23.23 Families where a Parent has a Learning Difficulty

  1. Introduction

There is increasing awareness of families where one or both Parents have learning difficulties which may impact on their ability to meet the care needs of their child and the need to increase effectiveness of assessment, communication and joint working between professionals from different agencies, if Parents are to be adequately supported and children protected. The child’s needs must always be paramount, and it needs to be understood that support for the adult as parent or carer will in turn support the child. Taking a whole family approach enables universal services and adult and children’s services to work together to offer coordinated support to help families overcome challenges and to work towards positive outcomes for all concerned.


    2. Definition of Learning Difficulty. 

The definition of “learning difficulty” will be based on the Department of Health definition set out in The White Paper ‘Valuing People’ (2001)¹

  • A significantly reduced ability to understand new and complex information, to learn new skills, with;
  • A reduced ability to cope independently (impairment of adaptive and social functioning)
  • Which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development

This is considered a ‘pervasive’ definition of learning disability and must be differentiated from a ‘learning difficulty’ which describes a range of conditions such as dyslexia which can lead to special educational needs.


  1. Impact of a Parental learning difficulty

The learning difficulties of a Parent or carer does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child but it is essential to assess the implications this may have on them.

Where a Parent has a learning difficulty it is important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning difficulty does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills. Parents with learning difficulties can often meet their child’s needs when support that may be required is put in place.

Some Parents with learning difficulties may only need short-term support, such as help with looking after a new baby or learning about child development and childcare tasks. Other Parents, however, may need on-going support. Parents may also need support at various different points of their family's life cycle as the developmental needs of a child changes.  


  1. Duty to Refer

Staff in any agency must make a referral to Surrey Children's Services if it is believed or suspected that:

  • A child is suffering or is likely to suffer Significant Harm; or
  • A child's health or development may be impaired without the provision of services; or
  • With the agreement of the person with Parental Responsibility, a child would be likely to benefit from family support services.

Where a Parent(s) with a learning difficulty appears not to be able to meet her/his child's needs, a referral should be made to Surrey Children's Services, which has a responsibility to assess need and where justified, offer supportive or protective services - see the Contacts and Referrals Procedure.


  1. Pre-Birth Support

It is important for support needs to be recognised at the early stages of the parenting experience. If possible, identification of needs should start when a pregnancy is confirmed. Where a person with a learning difficulty is pregnant, an early assessment and intervention is essential to ensure support is in place well before birth, with the immediate and long-term impact on the woman and child considered as needs change. This assessment should consider strengths and the nature of any support available from family and partner.

Where a person with a learning difficulty is pregnant and it appears may not be able to meet the future needs of their child, then a referral needs to be made at the earliest opportunity.


  1. Equal Opportunities

When making any assessment or referral it is important to be reminded that research shows that assessments are sometimes influenced by stereotypes about the capacity of parents with a learning disability to parent.

When approaching any assessment, it is important to be reminded that:

“People with learning disability have the same rights and are entitled to the same expectations and choices as everyone else, regardless of the extent or nature of the disability, their gender and ethnicity.” 

“Parents with learning disability can in many cases be supported by family and supportive networks and professionals, enabling them to respond effectively to the needs of their children”  (DOH 2000)². 

Professionals should bear in mind the implications of the Human Rights Act 1998³ and guard against treating parents with Learning Disability less favourably than others.



³ https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/42/contents

This page is correct as printed on Friday 24th of May 2024 02:24:32 PM please refer back to this website (http://surreyscb.procedures.org.uk) for updates.