How Learning Disabilities Can Affect Behavior

An image of a bullied child comforted by an adult.

LWA / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Children with learning disabilities may also exhibit behavior problems or have co-occurring behavior disorders. In some cases, learning disabilities can lead to behavior problems such as acting out, avoidance, and emotional outbursts.

In order to help kids succeed, it is important for parents to watch for signs that their child is struggling with learning and behavior. Interventions that account for both learning and behavior challenges can help improve academic achievement and outcomes.

Research suggests that between 24% and 52% of children with learning disabilities also exhibit signs of behavior problems.

How Learning Disabilities Affect Behavior

Learning disabilities can have an impact on a child's behavior. That can create a complex problem in which a child's learning disability and behavior problems make learning difficult.

One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children with learning disabilities often experienced behavior problems related to reduced self-confidence and increased anxiety and stress. Other symptoms such as aggressive behavior and social isolation were also common.

Learning Disabilities Cause Frustration

Young children, adolescents, and adults with learning disabilities often exhibit confusing and contradictory patterns of performance. They perform certain tasks quite well while struggling considerably with other tasks.

For example, a child may be bright and interested in learning but struggle to behave appropriately when placed in a reading group with peers. They may frequently get overexcited and disruptive, causing the teacher to remove them from the group. The student might enjoy hearing the story read to the group, but then put their head down and kick their feet when asked to read aloud.

Behaviors Can Hide Learning Disabilities

In other cases, children may engage in certain behaviors to cover up a problem in school. Here are some examples of how children may inadvertently or purposefully misbehave in the classroom in order to disguise a learning disability:

  • A 10-year-old who finds multiplication difficult might become frustrated and throw a tantrum when asked to complete the problems. 
  • A 13-year-old who has trouble focusing in class might have an outburst by slamming their book shut and saying that they can’t read because there are too many distractions.
  • A 16-year-old who reads at a fourth-grade level might frequently skip school. They appear bored when they do attend class. When asked to read aloud, the child throws a book on the floor, calls the reading “stupid,” and refuses to read the passage.

Such behaviors can offer clues into the deeper-rooted, underlying causes of defiant behavior in children with learning disabilities. Kids who exhibit these behaviors are sometimes seen as troublemakers, which can lead to their learning problems going unrecognized.

Other behavior problems that can mask a learning disability include impulsivity, inattention, not following directions, mood swings, disorganization, temper tantrums, and defiance.

Signs of Learning Disabilities

A child’s learning disability may result in an emotional battering that impacts their everyday interactions with teachers and peers at school, with parents at home, and others in the community. Warning signs of learning disabilities include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Blaming teachers for bad grades
  • Bullying their peers
  • Physical ailments, such as stomach aches or headaches
  • Not doing homework assignments
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Not wanting to show parents homework
  • Self-derogatory or self-critical comments
  • Refusing to communicate to avoid confrontation
  • Refusing to do an in-class assignment or task
  • Refusing to follow classroom rules
  • Saying the work is too difficult
  • Skipping class

In some cases, children will intentionally engage in behaviors that are intended to force their removal from the classroom. By acting out, they are excluded from the class and do not have to engage in the learning activities that are a source of frustration.


Learning disabilities and behavioral problems can have a significant impact on a child's life, especially if these issues are not diagnosed and treated. This can cause kids to miss more school, struggle to engage with peers, and have more academic difficulties.

Kids with learning disabilities and behavioral issues are also at a much greater risk of suspension. According to the U.S. Department of Education, two-thirds of disciplinary school removals involving children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) involved children who had a learning disability or other health impairment.

Damage to Self-Esteem

A learning disability can not only affect a child's learning and behaviors; it can also have a devastating effect on their self-esteem. Some of the ways that learning disabilities and behavioral problems can affect a child's self-esteem and confidence include:

  • Children with learning disabilities often have difficulty asking for help with peer-related situations.
  • They may be lacking the social and emotional skills necessary to handle peer pressure.
  • They may be subjected to bullying from peers or may bully others as a way to cope with their emotions.
  • They may have trouble knowing how to interact appropriately with their teachers and peers. 
  • They may struggle to understand the social cues of others.

Despite the efforts of parents and teachers toward a child’s academic success, the repeated disappointments and lack of progress for many children with learning disabilities can result in what is known as learned helplessness.

These children may call themselves “stupid” and believe there is nothing they can do to become smarter, be liked by their peers, and be understood by teachers and other adults in the school community. When they are successful at a task, they often attribute it to luck rather than intelligence and hard work.

Parents and educators can help kids with learning disabilities who are struggling with low self-esteem and feelings of learned helplessness by pointing out their strengths. For example, while children with dyslexia may have difficulty decoding the phonologic components of words, they may have other strengths in reasoning, problem-solving, comprehension, concept formation, critical thinking, general knowledge, and vocabulary.

Getting Help

It is important to spot the signs of both behavioral problems and learning disabilities and recognize how the two may be related. If you suspect there is a problem, talk to your child's doctor in order to get a diagnosis and treatment plan.

When a child has symptoms of both a learning disability and a behavioral issue, it is important to determine the relationship. If the learning disability is causing behavioral problems, then treating the learning disability can help resolve many of the behavioral symptoms. If the behavioral issues are caused by a co-occurring behavioral disorder, then both the learning disability and behavioral condition will require treatment.

Functional Assessment

It may be necessary to complete what is known as a functional assessment of behavior. This involves a complete and objective problem-solving process for addressing student problem behavior. The assessment relies on techniques and strategies such as observing the child’s behaviors objectively in different settings and during different types of activities.

It also involves input through surveys and meetings with school personnel. A major purpose of the assessment is to help IEP teams determine the appropriate interventions to be used to address the problem behavior. 

It may be difficult to determine if a child’s learning disability is directly contributing to or triggering these types of behaviors. Family-related stressors can also have a significant effect on behavior at school.

If a child is displaying hyperactive, impulsive, or distracted behaviors, it is also important to see a specialist in order to determine if a child has attention-related disorders such as ADHD or a psychiatric condition.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Diakakis P, Gardelis J, Ventouri K, et al. Behavioral problems in children with learning difficulties according to their parents or teachers. Pediatrics. 2008;121:S100-S101. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2022CC

  2. Backenson EM, Holland SC, Kubas HA, et al. Psychosocial and adaptive deficits associated with learning disability subtypes. J Learn Disabil. 2015;48(5):511-22. doi:10.1177/0022219413511861

  3. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. 2013-2014 civil rights data collection: A first look.

  4. Alesi M, Rappo G, Pepi A. Self-esteem at school and self-handicapping in childhood: Comparison of groups with learning disabilitiesPsychological Reports. 2012;111(3):952-962. doi:10.2466/15.10.pr0.111.6.952-962.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Learning disabilities: What parents need to know.

  6. Gacek M, Smoleń T, Pilecka W. Consequences of learned helplessness and recognition of the state of cognitive exhaustion in persons with mild intellectual disabilityAdv Cogn Psychol. 2017;13(1):42–51. doi:10.5709/acp-0205-6

  7. Hanley GP. Functional assessment of problem behavior: Dispelling myths, overcoming implementation obstacles, and developing new loreBehav Anal Pract. 2012;5(1):54–72. doi:10.1007/BF03391818

By Douglas Haddad
Douglas Haddad is an award-winning teacher and best-selling author, covering learning disabilities and other topics related to education.