Learning difficulties

This exploration of the issues for parents with learning difficulties explores the barriers and obstacles and brings together developments and good practice from around the country

Parents with learning difficulties may justifiably believe that the odds are stacked against them when it comes to successfully raising their children without the involvement of a range of professionals from health and social care agencies. More adults with learning difficulties are becoming parents and approximately half of them will have their children removed, usually as a result of concerns about their care and upbringing. For professionals the challenges can feel equally daunting; how can they advise and support the parents whilst at the same time fulfilling their responsibilities to safeguard the day to day care, safety and development of the children?

In 2006 the Norah Fry Institute published a report 'Finding the Right Support?' which looked not just at the barriers and obstacles that parents with learning difficulties encounter, but also brought together developments and good practice from around the country.

Barriers to support:

Many parents with learning difficulties feel doubly discriminated against and that all their lives are seen as a failure; that services do not understand them, don't listen to them and don't expect them to succeed. Often there is no professional agreement about what constitutes good enough parenting, different professionals can both praise and criticise the same behaviour with the result that parents have no confidence in themselves or in others and don't know what standards they should be working to. This can be especially evident when there is a change of social worker.

Often parents are only referred to specialist services at the point where court action is considered, up until that moment many families may not have been in contact with traditional learning difficulty services. Few parents with learning difficulties have had much contact with professionals in universal services either and consequently, many workers have little understanding of how much support is required. A general lack of coordination and consistency between services compounds the difficulties.

When parents with learning difficulties do come face to face with professionals, many workers still do not fully understand the impact on parents of having a learning disability and hold a range of negative, stereotypical attitudes, with fixed ideas about what should happen. Many have extremely high expectations and often want a concrete outcome which removes all risk. But they also have differing ideas about parenting, often intervening without giving parent the space to work their way through challenges or failing to provide much needed support when circumstances do become difficult. Consequently many parents hesitate to get involved with services because they feel staff have a negative view of them and just want to take their children away. In a lot of cases referrals to support services are made too late, when things have already reached crisis point.

To counteract all this, mainstream services need to be better prepared and more aware of ways to identify and support people with learning difficulties. Workers need to act as interpreters, advocates, mediators and gateways to support. Measures such as proactive working across a wide range of professionals, including solicitors and health workers, holding information days, providing multi agency training and developing protocols need to take place. Successful examples include nurses who have made links with local health visitors and midwives and visits to children and families teams to talk to social workers. Practice tools have been developed to help staff identify a vulnerable parent and then to identify sources of support. By doing this, the needs of parents with learning difficulties are made more visible to other professionals, leading to more awareness and a better understanding.


Early identification in mainstream services is vital if parents are to have the best chance of support and progress. This means working on guidance and joint protocols for staff on how to support parents, producing easy to understand information and advice and closer work with all the maternity services. The role of the midwife can be a crucial link, especially if they work jointly with learning disability professionals and the parents. Midwives and health visitors also have an important role to play in anticipating or identifying any risk of harm to the infant.

Easy to understand information and advice about sexual relationships, pregnancy and parenting should be available to young people with learning difficulties in school or other settings. Once the pregnancy is confirmed, the parents should be encouraged to make contact with health care and other professionals as early as possible. At this point both the midwife and the community nurse can be involved and work on developing baby care skills and planning ahead. Parents with learning difficulties don't always feel comfortable in general ante natal classes or perhaps too little is offered too late. If separate provision is available it can help to alleviate the parents' fears that the professionals are only there to remove their babies.

Support is especially important at three key stages of the child's life; when the baby becomes a toddler, when they begin to assert their own authority at age seven or eight years and when the child became an adolescent. This is what parents with learning difficulties ask for help with:

And help with transport, paperwork, understanding big words, managing finances and practical tasks around the home, and dealing with harassment, bullying and protecting themselves.

The Child Protection System:

There has been criticism that the child protection system places parents with learning difficulties at a disadvantage by setting up a vicious cycle where the support that is given to help them reach a certain level is then withdrawn, only to result in a failure to meet and maintain expectations. Pressure to place children for adoption at an earlier stage adds to the perceived struggle to keep their child.

Parents can be further disadvantaged by the court and the judicial processes, which work on the basis of rules and evidence. Usually there is very limited support and advocacy available for parents with learning difficulties and their lack of understanding can compound the difficulties. There is also some evidence that parents with learning difficulties are judged by stricter criteria and evidence is used against them that would not be used against other parents. If they have received support and then fail, then they tend to be blamed rather than the support service. The parents themselves, on the most part, assume that social workers just want to remove their children and see them as holding all the power.

However the study highlights the many ways in which some of these obstacles have been addressed and practice changed.

Ideally all parents should have access to an advocate who will have developed a range of strategies to improve the parents' experience. A good advocate will remind people to communicate clearly, help parents to speak or speak on their behalf, make sure they have time to read and understand reports and have had an opportunity to put forward their own point of view and will remind parents of information that others need to hear. They can also keep records of meetings and conversations, copies of information, make notes for parents and take on a role in engaging and briefing solicitors. In addition they can provide emotional support, anticipate what will happen in court so as to prepare parents, visit the court with them beforehand and if the solicitor thinks the child will be taken into care, the advocate will say so and help them face this possibility.

Other examples of ways to help parents with learning difficulties include developing a range of communication methods which they find easy to understand such as videos or leaflets, finding out which words the parents can read and understand and always using them, trying to make the environment more friendly and relaxed and providing pictures of each professional involved in meetings or conferences.

In court proceedings the following points are helpful:

Parenting with support:

What emerges from the study is the conviction that parents with learning difficulties can be good enough parents, but they need more time than most parents to learn new skills and more support to do so. The best way is to help them understand what is required of them so they can care for their own children and carry out their responsibilities. At the same time, they should be eligible in their own right for resources and services which they need to help them in their role as parents, finding ways to build confidence, self esteem and opportunities to make choices. Workers from adult services recognise that they may be there for life, workers in children's services may see it differently.