Family Therapy UK

Dyslexia and Dyspraxia (Specific Learning Difficulties)


The term specific learning difficulty refers to an area in which a child has difficulty in their learning.  The term is not the same as learning disability where a child has an overall intellectual impairment. Children with a specific learning disability only have this in certain areas and in other respects function as well as other children. There are many types of learning difficulties.  Some are very mild and may show up in particular subjects at school, such as mathematics or English. Mild specific learning difficulties can be successfully treated provided they are identified early enough and treated.  The most commonly known specific learning difficulties are dyslexia and dyspraxia.


Dyslexia refers to children who have a specific learning difficulty in the area of writing and language. It affects children's ability to read, write and spell. Children may have difficulty recognising letters and numbers or confuse the two.  For instance they might confuse "45" with "54" or "p" with "q" or "b" with "d".  This leads to difficulty in reading and spelling.

In most respects children with dyspraxia will cope as well as other young people.  They often have better verbal skills than non-verbal skills when psychologically tested.  Dyslexic children may not be able to follow traditional school lessons easily.  This can lead to distractibility in class and difficulty in completing homework.  In some schools, children are provided with lap-top computers to write on as they often prefer this to writing by hand.  On a computer, corrections are easier to make and they don't end up with pages of crossed out work.

Because of these difficulties, children can feel bad about themselves and may be mistakenly viewed as lazy and inattentive by teachers.  The low self confidence which can result from this, can make it more difficult to enjoy academic work, make friends and to generally get along with people.  This can happen at home too, with parents getting frustrated over homework and the child's lack of progress at school. This is why early assessment is so important.

Older children with dyslexia may struggle with written examinations, or try to avoid them.  Often an allowance is made for this if the condition has been diagnosed.  Situations should be avoided in school which may lead to embarrassment  - such as having to read out in class.

Careful assessment needs to be made of these children, usually by an educational psychologist. Allowance will have to be made for these areas of difficulty. The assessment should be clearly explained to children, parents and school teachers and a programme set-up that takes into account the child's psychological, social, and academic needs.


It is thought that dyspraxia results from a lack of development in the brain. This leads to difficulties in the brain sending messages to the body. This difficulty in processing information, leads to poor co-ordination in the child.  Such children were often called "clumsy children" in the past.  Dyspraxia affects about 2-3% of the population.  The degree of disability varies, and of those with dyspraxia, about 70% are boys. Children with dyspraxia are often late in developing gross and fine motor skills.  Motor skills refer to how limbs are moved. Fine motor skills refer to abilities such as fine movements of the fingers, or of co-ordinating a spoon of food towards a mouth etc. When toddlers, children with Dyspraxia can find activities such as dressing, getting a spoon of food into their mouth and walking more difficult than children of a similar age.  Later on, at school, the dyspraxia can show up in difficulty in handwriting and drawing.  There can be difficulties in holding a pen and there may be speech difficulties too. Some children find hopping and catching balls difficult and struggle in subjects such as PE and games. If this condition is not recognised such children can be seen as being lazy or lacking in intelligence. When psychologically tested, such children often demonstrate  high verbal, but low non-verbal scores.

Treatment of dyspraxia follows careful assessment, often by a school psychologist, which pin-points areas of learning disability.  The earlier the assessment, the better.  Early intervention to help a child can increase their chances of overcoming their difficulties. The assessment should be clearly explained to children, parents and school teachers and a programme of care set-up that takes into account the child's psychological, social, academic and physiological needs.  For instance, a programme of teaching aimed at developing the child's motor skills is often undertaken by physiotherapists or occupational therapists. This should be a collaborative process between the specialists, parents, children and the school. It is important to avoid putting children into situations where they may be embarrassed because of their difficulties.  For instance, avoiding public activities that demand fine co-ordination such as in ball games.

Unrecognised co-ordination problems can cause severe difficulties at school and in social relationships.  This can lead to low self-esteem  Sometimes this can lead to depression and emotional problems in children.

What can you do as a parent?

Get a proper assessment of your child by contacting the school and asking for an assessment by an educational psychologist.  Be patient with the school and work with them.  Get to know the teachers and what they are doing to help your child  You have to be balanced in your dealings with other professionals. If they are resistant to a diagnosis, or if you feel the needs of your child are not being met, you can contact the local education authority directly, or seek a private assessment from an educational psychologist.  There is a lot of ignorance about specific learning difficulties, and not everyone takes a sympathetic view.

Help your child to improve their skills whilst developing their independence.  For instance, teach them to tie shoelaces or to ride a bicycle. Help them to break task down into smaller, more manageable parts.  For instance, a journey to the shop might begin with putting on a coat, walking out of the door and stopping at the road to check it is safe to cross, finding their way to the shop and having a prepared list of items they need to buy.  Be patient and point out what they have done well. Try not to show your frustration or disappointment if progress is slow.  Be positive about their achievements, even if they seem very small.  Use your judgement and be realistic when deciding what areas of your child's behaviour to work on. If you push too hard this can lead to resentment and a sense of failure in the child.  Concentrating for long periods of time can be very difficult for such children. Discuss your plans with your partner if you have one. Talk to any professionals involved including teachers to get a sense of what you can expect to achieve.

Be creative in your learning programme.  Use computers, cinema, TV, walks as ways of educating.  Don't just sit down to learn with a book, learning should be fun.  If it becomes a chore, take a break!

Check out, from time to time, whether your child is unhappy or feeling "stupid".  Ask them about their feelings without over-doing it.  Look for signs they are not coping such as withdrawal, angry behaviour, not wanting to go to school or psychosomatic illnesses such as frequent headaches or tummy upsets.  Check to see whether they are being bullied - verbally or physically, at home, at school and in the wider community.

Bringing up children with learning difficulties can be very hard work.  Remember to share the burden when possible.  Appreciate that jealousy that can result between siblings when one of them has special needs and requires more attention.  Try not to over-compensate in your general management of the children because of the specific learning difficulty they have.  Having a specific learning difficulty may lead to your child feeling frustrated and angry at times, but it should not be seen as an excuse for bad behaviour.

As with all children, they will benefit from your love and support.  Patience and frequent praise are valued by all children. You may have to fight a little with the education authorities to get the support you feel they should have.  Try not to fall out with your school - remember there are other children with difficulties too.  Try to act in a way that will not upset your child and will promote good feelings towards your child from the professionals involved.

There are a number of organisations to support and help you understand the implications of dyslexia and dyspraxia.  See the links below or the page Finding Help for more general information on finding sources of support and help.

Web sites:

Information on Dyspraxia:

The Dyspraxia Foundation

Information on Dyslexia:

The British Dyslexia Association.


Contact A Family UK (support group for families)


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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