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4.19 Parents with Learning Disabilities


  1. Introduction
  2. Factors Associated with Significant Harm to a Child with a Parent with Learning Difficulties
  3. Issues to Consider where Parents have Learning Disabilities
  4. Intervention with Parents with Learning Disabilities
  5. Support packages for parents with learning difficulties

1. Introduction

1.1 Parents who have learning disabilities may need additional support to assist them with their parenting. Any parent who has been assessed with an IQ of less than 60 is unlikely to be able to parent effectively alone without additional support (McGaw, S. & Newman, T. (2005) What Works for Parents with Learning Disabilities?). Other parents with an IQ in the range 60-80 may find the combination of a learning disability, and the complexity of the tasks (e.g. large numbers of children, children with medical needs) compromises their ability to meet the needs of their children without support.  In addition, parents with learning disabilities who have experienced trauma in their own past are likely to need additional support (Ref: Tymchuk A. J. (1992), Predicting Adequacy of Parenting by People with Mental Retardation in ‘Child Abuse and Neglect’ No 16, pp165 - 178).
1.2 Parents with learning disabilities may also be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by others. For example, they may be targeted by sex offenders.

2. Factors Associated with Significant Harm to a Child with a Parent with Learning Difficulties


Where any of the following exist a Referral should be made to Social Services (see Referral to Social Services Procedure) and an assessment commenced in order to determine whether the needs of the children are being met and what support the parent is likely to need:

  • The parent has been assessed as having an IQ of 60 or less and has few or no supports in their family and social network;
  • The parent(s) are known to have a learning disability and there are other factors which might challenge their ability to care for the child(ren). Such factors will include:
    • A child with their own additional needs;
    • Parental history of trauma / mental ill health;
    • An abusive relationship with their current partner.
  • There is reasonable cause to suspect that known sex offenders are visiting the household.

The Significant Harm threshold is likely to have been reached when:

  • There is evidence that the child’s health or development is being impaired;
  • The parents are unable to meet the needs of the child despite a Child in Need Plan being in place;
  • There is evidence that sex offenders and/or their associates are visiting the household.

3. Issues to Consider where Parents have Learning Disabilities

3.1 Where a parent has a learning disability it does not automatically follow that they will be unable to care for their child. However, parents with learning disabilities may lack the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. Moreover, they frequently experience additional stresses such as having a child with disabilities, Domestic Abuse, poor physical and mental health, substance misuse, social isolation, poor housing, poverty and a history of growing up in care.
3.2 Children of parents with learning disabilities are at increased risk from learning disability and more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems. They may also assume the role of carer for their parents and other siblings. Unless parents with learning disabilities are comprehensively supported (for example by a capable non-abusing relative, such as their own parent or partner) their children’s health and development is likely to be impaired. A further risk of harm to children arises because mothers with learning disabilities may be attractive targets for men who wish to gain access to children for the purpose of sexually abusing them.

Where there are concerns about Significant Harm it is important that care is taken to:

  • Use the ecological model underpinning the Core Assessment process to gather information about the child’s development, the relationship between the child and their parents and the support systems available to the family both from within their own family network and the wider community. Those conducting the enquiries should also be alert to the possible discrimination faced by the family and how their own attitudes and values regarding parents with learning disabilities might affect their assessment;
  • Plan the enquiries carefully paying particular attention to understanding the nature of the learning disability. What is each parent’s level of functioning? It will be important to use colleagues in adult services to assist in the enquiries and it may also be possible to gain further information regarding the parents capabilities via past school records;
  • Make sure that the parent(s) fully understand the enquiry process. Do they need a supporter? Are written materials adapted to be accessible to them?

An overview of the research literature in relation to parents with learning disabilities (McGaw, S. & Newman, T. (2005) What Works for Parents with Learning Disabilities?) should assist those undertaking enquiries. This noted:

  • While the association is ambiguous, there is strong evidence for a genetic link between parental learning disability and child developmental delay;
  • Where families receive insufficient support, genetic vulnerability to developmental delay in children may be compounded by a paucity of environmental stimulation;
  • Behavioural problems, particularly in boys, and corresponding difficulties in parental management may arise when the child’s intellectual capacity exceeds that of their parents;
  • The prevalence of childhood abuse is likely to be greater among parents with learning disabilities than the general population, and this may impact on their ability to parent and safeguard;
  • In the absence of adequate support, a parental IQ <60 can be considered a factor predictive of inadequate parenting;
  • A reasonable supposition is that an adult with an IQ of just >60 but <80 will need additional support. However, these are just indicators and do not replace professional knowledge and judgement;
  • The main predictor of competent parenting is an adequate structure of professional and informal support.

4. Intervention with Parents with Learning Disabilities

4.1 Intervention should always be based on a thorough assessment and take into account the most appropriate method of working with the parents, given their specific needs.
4.2 Plans for intervention should always include methods of evaluating whether the support package is meeting the child’s needs. If there is uncertainty about the parents’ continued capacity to engage with a support package, the plan will need to be delivered within the formal child protection process.
4.3 It is likely that there will need to be planning for long term interventions that adapt and change as the child develops.

A review of the literature (McGaw, S. & Newman, T. (2005) What Works for Parents with Learning Disabilities?) identified the following messages in relation to interventions:

  • Interventions should build on parents’ strengths as well as their vulnerabilities;
  • Interventions should be based on performance rather than knowledge and should incorporate modelling, practice, feedback and praise;
  • Tangible rewards may promote attendance at programmes, rapid acquisition of skills and short-term commitment. Other methods of engagement are needed long term.  Intensive service engagement is more demanding than intermittent service engagement, though it may be more effective;
  • In order for generalisation to occur, programmes should be adaptable to provide training in the actual environments in which the skills are needed;
  • If teaching must be provided out-of-home, it should be in as home-like an environment as possible;
  • Factors which promote resilience in the children’s environment should be identified and enhanced;
  • The importance of family ties should be recognised and no actions taken that damage such ties;
  • Interventions should diminish, rather than cause or contribute to, the social exclusion of the child and parents.
4.5 A review of positive practice in supporting parents with a learning disability noted that they can often be ‘good enough’ parents when provided with ongoing emotional and practical support (Tarleton et al Finding the Right Support: A Review of Issues and Positive Practice in Supporting Parents with Learning Difficulties and Their Children, Bristol: The Baring Foundation).

5. Support Packages for Parents with Learning Difficulties


Easy to Understand Information

  • About all aspects of parenting (The CHANGE Book, You and Your Baby, 2004, is a helpful accessible resource) (Affleck, F., & Baker, S., (2004) You and Your Baby Leeds: CHANGE);
  • On the support available – whether from mainstream services, like maternity services, or a specialist learning disability team;
  • About child protection and judicial process.


  • Parents frequently need advice in multiple areas of their lives, not just around the forthcoming baby. This includes advice on benefits and how to handle problems in relation to poor housing, harassment, and so on.

Skills Teaching

  • And other focussed help as necessary.

Ongoing Support

  • Adapted to changing circumstances as the child gets older and continuing if (and after) a child is adopted.

Consistency and Clarity

  • From the professionals involved about their expectations of them as parents.

Key Working

  • So that parents are not confused by different interventions by different professionals.


  • Whether professional or voluntary, to support parents, particularly if they are involved in child protection or judicial processes.

Informal Support

  • E.g. via a Family Centre ‘drop in’.

Encouragement and Affirmation

  • So that parents can gain the confidence to engage positively with services and demonstrate that they can be good enough parents with support.

Contact with Other Parents

  • For example, through parents’ groups, so that parents can share skills and experiences.

Parent Involvement

  • In the development of new services, training of professionals and other initiatives.