Description of need

Support for learning difficulties may be required when children and young people learn at a slower pace than their peers, even with differentiation. Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD) through to profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) where children are likely to have severe and complex learning difficulties, as well as a physical disability or sensory impairment. Specific learning difficulties (SpLD) affect one or more specific aspects of learning.

Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD)

The majority of children and young people with learning difficulties will be identified early in their education career. In most cases, they will have difficulty acquiring basic numeracy and literacy skills and learn at a slower pace than their peers, even with appropriate differentiation. Children and young people may also have other difficulties, such as social emotional and mental health, speech, language and communication.

Children and young people who have received support through targeted interventions should not necessarily be categorised as having moderate learning difficulties, unless there is evidence of difficulties in most of the areas below:

  • memory and reasoning skills
  • organising and co-ordinating spoken and written language
  • sequencing and organising the steps needed to complete tasks
  • problem solving and developing concepts
  • fine and gross motor skills, which significantly impair access to the curriculum
  • understanding of abstract concepts

Severe Learning Difficulties (SLD)

Children and young people with severe learning difficulties have significant intellectual or cognitive impairments. This has a major effect on their ability to participate in the setting curriculum without support. They may also have associated difficulties in mobility and coordination, communication and perception and the acquisition of self-help skills.

Children and young people with SLD will need support in all areas of the curriculum. They may also require ongoing teaching and reinforcement of self-help, independence and social skills beyond what would be expected for others. Some children and young people may use sign and symbols, but most will be able to hold simple conversations and gain some literacy skills.

Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD)

Children and young people with PLMD will have significant cognitive difficulties and developmental delay in a number of areas. They may have additional needs including basic self-help and may be working at pre-National Curriculum levels in some or all areas.

Children and young people with PMLD have severe difficulty in accessing most areas of the curriculum independently and will have significant difficulties with most of the following:

  • self-organisation
  • social competence
  • attention or concentration
  • expressive and receptive language
  • self-care

Children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties have severe and complex learning needs; in addition, they have other significant difficulties such as physical disabilities or sensory impairment.

Children require a high level of adult support, both for their learning needs and also for personal care. They are likely to need sensory stimulation and a curriculum broken down into very small steps. Some will communicate by gesture, eye pointing or symbols, others by very simple language.

Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD)

Specific Learning Difficulty is the overall term used to describe a developmental condition such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and Developmental Co-ordination Disorder. (DCD). Effects of a specific learning difficulty can largely be managed by a combination of good high quality teaching and appropriate provision, including the use of compensatory strategies. Children and young people with specific learning difficulties fail to acquire levels of skills in some subjects commensurate with their performance in others, despite good attendance and health, satisfactory attitudes to learning and sound teaching.

It is possible for specific learning difficulties to be present alongside other learning disorders, thus creating different complexities of special need.

Pupils with specific learning difficulties have a particular difficulty in learning to read, write, spell or manipulate numbers so that their performance in these areas is below their performance in other areas. Pupils may also have problems with short-term memory, with organisational skills and with co-ordination. Pupils with specific learning difficulties cover the whole ability range and the severity of their impairment varies widely.

SpLD must be identified by either a psychologist, registered with the Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC), or a specialist teacher, holding a current practising certificate in assessing specific learning difficulties issued by their relevant professional association. In the case of dyspraxia, it will require a medical diagnosis for children under the age of 16 (specialist assessors can identify dyspraxia in post-16 learners). Settings must have a copy of the assessment or medical diagnosis. Pupils should only be recorded as SpLD if their difficulties are significant and persistent, despite appropriate learning opportunities.


"Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling." (Sir Jim Rose, 2009) In addition, short-term memory, mathematics, concentration, personal organisation and speech and language may be affected. 


Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities. Mathematics difficulties are best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and they have many causal factors. Dyscalculia falls at one end of the spectrum and will be distinguishable from other mathematics issues due to the severity of difficulties with number sense, including subitising, symbolic and non-symbolic magnitude comparison, and ordering. It can occur singly but can also co-occur with other specific learning difficulties, mathematics anxiety and medical conditions. (SASC Nov 2019

Developmental Coordination Difficulties (DCD)

Also known as dyspraxia, DCD is a common disorder affecting fine or gross motor coordination in children and adults. DCD is formally recognised by international organisations including the World Health Organisation. See the Dyspraxia Foundation for more information. DCD is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke, and occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. Individuals may vary in how their difficulties present: these may change over time depending on environmental demands and life experiences, and will persist into adulthood.