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2.2.14 Parental Learning Disability


  1. Definition
  2. Recognition of Learning Disability
  3. Pre-birth Need for Multi-Agency Support
  4. Post Birth of a Child
  5. Further Guidance

1. Definition

Some people with ‘learning disabilities’ prefer to refer to themselves as having learning difficulties; other people have difficulties in learning but do not meet the core criteria for an individual to be described as ‘learning disabled’. The term ‘learning disability’ does not therefore describe a homogenous group.

For the purposes of these procedures, ‘parental learning disability’ refers to adults who are, or may become parents / carers for children and who meet the 3 core criteria which describe an individual as ‘learning disabled’, i.e:

  • Significant impairment of intellectual functioning: individuals with an IQ of 69 and below (reference: British Psychological Society and legal system) – this is not a hard and fast rule; overall IQ scores can be subject to interpretation either way for a variety of clinical reasons – interpretations of psychometric test scores are the remit of a chartered psychologist;
  • Significant impairment of adaptive / social functioning: i.e. how an individual copes with every-day demands of community living; impairment of adaptive / social functioning might be considered to be present if s/he needs assistance with survival (eating, drinking, clothing, hygiene and provision of basic comforts) or with social problem solving and social reasoning;
  • Age of onset before adulthood: in order for an individual to be considered as ‘learning disabled’, impairment i.e. of intellectual adaptive / social functioning usually needs to have been present before the age of 18 years.

2. Recognition of Learning Disability

It is not always clear whether or not a parent / carer has a learning disability, and the following may assist recognition:

  • Reference to medical records can offer evidence;
  • Personal history involving attendance at special schools;
  • Severe difficulties with literacy and/or numeracy;
  • Reference to educational records (where it is less than 5 years since leaving school) can also provide evidence e.g. Statement of Special Education Needs;
  • Enquiries made of the learning disability register maintained by Adult Social Care;
  • A referral to a clinical psychologist.

As with any parent, the ability of those who have a learning disability to provide a reasonable standard of care will depend on their own individual abilities, circumstances and the individual needs of the particular child.

Learning disabled parents may also experience additional stressors e.g. having a disabled child, domestic abuse, poor physical or mental health, substance misuse, social isolation, poor housing, poverty and a history of growing up in care. Such stressors, when combined with parental learning disability, are more likely to lead to concerns about the care of children.

Parents with a learning disability may therefore need positive ‘whole family’ support to develop sufficient understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their child. With effective, sustained support over time adjusted to meet the changing developmental needs of a growing family, learning disabled parents are potentially able to provide good enough care (see research ‘Finding the Right Help' (Dec 2008)).

‘Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010’ (Paragraph 9.21) (now archived) reminds professionals that children of parents with learning disabilities are at increased risk from inherited learning disability and more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems.

Children of parents with learning disabilities may assume some level of responsibility of looking after their parent and /or siblings, one or more of whom may be learning disabled.

Individuals who may pose a risk to children sometimes target parents with learning disabilities; in these situations the children could be vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

3. Pre-Birth Need for Multi-Agency Support

It is important to assess the needs and provide support for learning disabled parents as early as possible. To ensure that parents are able to understand what is happening and why, and are able to participate meaningfully, consideration should be given to the involvement of an independent advocate.

The GP and midwife should consider making referrals to the community team for people with learning disabilities Kent (CTPLD) / Medway Service to Adults with a Learning Disability (hereafter referred to as MSALD) for a joint assessment of the pregnant woman’s needs, capacity for self care and to provide adequate care for the baby. This assessment should consider the nature of any support available from family and partner, taking advice from the CTPLD or MSALD.

If any professional or agency has any concerns about the capacity of the pregnant woman and her partner to self-care and/or care for the baby, a referral should be made to Local Authority Children’s Services (see Reducing the Risks to Babies Procedure).

Subsequent assessment should be in accordance with pre-birth procedures, but the involvement of the CTPLD is essential if the prospective parent meets that teams eligibility criteria.

4. Post Birth of a Child

Where evidence of a learning disability is present in one or both parents, the paramount consideration of all the agencies will be the welfare and protection of the child/ren with each service providing assessment and support directed at the family members identified as the primary focus of that service’s provision.

If any professional or agency has any concerns about the capacity of the parent/s to self-care and/or to care for the child, a referral should be made to Local Authority Children’s Services in line with normal procedures.

The response should be the same as for any other child, using the local Assessment Framework to consider the extent of child/ren’s vulnerability. Additional specialist assessments may be helpful in determining how best to help support parents. The paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child/ren.

Assessments of learning disabled parents will need to integrate specialist assessment functions provided by the CTPLD, MSALD, Adults’ Social Care and health services.

Additional support to child protection professionals in the way of consultation and/or supervision may also be available from specialist adult services both within Local Authority Children’s Services, CTPLD, MSALD and elsewhere in health in particularly complex cases.

Parents with learning difficulties are likely to require long term support to be able to meet their child’s needs. Where this cannot be provided within the family or community, the parent is likely to require support from professionals. ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010’ (Paragraph 9.66) (now archived) refers to a study that found that group education combined with home based support increased parenting capacity.

5. Further Guidance

See also ‘Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability’ (DH, June 2007).