Learning disability (learning disability) in children – causes and opportunities

Prof. Dr. Hans Weiss

When parents hear terms such as "developmental disorder", "learning disorder", but above all "learning disability" or "learning disability" from experts in connection with their child, this triggers uncertainty, concerns and fears for them: What does all this mean for our child – with regard to school, profession and later life? What do we have to adjust to and What is to consider? I would like to give you some guidance.

Learning disability and learning disability – two meanings that meanwhile have the same meaning

The terms "learning disability" and "learning disabled" emerged around 1960 in connection with the renaming of the former "auxiliary school" to "school for learning disabled" and had been established over decades. Since the 1990s, however, they have been increasingly questioned – especially in the course of the integration and current discussion about inclusion. Above all, however, the objection is raised that the term "learning disabled" has a stigmatizing effect on the children and young people concerned and can strain their identity development. Therefore, efforts are being made to classify terms with less stigmatization. For example, the Conference of Ministers of Culture has replaced the term "learning disability" with "learning disability" in its "Recommendations on the funding priority of learning" (KMK 1999) and uses the terms "pupils with learning disabilities" or "impairments in learning" throughout. In the scientific discussion, "learning impairment" has replaced the term "learning disability" to a large extent. B. Basic book "Pedagogy for impaired learning" (Schroeder 2015). Nonetheless, learning disability is also found as a technical term in more recent scientific publications (e.g. Grünke 2014). Likewise, the association LERNEN FÖRDERN, which is largely supported by affected parents, is called "Federal Association for the Promotion of People with Learning Disabilities".

In the following I use both terms with the same meaning. If I use "learning disability", the reader can exchange it for "learning disability" and vice versa. Whichever term you prefer, it is crucial to express yourself with due respect about the people classified with it and their worlds of origin and life, and to make sure that you and their help needs are conceptually included in the social law aids (especially the corresponding social law books SGB ​​VIII, SGB IX and SGB XII) are anchored.

What does "learning disability" or "learning disability" mean??

It is not easy, learning disability or learning impairment to be clear in content and from other terms such as. B. Defeat school performance, learning failure, learning disorders. What is referred to as a learning disability in a child does not catch the eye. B. the movement impairment in a physically handicapped child or the obvious orientation problems in a blind person. Nevertheless, I would like to offer some orientation points for the conceptual clarification of learning disabilities (learning disabilities). The first step is to clearly state what they are Not is:

  • Learning disability, even if the word suggests it, is not a “comprehensive disability of a general ability to learn” (Schröder 2005, p. 80); because there is no general ability to learn. In different areas of learning, each person develops skills that are different in character, which are above, in or below average compared to other people. A child who is said to have learning disabilities can also work in special areas, e.g. perform above average in practical matters, in caring for relatives, in sports, but also in the accurate assessment of people or the atmosphere of situations.
  • Learning disability is also not an individual characteristic, “that as the cause of learning difficulties – so to speak Behind the poor school performance – or could even be seen as an essential characteristic of certain children ”(Schröder 2005, p.104). Therefore, the statement does not seem meaningful: "A child fails in general school and cannot be promoted there because it has a learning disability" (ibid.).
  • After all, learning disabilities are not simply equated with a lack of intelligence; Because the pupils affected by this show a high degree of dispersion in their intelligence test performances, from less than 60 to over 100 IQ points. Some of these students show different levels of intelligence; another part extends into the average area of ​​intelligence. There is also no other distinctive characteristic between children and adolescents with and without learning disabilities.

But what would have to be asked in a second step, is learning disability then? Learning disability indicates a disproportion, one lack of fit between the options for action and learning of a specific child and the learning requirements derived from curricula or educational plans, as well as the corresponding teaching methods and rituals of a specific general school that this child must attend (Fig. 1). Fit problems can on the one hand be related to the child and his or her difficult learning history
biological risks (e.g. premature birth), but also before disadvantaged life situations arise. On the other hand, fit problems can arise on the part of educational institutions, especially at school and in relation to teachers. B. by teaching that does not or does not take sufficient account of the effects of life situations, the associated experiences and ways of dealing with socially disadvantaged students with possible failures and discrimination. This – often double-sided – lack of fit is all too often one-sidedly charged to the learner as problematic, wrong and failing school-based learning processes, because the offers, the teaching methods and the level of requirements of the respective general school are taken as non-questionable reference points of the assessment. However, since learning and teaching always interact with each other, a learning disability can only be adequately understood as a result of those interaction processes between learning and teaching. So it can never be narrowed down to an individual trait of learners.

Fig. 1: Learning disability as a dynamic process in the area of ​​tension between teaching and learning

It is therefore an urgent task of school systems to minimize inadequate fit. Traditionally, this is done in such a way that children who are attested to a learning disability or – in the new terminology of the Conference of Ministers of Education (cf. KMK 1999) – a "special educational need in the priority area of ​​learning" are trained or retrained in a school for people with learning disabilities (This school is called different depending on the federal state, for example as "School for Learning Aid" or "Special Education School Focus on Learning"). However, pupils with learning impairments are increasingly being trained in inclusive schools in general schools. There, the existing mismatch between their learning opportunities and school requirements is remedied by targeting, where this appears necessary, according to individual educational goalsdifferent, being taught. In 2014, a good 60 percent of students with special needs in the learning priority area attended the relevant special school and almost 40 percent general schools (KMK 2016, S.XIX).

While learning disorder relates to difficult teaching / learning processes in a more restricted area (e.g. poor reading and spelling), is one learning disability a comprehensive, long-lasting and serious mismatch between the individual learning opportunities on the one hand and school requirements and teaching arrangements on the other. If a child experiences failures at school and their confidence and enjoyment of learning are severely weakened, then a learning disorder can expand and solidify into a learning disability. B. in the classroom the difficult teaching / learning process is not adequately taken into account in a reading / spelling weakness and serious problems arise in other subjects.

From a so-called. intellectual disability different the learning disability due to the lower disparity between the possibilities of an individual and the expectations of his environment, especially the school. This is why the degree of dependence on psychosocial and educational support is generally lower among people with learning disabilities than people with intellectual disabilities (now often referred to as cognitive disabilities)..

How is a child impaired or hindered in learning?

Learning disability is therefore not a static characteristic, but it develops – under certain stresses – in a dynamic process that shapes the life and learning history of a child or adolescent. These factor groups include three groups of factors.

1. Developmental and learning-difficult biological factors

Above all, one should think of malfunctions of the central nervous system. These can arise in connection with complications before, during or after childbirth, with premature and defective births and as a result of accidents and illnesses during childhood. What is meant here is not serious damage to the central nervous system that can lead to physical, mental or other disabilities, but lighter, diffuse (undetermined) functional disorders. With disturbances in the perception z. B. the children have problems correctly perceiving, which can have an inhibiting effect on learning to read and write. With concentration and attention disorders, it is more difficult for children to specifically target a specific learning object. It is the task of the teacher to provide motivation and control aids to the children through personal contact and structuring offers – which does not always happen enough under the conditions of the specific school situation.

2. Developmental and learning-aggravating environmental influences

80 to 90 percent of children and adolescents with learning difficulties come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, often with a migration background. Your domestic living, development and learning conditions are often characterized by a combination of several characteristics such as:

  • low educational and employment status of parents and therefore insecure and permanently scarce financial resources;
  • smaller and less well-equipped apartments, often in disadvantaged residential areas;
  • little self-sufficient living space for learning, resting, retreating;
  • insufficient satisfaction of basic children’s needs (safety, security, care and nutrition, exercise, play and other activities.);
  • little family encouragement and suggestions for learning at school and in a highly complicated civilization (e.g. because the parents themselves are burdened with lifestyle problems or have to bear with their negative school experiences);
  • Living in a language and culture that deviates significantly from the standards expected and practiced at school (Schröder 2005, pp.158–163).

This list of features is to be handled with care; because it could lead to blame for the parents who do not (can) offer their children adequate development and educational conditions. Indeed, it is not uncommon for children with learning difficulties to be exposed to poverty and social disadvantage, and even more so their parents and families, through unilateral accusations of blame, without, for example, B. Teachers should take sufficient account of the backgrounds that lie in the living situation of the families and shape the parenting behavior.

This creates a dilemma: On the one hand, the description of the condition factors that can lead to learning disabilities should be reluctant to blame the parents. On the other hand, the extent to which the living and bringing up of children and adolescents in poverty and social disadvantage must be critically examined hinder, to acquire those skills with which they can withstand the very contradictory requirements and temptations of our complex society. This dilemma can only be dealt with productively by assessors (e.g. teachers, academics and even parents in more favorable living situations) if they ask for the background in the fairest possible way – i.e. self-critical of the assessment patterns of their own bourgeois life style. why people in socially precarious conditions specifically develop other forms of living and surviving with their children. To treat these people with respect also means to ask where “strengths of survival” can be found in their (development-inhibiting) life forms, which a “bourgeois” certain view easily overlooks.

Under no circumstances can the dilemma be resolved by sweeping the development and learning-aggravating environmental influences under the carpet when learning disabilities arise. In this regard, another fact should be pointed out: The risks that can arise from the developmental and learning-difficult biological factors described above are not, as is often assumed, evenly distributed across all strata of the population. The risk of being affected is much higher among children in poverty, social disadvantage and marginalization (Lampert; Richter 2010). This is related to the stressful life situation in which these children grow up.

Furthermore, a very low-stimulation life and upbringing situation in the first years of a child’s life can have an inhibiting effect on the development of the child’s brain, its functions and structure, as recent brain research impressively shows (see e.g. Noble et al. 2012). , The longer a child grows up in a stressful family environment, without the environmental conditions, e.g. through help for the family, improve, the more negative these neurological effects are. In contrast, favorable conditions can compensate for or reduce the development and learning-aggravating effects of biological risks. However, if biological risks coincide with unfavorable living and upbringing conditions, then both factor groups act in the learning biography of a child and intensify in their development and learning complications. Precisely because of this close interrelation between the biological and the social – positive and negative – it is important to recognize biological and social development risks at an early stage and to continuously offer appropriate help, starting with early support.

3. Unfavorable school teaching / learning conditions

Since, as stated, learning impairments are inadequate relationships between individual learning opportunities and school educational goals and their mediation, the school itself should not be ignored when it comes to the aggravating conditions in the learning biography of a child or adolescent. Kobi (1975, p.88), about 40 years ago, saw the “therapeutic and teaching options for avoiding or reducing learning disabilities” as “not yet exhausted”. His criticism remains current. The results of the international PISA studies show that in Germany – more than in comparable countries – at least so far the social status of the pupils has played a major role in their school success. In view of the extremely large proportion of socially disadvantaged students in special schools with a focus on learning, these results are extremely explosive. While there are apparently first signs of positive change, there is still a long way to go.

Kobi (1975, p.13) also speaks sharply that the learning disability on the part of the child can correspond to a “teaching disability” on the part of teachers. A "teaching disability" can also occur, especially in the special needs school, if teachers set their bourgeois norms and expectations in terms of behavior and performance absolutely and therefore do not have an understanding of the different living and developmental conditions and everyday experiences of their students find.

What should I do?

  1. Even if learning disability often shows up as an inadequate fit between individual learning opportunities and learning and educational requirements only in the school room, conditional factors of a social and biological nature are often already effective in the early life and educational history of a child. It is therefore very important to identify such factors early on. If a child is observed in particular, but especially in its living and developmental conditions (whether by the parents, by other family members or by specialists, e.g. pediatricians), the parents should be encouraged to: Get in touch with suitable specialist bodies. For example, interdisciplinary early intervention centers offer themselves as competence centers for the development problems of children in infancy and kindergarten age as contact points for parents who are concerned about the development of their child.
  2. Children with biologically or socially related development and learning problems need suitable external support as early as possible, especially in inclusive day care centers including inclusive crèches – also in connection with volunteer sponsors, with “Wahlomas” etc., who are also socially responsible Accept marginalized children, accompany them, stimulate them or read them aloud. When playing, working and learning with other children, they should experience this appreciation and encouragement for positive self-worth development, feel confirmed in what they can and be encouraged to deal with new things and thereby develop their knowledge and skills. To do this, educators need to know about a child’s respective strengths, but also about the possible difficulties that may hinder the child’s development. Recognizing children in their strengths is a central characteristic of child-friendly pedagogy, but recognizing the possible problems and obstacles sensitively and dealing with them carefully is essential to pedagogical competence. Only then can suitable help be offered to the child so that he can overcome obstacles in his learning and educational path as well as possible or avoid them productively.
  3. With all the necessary support at home, especially for those children whose conditions for learning impairment occur early in life, the family remains the central place of their learning and educational development for these children. It is therefore essential to work intensively with families in particularly difficult situations and to support them in their upbringing and educational mandate for their children. This is an important task of daycare centers and schools in which the children are encouraged, but also of early childhood education. It can only succeed if all problems that may exist in families are treated with respect for the parents and their environment.
  4. If a child is identified as having special needs in the field of learning during school enrollment or during the first year of schooling, the two alternatives described above are generally available: either inclusive schooling or attending a special needs school with a focus on learning. Both forms have their advantages and disadvantages. It is important that the parents get precise information about these different options before making their decision, or maybe even look at both types of school themselves. The proportion of schoolchildren with inclusive education and learning needs is expected to increase further in the future, although this also requires appropriate framework conditions. Schools that are well geared to the living conditions and educational needs of the pupils in their catchment area increase the joy of learning the content offered, because the children and young people can better understand their meaning and meaning for their lives.


The research situation clearly shows that learning disabilities (learning disabilities) arise to a large extent in interaction with social disadvantage. It is therefore not only important to ensure that unfavorable living and educational conditions – and thus also affected children and their parents – are as fair as possible in science and practice. H. to describe and assess against the background of social and social framework conditions. In addition, it would be much better if those parents with good (educational) resources and articulation possibilities, whose children are attested to a learning disability (learning impairment) – in representative solidarity with "socially weaker" parents – for the interests of children with learning disabilities and their Families. This solidarity idea has the work of the Federal Association LEARNING SUPPORT – Federal Association for the Promotion of Learning Disabled e. V. has been determined as an initiative primarily by affected parents since its foundation in 1968. In cooperation with experts, the association continues to have an important but difficult task. As a specialist who is not affected, I can only guess what it might mean for parents, in addition to the effort to care for their own child with the handicap learning impairment in the best possible way and to stand up for their concerns, in representative solidarity also the interests of children and families beyond to perceive and to represent one’s own, ultimately alien world. But this solidarity could help to further develop the existing system of help for people with this handicap, i.e. to expand it in an inclusive and participatory way: in the areas of early detection and early learning, school education and training, integration into work and the world of work as well as accompanying help and advice. Much will also depend on whether young people find reliable and competent adults, especially when it comes to the often difficult transition from school to adult life, especially if their starting chances in this new phase of life are hampered by social and cultural conditions. They then need companions and mentors to walk part of their way with them (Hiller 2015). Joint initiatives by parents and experts (teachers at special schools, school social workers, etc.) can include: B. within the framework of support associations, build networks for such a culture of help.

Important contact address


  • Grünke, Matthias; Grosche, Michael (2014): Learning disabilities. In: Lauth, Gerhard W .; Grünke, Mattias; Brunstein, Joachim C. (ed.): Interventions for learning disorders. Göttingen, pp. 76-89
  • Hiller, Gotthilf Gerhard (2015): Sema and Halim – Or: How does mentoring work and who benefits. In: Special pedagogical support today, vol. 60, pp. 78–90.
  • [KMK 1999] Secretariat of the Standing Conference of Ministers for Education and Cultural Affairs of the federal states in the Federal Republic of Germany Recommendations on the funding priority of learning. Berlin
  • [KMK 2016] Secretariat of the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education of the Federal States in the Federal Republic of Germany (Ed.): Special Education
  • Funding in schools 2005 to 2016. Statistical publications of the Conference of Ministers of Education. Documentation No. 210 – February 2016. Berlin.
  • Kobi, Emil E. (1975): The Rehabilitation of the Learning Disabled. Munich, Basel
  • Lampert, Thomas; Richter, Matthias (2010): Poverty among children and health consequences. In: Holz, Gerda; Richter-Kornweitz, Antje (ed.): Child poverty and its consequences. Munich, Basel, 55-65
  • Noble, Kimberly G. u. a. 02012): (Neural correlates of socioeconomic status in developing human brain. In: Developmental Science, Vol. 15, 516-527
  • Schroeder, Joachim (2015): Pedagogy when learning is impaired. Stuttgart
  • Schroeder, Ulrich (2010): Learning disability education. Basics and perspectives of special educational learning aid. 2nd edition Stuttgart


Prof. Dr. Hans Weiss
Jahnstr. 45
93326 Abensberg


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