brain food

How to recognise a learning disorder

Diagnosing a child with a learning disorder isn’t always easy. Arlene Harris finds out about how to recognise a learning disorder, and a motor learning disorder, including the signs and symptoms of dyslexia and dyspraxia.

When Grainne Kelly’s second child started school, she noticed that he didn’t seem to have the same grasp of letters or numbers as his older brother had two years previously. Initially, she put it down to simply having a different personality, but as time went on and the then five-year old continued to struggle with schoolwork, the mother-of-three suspected that something could be wrong.

Scheduling an appointment with his teacher, she outlined her concerns and was relieved and unnerved to discover that she wasn’t alone in her worry. “Matt had always been slower than his brother when it came to reaching milestones,” says the Dublin woman. “He started talking much later and would often jumble up words, but he grew out of it in time, so I assumed the same would happen with school. But he found it very difficult to get to grips with reading and writing and while I thought it would sort itself out, he showed little signs of improvement and when I spoke to his teacher, she said she had noticed the same thing, but was unsure as he was so quiet in class.”

“She told me that she thought he might be dyslexic and while I was glad to put a name on his problems, I was saddened to think that he might have a learning disorder.”

However, once she came to terms with the reality, Grainne decided to take her son to see an educational psychologist and this, she believes, has been a great help. “Both my husband, Niall, and I were upset when we heard that Matt had dyslexia, but then we realised that it is quite common and we would just need to get him the right support.” she says.

“The school recommended an educational psychologist and although he has only been going to see her for a short while, we can already see an improvement in Matt. It is early days, but I am hopeful for his future as I think conditions like dyslexia are much more treatable nowadays than they were in the past.”

Diagnosis is important

Educational psychologist, Sean Flanagan agrees and says identifying conditions such as dyslexia and also physical difficulties like dyspraxia is the first step. “Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, where a person with average or above average intelligence struggles with reading, writing, and spelling,” he says. “Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, formerly called “clumsy child syndrome” where a person who doesn’t have an intellectual disability or a physical disability struggles to plan and co-ordinate physical movements.”

According to the educational expert, the earlier the intervention, the more beneficial it is for the child with either dyslexia or dyspraxia. “Many children with these conditions would have average or above average intelligence so they can successfully hide their difficulties for a number of years before they are detected, most often around third class,” he says.

“So if you are worried your child may have dyslexia, the first person to speak to is the class teacher who will be able to look at a pattern of reading and writing assessments and can do some initial intelligence testing such as the NonReading Intelligence Test (NRIT).”

“If there is a discrepancy between a child’s score on the literacy attainments (reading, spelling, writing assessments, MICRA-T) and the score on the NRIT, the next person to contact is an educational psychologist.”

Flanagan says an educational psychologist will then conduct a cognitive assessment (Like an IQ Test) to determine if the child has dyslexia or not. “Often, the cognitive assessment can reveal specific areas of difficulty such as memory or visuo-spatial processing, which can help to explain the nature of a specific problem,” he says. “The educational psychologist will then write a report, with recommendations for home and school. Children with dyslexia are generally supported by the school’s learning support allocation.”

If however, you are worried your child may have dyspraxia, the process for diagnosis is a little more complicated, explains Flanagan. “Your child may need to be seen by an occupational therapist who will write a report and provide strategies and techniques to use at home,” he says.

“After that, your child would need to be seen by an educational psychologist, in order to rule out an intellectual disability. A child with dyspraxia is entitled to three hours of extra resource teaching support in school. “With treatment and support, children with dyspraxia may improve their muscle tone and coordination over time.”

Symptoms of dyslexia

The symptoms of dyslexia can differ from person to person, and each individual with the condition will have a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Preschool children

  • Delayed speech development in comparison with other children of the same age.
  • Speech problems, such as not being able to pronounce long words properly and ‘jumbling’ up phrases – for example, saying ‘helicopter’ instead of ‘helicopter’, or ‘beddy tear’ instead of ‘teddy bear.’
  • Problems expressing themselves or difficulty remembering the right word to use, or putting together sentences incorrectly.
  • Little understanding or appreciation of rhyming words or nursery rhymes
  • Difficulty with, or little interest in, learning letters of the alphabet.

Primary school children

Symptoms of dyslexia usually become more obvious when children start school and begin to focus more on learning how to read and write.

  •  Problems learning the names and sounds of letters.
  • Spelling which is unpredictable and inconsistent.
  • Putting letters and figures the wrong way round and confusing the order of letters.
  • Reading slowly or making errors when reading aloud.
  • Describing letters and words as appearing blurred.
  • Answering questions well orally, but having difficulty writing down the answer.
  • Difficulty carrying out a sequence of directions.
  • Struggling to learn sequences, such as days of the week or the alphabet.
  • Slow and poor handwriting.
  • Problems copying written language and taking longer than normal to complete written work.

Secondary school children and adults

  • Poorly organised written work which lacks expression.
  • Difficulty planning and writing essays, letters or reports.
  • Difficulties studying for exams
  • Trying to avoid reading and writing whenever possible.
  • Difficulty taking notes or copying from the board.
  • Poor spelling.
  • Struggling to remember things such as a PINs or telephone numbers.
  • Struggling to meet deadlines.

Symptoms of dyspraxia

Dyspraxia affects some children more severely than other but symptoms are generally present early in life.


  • Is a messy eater, preferring to eat with fingers rather than a fork or spoon.
  • Is unable to ride a tricycle or play with a ball.
  • Is delayed at becoming toilet trained.
  • Avoids playing with construction toys and puzzles.
  • Doesn’t talk as well as children the same age and might not say single words until age three.

Preschool children

  • Often bumps into people and things.
  • Has trouble learning to jump and skip.
  • Is slow to develop a particular hand dominance (left or right).
  • Often drops objects or has difficulty holding them.
  • Has trouble grasping pencils for writing or drawing.
  • Has difficulty working buttons, snaps and zippers.
  • Speaks slowly or doesn’t enunciate words.
  • Has trouble speaking at the right speed, volume and pitch.
  • Struggles to play and interact with other kids.

Primary school children

  • Tries to avoid sports at break time or PE.
  • Takes a long time to write, due to difficulty gripping pencil and forming letters.
  • Has trouble moving objects from one place to another, such as pieces on a game board.
  • Struggles with games and activities that require hand-eye coordination.
  • Has trouble following instructions and remembering them.
  • Finds it difficult to stand for a long time.

Secondary school children and adults

  • Has trouble with sports that involve jumping and cycling.
  • Tends to fall and trip; bumps into things and people.
  • May talk continuously and repeat things.
  • May forget and lose things.
  • Has trouble picking up on nonverbal. signals from others

About Seán Seán Flanagan is a Dublin-based educational psychologist – contact him at

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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.



Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.