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A learning difficulty is a permanent life-long condition, which is defined by the Department of Health as:

  • A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence);
  • A reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning), which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.

However, many people who have a diagnosed learning difficulty prefer to use the term ‘learning difficulty’. They feel that the term ’learning disability’ implies that they cannot learn at all. Therefore we use the term ‘learning difficulty’ throughout this chapter unless quoting from or referring to legal or regulatory definitions.

There is a far wider group of parents with learning difficulties, who do not have a diagnosis and would not generally fit the eligibility criteria for support services in their own right. These parents often recognise that they need practical support and help to enable them to learn to be the best parents possible.

There is no direct link between IQ and parenting ability above the IQ level of 60. Parents with learning difficulties face a wide range of barriers to bringing up their children successfully. There should not be an assumption that a parent with learning difficulties will not be able to safeguard their children.

The needs of parents with learning difficulties include the ability to meet a child’s needs, as well as their own; personal care of the child; preparation of meals and drinks; attending to the child’s health and emotional needs; parental involvement in indoor and outdoor play; support in education.

NB. Practitioners working with adults should identify at an early stage the adult’s relationship with any children and apply the principles outlined within this guidance and any other locally derived protocols or procedures which support the delivery of this section.


  • Does the child take on roles and responsibilities within the home that are inappropriate?
  • Does the parent/carer neglect their own and their child’s physical and emotional needs?
  • Does the learning difficulty result in chaotic structures within the home with regard to meal and bedtimes, etc.?
  • Is there a lack of the recognition of safety for the child, including risks posed by dangerous adults and exposure to social media;
  • Does the parent/carer’s learning difficulty have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc?
  • Does the parent/carer’s learning difficulty result in them rejecting or being emotionally unavailable to the child?
  • Does the wider family understand the learning difficulty of the parent/carer, and the impact of this on the parent/carer’s ability to meet the child’s needs?
  • Is the wider family able and willing to support the parent/carer so that the child’s needs are met?
  • Does culture, ethnicity, religion or any other factor relating to the family have implications on their understanding of the learning difficulty and the potential impact on the child?
  • Is the parent/carer vulnerable to being exploited by other people e.g. financially, providing accommodation?
  • Does the parent/carer have difficulty developing and sustaining relationships or have relationships that may present a risk to the child?
  • Does the parent have a limited understanding of the child’s needs and development including pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for an infant?
  • Does the parent/carer have difficulty accessing health care and other support for themselves or the child?
  • In relation to pregnant women, should a pre-birth assessment be arranged?

Practitioners undertaking assessments must recognise that a learning difficulty is a lifelong condition. Assessments must therefore consider the implications for the child as they develop throughout childhood and will need to re-evaluate the child’s circumstances from time to time. Children may exceed their parent’s intellectual and social functioning at a relatively young age.

An holistic assessment will consider whether other risk factors such as mental ill health, substance misuse, domestic violence, family history and family functioning are evident alongside the impact of the learning difficulty.


Parents with learning difficulties are at risk of falling through the gap between the provision of services for children and the provision of services for adults, if the services fail to coordinate effectively. As a result, some parents may miss out on support services that they need in order to prevent problems from arising. Early help and Family support services should be considered at an early stage in order to prevent future risks to the child and to promote the child’s welfare.

The context in which people with learning difficulties have children is one that has been dominated by the perception of risk and the assumption that parenting will not be good enough. Adults with learning disabilities may need support to develop the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. This will be particularly necessary if they are experiencing additional difficulties such as domestic violence, poor physical or mental health, having a disabled child, substance misuse, social isolation, poor housing or poverty.

learning difficulties

Neglect through acts of omission rather than commission is a frequently stated concern, ultimately it is the quality of care experienced by the child which determines whether the parenting capacity can be regarded as sufficient and whether   or not a referral should be made for an assessment by Children's social care.

Similarly, women with learning difficulties may be vulnerable adults and targets for men who wish to gain access to children for the purpose of sexually abusing them.

Children of learning disabled parents are at increased risk from inherited learning difficulty, psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems. The presence of such factors will add additional pressures for parents.

Children may end up taking increasing responsibility for caring for themselves and, at times, for their siblings, parents and other family members.

Confidentiality and Sharing Information

Confidentiality can never be an absolute principle and it is generally accepted that where children need protecting, their needs are paramount and information may be shared without their parents’/carers’ permission. It is critical that all practitioners working with adults, children and young people are in no doubt that where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child or young person may be suffering significant harm or may be at risk of suffering significant harm, they should always consider referring their concerns to social care. Practitioners should seek to discuss any concerns with the family and, where possible, seek their agreement to making referrals to Children’s Social Care.

This should only be done where such discussion and agreement seeking will not place a child at increased risk of significant harm. The child’s interest must be the overriding consideration in making any such decisions.

Where a child is not suffering significant harm, parental permission is still needed for the sharing of information. This should be raised with parents at the beginning of professional involvement following agency guidelines, with emphasis on the help and support which can be accessed by the family as a result of sharing information with other agencies. In the process of finding out what is happening to the child, it is important to take into consideration their wishes and feelings.

The Overarching Information Sharing Protocol (OAISP) for the Pan-Dorset area and other Information Sharing Protocols may also give a framework to support this.

Each agency/organisation will have its own system with regards to undertaking an assessment using the Common Assessment Framework (CAF)/ Early Help assessment. Parents should be asked if one has already been done and if so, it will mean that they have agreed to information being shared.

Practitioners should be aware of any protection plan around family members e.g. MAPPA, Child Protection Plans, MARAC, Vulnerable Adult Meetings and identify the need to be involved in those processes. These should be clearly documented with in the adults or child’s records.

Practitioners should always be mindful of risk and any risk assessment process and documentation should always be continually reviewed and updated to ensure that the information is always current and live.

Protection and Action to be Taken

Where a parent with learning difficulties appears not to be able to meet her/his child's needs, a decision will be needed as to the level of service which will be able to support the parents. The Threshold Criteria documents will support practitioners in this decision. In some cases a referral should be made to Children's social care in line with the Referrals Procedure, which has a responsibility to assess need and where necessary, offer supportive or protective services.

Children's social care, Adult Services and other agencies must undertake a multi-disciplinary assessment using the Assessment Framework, including specialist learning difficulty and other assessments, to determine whether or not the parents with learning difficulties require support to enable them to care for the child or whether the level of learning difficulty is such that it will impair the health or development of the child for an adult with learning difficulties to be the primary carer.

A Pathway for referrals to specialist services is being developed and will be available in the next update of this policy, but for now Children’s Services and Adult Services practitioners need to work together to access the right assessment for parents where the assessment of risk to the child indicates the need for an assessment of parenting capacity.

All agencies must recognise that their primary concern is to ensure the promotion of the child's welfare, including their protection.


Parents with learning difficulties may need long-term support, which will need to change and adapt as the developmental needs of a child changes as they grow.

Resources will need to be adapted to work with parents may find it difficult to use written information. They may face a multiplicity of other difficulties and there is the potential for a wide range of practitioners to be involved in their lives.

The safeguarding system can appear very daunting for parents with learning difficulty, and consideration should therefore be given to supporting them throughout this process, including the use of an advocate.

Learning from a Multi-Agency Case Audit (MACA L) has indicated that where there is long-term involvement with families professionals should ensure that there are opportunities to stop and reflect on understanding the history, child’s experience and all agencies assessments. A good chronology is an essential part of this reflection. This opportunity allows for thought to be given to the impact of cumulative or repeat risks the children may be experiencing. These reflections and planning from them should not be resource-led but should allow creative thinking about the ways in which needs can be met.

Amendments to this Chapter

February 2015: A new section has been added: Confidentiality and Sharing Information. This emphasises that confidentiality can never be an absolute principle and that where children need protecting, their needs are paramount and information may be shared without their parents’/carers’ permission. It is critical that all practitioners working with adults, children and young people are in no doubt that where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child or young person may be suffering significant harm or may be at risk of suffering significant harm, they should always consider referring their concerns to social care.