Developmental Delays vs. Learning Disabilities

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All children develop at different rates. Some children have delays in development and require early intervention. In most children, delays in mental and physical development will improve. Yet some have significant delays—developmental delays—that may indicate possible future learning disabilities.

Developmental Delays Are Different From Other Learning Disabilities

Delays in development differ from other types of learning disabilities in that they may improve with intervention and may eventually disappear. For that reason, it is important to be aware of early signs of a problem.

Some delays and disabilities are linked to exposure to risk factors during the prenatal period. Fortunately, some of these disabilities are preventable through appropriate prenatal health care and healthy prenatal lifestyle choices. Delays can also be normal for your child, and they may catch up with their peers without the need for further intervention.

Developmental delays are not necessarily predictive of future learning disabilities. 

On the other hand, learning disabilities are neurological differences in processing information that can significantly limit a person's ability to learn in a specific skill area. That is, these disorders are the result of actual differences in the way the brain processes, understands, and uses information. Everyone has differences in learning abilities, but people with learning disabilities have severe problems that persist throughout their lives.

There is no "cure" for learning disabilities. Special education programs can help people cope and compensate for these disorders, but the learning disability will last a lifetime. Learning disabled people may have difficulty in school or on the job. These disabilities may also impact independent living and social relationships.

Types of Developmental Delays

Developmental delays in any of the following areas can suggest the potential for learning disabilities:

  • Gross Motor - Large muscle movements such as standing, walking, or pulling up
  • Fine Motor - Small muscle movements such as grasping objects, moving fingers and toes
  • Communication and Early Language - Ability to understand words or to use speech
  • Cognitive Skills - Ability to think and solve problems
  • Social/Emotional - Ability to interact appropriately with others and show appropriate emotional responses

Special Education Services

Students with developmental delays are eligible for special education services, such as full evaluation, development of an individualized education plan (IEP), specially designed instruction, and related services.

Public schools offer screening and comprehensive assessment services to determine if your child has a developmental delay, how significant it is, and if special education is needed. Future testing as your child grows can detect learning disabilities.

Defining Specially Designed Instruction

SDI is also known as special instruction, individualization, or differentiated instruction. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing special education programs, every student's individualized education plan (IEP) must include several elements about how these students will achieve academic goals.

Among these elements is a description of specially designed instruction. 

SDI refers to the teaching strategies and methods used by teachers to instruct students with learning disabilities and other types of learning disorders.

3 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. Kaiser AP, Roberts MY. Advances in Early Communication and Language Intervention. J Early Interv. 2012;33(4):298-309. doi:10.1177/1053815111429968

  2. Vlasblom E, Boere-Boonekamp MM, Hafkamp-de Groen E, Dusseldorp E, van Dommelen P, Verkerk PH. Predictive validity of developmental milestones for detecting limited intellectual functioningPLoS One. 2019;14(3):e0214475. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0214475

  3. Moreau D, Waldie KE. Developmental Learning Disorders: From Generic Interventions to Individualized Remediation. Front Psychol. 2016;6:2053. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02053

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.