexia.pdf Continuing with our overview of the Code of Practice categories, this week we consider children and young people with cognition and learning difficulties. This is a very broad spectrum of need, so we will look at the various types of difficulty this week; strategies next week, and in the following week consider those learners with more significant needs who are working at P levels.

Support for SENCOs

Cognition and learning

As schools become more inclusive, teachers find that pupils in their classes have a very wide range of learning capability and a significant minority will need additional support and differentiation.

Causes of learning disability

Impairments which cause or contribute to learning disability can happen before, during or after birth.

  • Those present before birth (pre-natal) are known as ‘congenital’ causes and include Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.
  • During birth (peri-natal) oxygen deprivation can result in conditions such as cerebral palsy.
  • After birth, (post natal) illnesses such as meningitis, injury or environmental conditions can cause brain damage: children deprived of their basic needs and undernourished, neglected or physically abused may also suffer negative effects to their learning ability.

It may be useful to know the causes of a child’s learning disability, as some syndromes are thought to be associated with particular learning characteristics (eg Down syndrome), but it is important to get to know each one as an individual, with unique strengths and personalities which will affect the nature of the support they might need.


Within the spectrum of difficulties associated with cognition and learning the Code of Practice identifies:

  • specific learning difficulties (SpLD)
  • moderate learning difficulties
  • severe learning difficulties
  • profound and multiple learning difficulties.

Specific learning difficulty

Children and young people in this category have problems with particular areas of learning rather than general or ‘global’ difficulties; for example, a child may be very articulate and show good understanding verbally, but be unable to reflect this in how and what he writes. There are often associated difficulties with short-term memory, coordination and organisation. It is important to remember that children and young people with specific learning difficulties cover the whole ability range and there is a wide variation in the severity of their difficulties. It is generally accepted that between 5% and 10% of the population is affected to some degree. The following sub-groups are included in this category:

  • Dyslexia: literally translated as ‘a difficulty with words’, dyslexia affects a child’s ability to read quickly and efficiently and nearly always results in poor spelling. Pupils with dyslexia often have weak short-term memory and difficulty with sequencing and processing information, and in organising themselves. (See attached help sheet for a dyslexia checklist to help with identification.)
  • Dyscalculia: children with dyscalculia have difficulty in understanding simple number concepts and learning number facts and procedures. They may struggle to tell the time, understand measurements and manage money.
  • Dyspraxia: is an immaturity in the way the brain processes information, resulting in problems with coordination, perception and thought. Children may appear awkward and clumsy and have difficulty with handwriting, drawing, throwing and catching. They may have problems with following sequential events and instructions.

Moderate learning difficulties Children and young people with moderate learning difficulties (sometimes referred to as ‘learning impaired’ or as having ‘global difficulties’) have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic skills and understanding new concepts. Their attainments will be significantly below the expected levels in most subjects, despite having been given appropriate support. They may also have associated problems with speech and language, low levels of concentration and under-developed social skills. Children whose Intelligence Quotient (IQ) falls below 70 are generally deemed as having moderate learning difficulties.
Severe learning difficulties Children with severe learning difficulties have more significant cognitive impairment than those with MLD, although the distinction can be difficult to determine. They need support in all areas of the curriculum and often in areas of self-care and social skills as well. The government has tried to give a guide by saying that the majority of young people with severe learning difficulties will work within the higher ranges of the ‘P’ scales by the end of their educational career. (More on this group of learners in SENCO Week 54). Children whose IQ below 55 are generally deemed as having severe learning difficulties.

Profound and multiple learning difficulties These are children and young people with complex learning needs and they are likely to have more than one severe disability, for example they may have severe learning difficulties, a profound sensory loss and challenging behaviour. They require a high level of adult support, which may include medical and therapy staff. Their multiple difficulties often make it problematic to properly assess their learning potential. Children and young people with these complex difficulties require sensory stimulation and a curriculum that is broken down into very small steps: they are usually taught in a specialist setting, increasingly with opportunities for part-time inclusion in mainstream schools.

Useful Websites Teaching Expertise

British Dyslexia Association (BDA)

British Institute of Learning Disabilities

The Down Syndrome Educational Trust

The Dyspraxia Foundation


SEN News A recent report for the DCSF has identified a shortfall in services for children with special needs and disabilities, in spite of extra funding from the government. There is an increase in children identified with ASD (autistic spectrum disorders) and BESD (behavioural, emotional and social difficulty) but the report indicates a shortage of the services that parents want for children with these difficulties. The best estimate (2006) of the number of children of school age with special educational needs (SEN) in England is 1.53m (of which around 96% are School Action, School Action Plus, or statemented). SEN has been growing at 2.5% per annum in recent years (2003-2006). The number of children with statements (240,000) has declined over the same period, but the numbers of School Action and School Action Plus have grown. The research presents evidence of a significant shortage of services for children (that parents can access and afford) and also a shortage of SEN specialists (particularly so for ASD children) and therapeutic care.

Market for Disabled Children’s Services –  A Review

Find out more: > Articles on special educational needs
> Special educational needs publications
> Back to SENCO Week index page

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2007

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.