Early intervention

What’s the Difference Between Learning Issues and Delays?

By Elizabeth Harstad

What’s the difference between learning issues and developmental delays?

Elizabeth Harstad

Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital

Sometimes a developmental delay can be an early sign of learning issues. Sometimes it can be a sign of a genetic disorder or other medical condition. And sometimes a delay is just a delay. Some children eventually catch up and no longer have any developmental difficulties.

This is one of the key differences between developmental delays and learning issues. Kids don’t outgrow learning issues. This is true even if they get the right kinds of support and learn to work around their weaknesses. For example, some adults with dyslexia report that they continue to have a hard time with spelling even though they completed school and are successful in their jobs.

The term “developmental delay” means that a child is not meeting developmental milestones at the expected age. An example of this would be not talking or walking by 2 years of age. The term learning issues or learning disabilities means that a child’s academic achievement is lower than expected for his developmental level, age or grade level.

Learning issues are usually diagnosed in children at least 5 years of age or older. That’s because their struggles in certain areas can be hard to notice before they start school. Developmental delays are often diagnosed much earlier. Preschoolers, toddlers and even babies can be diagnosed with a developmental delay.

If your child has delays that persist past age 6, you may want to have him reevaluated. The updated information could help doctors better describe the area and severity of delay. This can help them recommend the most appropriate therapies for your child.

Although there are key differences between learning issues and developmental delays, children with either of these issues can benefit from tailored interventions to address their areas of need. If you’re concerned your child isn’t getting enough services or support, talk to his teachers and his doctor. Understanding your child’s strengths and needs will help you push for resources that can help him make progress.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad

Elizabeth Harstad, M.D., M.P.H., is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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