Cognitive Development in Individuals with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Whether you are a regular or special education teacher, you are sure to encounter students with learning disabilities in your practice. This lesson offers insight into how cognitive development plays out across the lifespan in these individuals.

Understanding Learning Disabilities

If you are a teacher who works with students who have learning disabilities, you are likely to have many questions about what these students face. A learning disability is usually understood as a discrepancy between an individual's overall intelligence and their ability to learn, often in a specific domain.

No two individuals with learning disabilities are alike, and when you get to know these students, you will learn that they have diverse strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Even learning disabilities themselves vary tremendously; for instance, dyslexia impacts the ability to learn to read and sometimes speak and write, whereas dyscalculia is a math-specific learning disability.

In spite of these tremendous variations, though, it can be helpful to learn some of the ways that learning disabilities tend to impact cognitive development across the lifespan.

Early Childhood

In the early years of life, learning disabilities are often not observed, or can only be understood in retrospect. Many young children will not actually exhibit cognitive differences until they are school aged and face new demands in terms of what they are able to do.

However, sometimes young children with learning disabilities take longer to acquire language; they might be slow to talk and even to understand the instructions of others. This can result in more extreme behaviors if they are frustrated by communication challenges.

Some young children who will later be diagnosed with learning disabilities are late to meet other developmental milestones, such as being able to make a block tower or follow simple directions.

They may be reluctant to draw, and their drawings may be slower to acquire features that are representative of real objects.

Middle Childhood

Often, middle childhood, the ages from about five to twelve, is when children with learning disabilities start to stand out as different. In these years, it is common for children with learning disabilities to exhibit the following features:

  • disinterest in school and learning
  • slow to acquire literacy, in terms of both reading and writing
  • showcasing more concrete and less abstract thinking than peers, especially as exhibited through language
  • challenges in memorization of things like math facts or historical facts
  • inability to produce written work

At the same time, even though students with learning disabilities often have great struggles at this age, they are still developing cognitively. They are learning to think more abstractly, to synthesize information from different sources, and to understand themselves as learners.

The profile of a child with learning disabilities will start to vary tremendously based on the amount of support they are getting.


Adolescence can be a challenging time for students with learning disabilities since this can be a period of development where self-esteem is shaky and peer acceptance matters greatly.

From a cognitive standpoint, adolescents with learning disabilities might exhibit particular challenges in the realm of executive function, or the ability to remember, plan, and manage time and materials; this is an age when peers are often making great strides in this area.

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