3.3.5 Children of Parents with Learning Difficulties

The Protocol Communities Joint Learning Disabilities Services and Physical Disability and Sensory Impairment Service and the Children & Families Fieldwork Service and Multi Agency Support Services currently sits in the document library (see Sheffield Children's Services Procedure Manual, Documents Library).


Section 3, Indicators was updated in March 2022 to include information in relation to pre-birth assessments and planning. Links were updated in Section 7, Further Information.

1. Definition

A learning disability 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 disability prefer to use the term 'learning difficulty'. They feel that the term 'learning disability' implies that they cannot learn at all.

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 parenting ability and IQ level unless it is less than 60. Parents with learning difficulties face a wide range of barriers to bringing up their children successfully.

The needs of parents with learning disabilities 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 needs; parental involvement in indoor and outdoor play; support in education.

Where a parent has a learning disability it will be important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning disability does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills.

Some parents with learning disabilities will only need short-term support, such as help with looking after a new baby or learning about child development and childcare tasks. Others, however, will need on-going support. Most may need support at various different points of their family's life cycle.

2. Issues

Parents with learning disabilities 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 disabilities 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.

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.

With Neglect (and other parenting issues) the Parent Assessment Manual (PAMs) is a tool which can be used by children's social care to provide a comprehensive assessment of parenting capacity identifying strengths, as well as areas where further support is needed, by observing parents undertaking a range of tasks.

Similarly, women with learning disabilities may be Adults at Risk and targets for men who wish to gain access to children for the purpose of sexually abusing them.

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

A learning disability is a lifelong condition. 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. 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.

3. Indicators

  • 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 disability 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?
  • Does the parent/carer misuse alcohol or other substances?
  • Does the parent/carer's learning disability have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc?
  • Does the parent/carer's learning disability result in them rejecting or being emotionally unavailable to the child?
  • Does the child witness acts of violence or is the child subject to violence?
  • Does the wider family understand the learning disability 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 disability and the potential impact on the child?
  • How the family functions, including conflict, potential family break up etc.;
  • 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 poor parenting experiences from their own parents as a child?
  • 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?  Where pre-birth involvement is a result of the mother's learning difficulties causing uncertainty as to her ability to meet the needs of the child once born, the Court of Appeal in D (A Child) [2021] EWCA Civ 787 stressed the importance of effective planning during the pregnancy for the baby's arrival, and of taking adequate steps to ensure that the mother understands what is happening and is able to present her case.

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

Where a parent with learning disabilities appears not to be able to meet her/his child's needs, a referral should be made to Children's services in line with the Threshold Document – Continuum of Help and Support, and they have a responsibility to assess need and where necessary, offer supportive or protective services.

Children's social care, Adult Services, where eligibility is determined, and other agencies must undertake a multi-disciplinary assessment using the Assessment Framework triangle and Signs of Safety, including specialist learning disability, where eligibility has been determined and other assessments, to determine whether or not the parents with learning disabilities require support to enable them to care for the child or whether the level of learning disability is such that it will impair the health or development of the child for an adult with learning disabilities to be the primary carer. Assessments involving families affected by parental learning disability, where eligibility has been determined, should always include specialist input concerning the impact of learning disability.

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

It is important that services understand who is to take the lead on assessments:

  • Where there are no welfare concerns but adults need assistance with routine tasks of looking after children, adult learning disability services, where eligibility has been determined, should take the lead on assessment and care planning;
  • Where parents need support in the medium to long term adult learning disability, where eligibility has been determined and children's services jointly co-ordinate assessment and care planning;
  • Where intervention is required to prevent children suffering impairment to their health or development or significant harm, children's services lead assessment and planning with specialised input from adult learning disability services, where eligibility is determined.

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.

It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care, which do not, however, meet the threshold of significant harm to a child, subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent. It is important to recognise low levels of need, which, if unaddressed, are likely to lead to difficulties for parents and undermine children's welfare.

Where section 47 enquiries conclude that a child is not at risk, or not at continuing risk, of significant harm it will be important that action is taken to prevent future problems arising.

5. Good Practice

The case of A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) [2017] EWFC B94 highlighted the question of whether the parenting that can be offered is good enough if support is provided. However, this obligation does not extend to support that is tantamount to substituted parenting.

There are five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities:

  • Accessible information and communication;
  • Clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures and processes, eligibility criteria and care pathways;
  • Support designed to meet the needs of parents and children based on assessments of their needs and strengths;
  • Long-term support where necessary;
  • Access to independent advocacy.

The case highlighted the need for specialist:

Training - specialist training on dealing with parents with a learning disability, emphasising how best to work with the parents and how to deliver the right support.

Accessible information and communication:

Communication – communicating with parents in a way they understand.

This may include:

  • Taking more time to explain things;
  • Telling parents things more than once and checking their understanding of what has been said;
  • Considering in advance how best to prepare for meetings, and discussing with parents having an Advocate to support them to prepare for the meeting and take part in it;
  • Hands-on approaches, such as role-play, modelling, and filming tasks being completed;
  • Step by step pictures showing how to undertake a task;
  • Repeating tasks regularly and providing opportunities for frequent practice;
  • Use of 'props', for example, containers which will hold the right amount of milk.

Parents should be told, in plain language, what the assessment is, what it is for, what it will involve, and what will happen afterwards. They may need to be told more than once, for example, a parent may need to be reminded what happened at the last meeting.

Accessible information

Information about universal services made available to parents and prospective parents should be in formats suitable for people with learning disabilities. This may include:

  • Easy Read versions of leaflets, avoiding the use of jargon;
  • Audio and/or visual information on CD/DVD/MP3;
  • Fully accessible websites;
  • Creating opportunities to tell people with learning disabilities, face-to-face, about services for parents and parents-to-be;
  • 'Word banks' of words that parents can read and understand, to be used in written communications with the parents.

6. Findings from Research

Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (Working Together with Parents Network) identifies the following:

  • Self-directed learning can bring about long-term improvement in parenting skills;
  • Group education combined with home-based intervention is more effective than either home-based intervention or a group education programme on its own;
  • Parents with learning disabilities value both advocacy services and those which support self-advocacy;
  • Good co-ordination and communication between children's and adult services is key to effective interventions;
  • Preventative approaches are key to safeguarding and promoting children's welfare;
  • Interventions should build on parents' strengths as well as addressing 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 effective than intermittent service engagement;
  • Programmes should be adapted to the actual environment in which the skills are needed in order to enable parents to generalise their learning;
  • Teaching should be in the home if possible and if not, in as home-like an environment as possible;
  • Factors in the family's environment which promote children's resilience should be identified and enhanced;
  • The importance of family ties (for most – though not all – parents and their children) should be recognised and no actions taken that damage such ties;
  • Interventions should increase the family's experience of social inclusion rather than cause or contribute to their social exclusion.