6 Reasons why a child may be struggling to learn

There are many reasons why a child may struggle to learn how to read. Most teachers are not trained to recognise the symptoms of a learning difficulty and may miss the signs of a child who is struggling for legitimate reasons.

Today, I want to talk to you about the big picture!

When a child starts school, they want to succeed and make their parents proud. They want to make friends, learn to read and write and do sums and be – just like all the other kids.

“A child does not intentionally set out to fail or struggle to learn, but some children do.”

Not only that, standardised testing can also create enormous pressure for our youngsters early on in their school years.

Here are 6 legitimate reasons why a child may struggle to learn.

  1. A diagnosable learning difference, disability or difficulty.

This category includes ‘dyslexia’ along with Specific Language Impairments (SLI) and other language-based disabilities. Here we are talking about something that is legitimately slowing down their ability to pick up learning to read and spell in a formal classroom setting.

While some countries use different ways to describe these learning problems; difference, disability or difficulty, I like to use ‘school learning difficulty’.

“Children who struggle at school don’t necessarily struggle after they leave school.

Sometimes these children have brain processing skills that actually give them an advantage and they do incredibly well outside of school.”

It is really important when a child is showing the symptoms and signs of a struggle to learn, that we investigate early. One of the things we should look for is a specific learning disability like dyslexia or a specific language impairment.

2. An inability to sit still

Some people will call this ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) which is the inability to focus and stay engaged when information is given. A child with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) also has hyperactivity involved. This is the child who struggles to sit still or needs to move to learn.

There are a variety of approaches that can be used to try and help a child to sit still in class, including tactile tools, weighted belts, and even drugs.

A child’s inability to sit still can definitely impact on their ability to learn in a formal classroom setting.

This needs to be addressed, but how? First, we need to understand this:

“Some children need to move to learn, if you make them sit still their brains stop functioning and their ability to learn switches off.”

This is something teachers may need to think about moving forward for particular students.

3. Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has a pretty big scale. Children may have what people refer to as Asperger’s on one end of the scale or on the other end of the scale, be non-verbal and severely affected, unable to care for themselves and their basic needs such as toileting, eating, dressing and everything in between.

Then there are the twice exceptional children. Children who are twice exceptional (2E) are on the spectrum and have dyslexia. They are super intelligent, but their learning difficulty is holding them back.

A child on the spectrum will struggle with social skills. They can struggle to engage one to one with people that are giving them information as well as other contributing factors that can make learning difficult.

“Studies suggests the crossover between Autism and Dyslexia is as high as 40%.”

This crossover is something to keep in mind. Children on the spectrum can also be hyperactive, impulsive and suffer from anxiety. This brings me to reason number 4.

4. Anxiety or a traumatic experience

A child suffering from high levels of anxiety or dealing with a traumatic experience is going to struggle to learn. This may be a traumatic event that occurred at home or outside of school or even in the school ground. It could also be something that is ongoing for the child.

The anxious child feels as though they are literally, swimming around in the deep end of a pool, paddling like a duck underneath. This is a child that is going to struggle in the classroom.

Teachers and parents, if you have a child that is struggling to learn, I want you to look at all the possibilities why this might be occurring and explore what might be going on.

5. Mental illness

This is the next level on from anxiety and experiencing a traumatic experience, this can include depression. I get many emails from parents with children exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

We often think about mental illness with teenagers and in young adults, but there any many younger children dealing with these problems too.

6. Family and environmental issues

My first ever teaching placement, saw me supporting students of 8-9 years of age, who would arrive at school without breakfast, often in the same clothes for the week and with minimal sleep.

“A child who is literally a survivor day to day, working out when and what they are going to eat, when they will sleep and not having a sense of security isn’t going to be focussed on learning.”

These hungry, tired children were never ready to learn. I would organise food from the school cafeteria and a beanbag for them to sleep on before attempting to teach them.

Some children can come to school with so much built up angst and anguish that there isn’t any room for learning.

One strategy I used was a thinking chair. This child-sized chair was positioned near my desk. It gave the children time to think about what was going on. Why they were angry or lashing out or obstropolous and grumpy. After a five-minute timeout on the thinking chair, I would ask them to tell me privately what was going on. Then I could offer them advice, support or help to resolve their issue. Try it, the answers you will get, are often not what you would expect.

That’s 6 pretty big reasons why a child may be struggling to learn.

So, parents, teachers, counsellors, librarians, teachers’ aides, psychologists and specialist teachers; if you come across a student who continually struggles to learn, I want you to consider these 6 reasons.

“Think outside the box when a child is struggling to learn. There can be multiple reasons why a child is struggling to keep up in class.”

Here are the links to my Facebook Live video on this topic on YouTube click here and on Facebook click here.


  1. Avatar Sonya   •  

    Great reminders- thank you. Some teachers don’t get it- poverty and trauma are real and school is such a safe place for these little ones.

    • Avatar Liz   •  

      It certainly is Sonya. Kids are safe at school or at least that’s the way it should be. There were many days that I could not get my classmembers to go home. They wanted to stay at school and help me by doing jobs.

  2. Avatar Christopher Mckenzie   •  

    I value your advice Liz and have put your site forward to schools and parents. Perhaps another reason for children struggling is simple lack of self belief. I call it, “missing rungs in the ladder”.E.g if you miss one,it’s hard to attempt the swing to the next. But it’s about not wanting to look stupid,so the attempt is not made in the first place. Keep up the good work.
    Christopher Mckenzie, Locum Educational Psychologist,Cumbria UK

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