Cognitive learning barriers encompass the limitations people possess in the areas of cognitive functioning and skills which include conceptual, social, and practical skills (Frederickson & Cline, 2015). All of these are related to the educational skills that students need in the classroom. All students are capable of learning, but students who have cognitive learning barriers are likely to need more time to learn and develop certain skills, and there may be certain things they cannot learn, depending on the severity of their learning barrier (Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities, 2020).

Cognitive learning barriers are wide-ranging and according to WebAIM (2020), following functional categories, can “include difficulties with: memory; problem-solving; attention; reading, linguistic, and verbal comprehension; math comprehension and visual comprehension.” Some of these categories are related to specific learning barriers, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or ADHD, whereas others are connected more to general cognitive learning barriers. In clinical terms, cognitive learning barriers can also include students who were diagnosed with ASD, Down Syndrome or Traumatic Brain Injury (WebAIM, 2020).

The Wigan Council (2015) points out that “learning needs are on a continuum and can vary across subjects and situations.” Some students may struggle to keep up with the learning pace of their peers regardless of the differentiation strategies used by their teachers.

Cognitive learning barriers range from mild to severe and can affect only one area of learning or multiple areas, so it is important to see the students as individuals with specific strengths and challenges, and they should be given the time and necessary resources to learn and develop at their own pace (Frederickson & Cline, 2015). If tasks or situations are increasingly too difficult or overwhelming for the student, it can lead to cognitive stress and overload, so they should be adapted to match the students’ skills (TKI, n.d.). Moreover, it is essential to look at children’s adaptive behaviour, their daily living, communication, and social skills as they can change over time, and the support they need at school, home, or in the community may be reduced as children continue to grow and learn (Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities, 2020).


Emotional barriers to learning describe the challenges that relate to students’ emotional well-being. Since a classroom is an emotional setting (Trezise, 2017), there is a wide span of emotions that the individuals can face such as enjoyment, anger, fear, anxiety, boredom, pride, hope, or shame (Pekrun, Goetz, & Perry, 2002). The emotional experiences of the students can influence their ability to learn, their engagement, motivation, career choices, and etc. (Trezise, 2017).

According to Nash and Schlösser (2014), the most common emotional learning barriers occur due to:

  • peer pressure
  • fear of failure, judgement, rejection,
  • emotional sensitivity (students become overwhelmed and lose control of their emotions)
  • adjustment to change (changes in the classroom, family, etc.)
  • shame (learners could feel that their work is not as good as others, hence do not even try to succeed).

Students’ emotions can be affected by external factors (e.g., home environment, social interactions), classroom factors (e.g., curriculum content, environment), and individual differences between students (e.g., genetic factors, general tendencies) (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014). They can then manifest themselves in different ways, some of them can be seen and others cannot. If the student internalises their emotional response, for example, they become withdrawn or depressed, it may not always be visible to the supporting adult. However, if the student externalizes their emotional response, it is more likely that the supporting adult might notice, as the student puts their emotions on display and can become disruptive in the classroom (Bowie, 2010).

According to Hansen and Zambo (2006), “positive emotions enhance learning; whereas negative ones, like fear or sadness, can hinder learning and success in school” (p.274). As a consequence, emotions have a large role in the classroom and affect students overall academic performance, motivation, engagement and behaviour (Underwood, 2009).

Most of the time in traditional classrooms, educators solely focus on the academic part of education and perceive students’ responses to what has been taught and the emotional state of students is only taken into consideration as a secondary side effect (Underwood, 2009). However, emotions are not just “the positive or negative side-effects of learning. On the contrary, they are conceived as an integral part of learning in close interaction with conative and cognitive processes” (Eynde, & Turner, 2006, p.362). Understanding the role of emotions in the classroom will lead to understanding the motivation and behaviour of students which will then lead to empowering the academic success of students. Meyer and Turner (2006), believe that “engaging students in learning requires consistently positive emotional experiences, which contribute to a classroom climate that forms the foundation for teacher-student relationships and interactions necessary for motivation to learn” (p. 377).

Whilst educators are aware of the emotional state of their students, they are more aware of the needs of the students which directly contribute towards the inclusion of each student in the classroom and create a learning platform where these emotions can be affected positively (Underwood, 2009).

It is important for educators to acknowledge, label and validate emotions together with the pupils. For some students with pre-existing learning disabilities, emotion regulation can be difficult, especially in certain social situations. Therefore, it is crucial for educators to not only offer experiences that lead to positive emotions but to build an understanding of the role emotions play in our lives as humans together with the students (LaRose, Thoron & Colclasure, 2016).


An environmental barrier to learning indicates any obstacle in the surrounding of a child that can negatively influence their learning and behaviour. Bronfenbrenner explains that child development is influenced by four “complex” layers of environment that influence each other, and are also known as:

  • microsystem; the closest layer to the child that includes relationships with the immediate surrounding, for instance, family, school, and neighbourhood,
  • mesosystem; indicates the connections between microsystems, therefore family-school relationship,
  • exosystem; can, for instance, be the parents’ working schedule, which the child may not be directly involved with, but still be influenced by, and
  • macrosystem; formed by the culture of the child (Berk, 2000; Vest Ettekal & Mahoney, 2017).

Moving towards a school context, which can be identified in the microsystem layer, different aspects can be considered as an environmental barrier, and according to research examples can be classroom management, size, time, space, resources available, teacher-student ratio, etc. (DaRosa et al., 2011; Moore & Hansen, 2012).

These learning barriers are a possible outcome of an unsafe classroom environment since the students will not feel successfully involved, engaged and valued in their learning. As a consequence, this could lead to negative behaviour, not participating in classroom discussions, or a weak connection between the student and teacher (Polirstok, 2015).

Creating a positive and engaging classroom atmosphere is one of the most powerful tools teachers can use to encourage students’ learning in all academic settings, prevent problem behaviours from occurring, have a better classroom discipline, and give an opportunity to students to be engaged and interested in the lessons (Conroy, Sutherland, Snyder, Al-Hendawi & Vo, 2009; Fraser & Pickett, 2010).

Overcoming an environmental learning barrier has a strong impact in creating an emotionally safe classroom environment where students can reach their full potential, and a stronger connection between teacher and student can be developed (Polirstok, 2015).


To understand what a cultural barrier to learning is, it is important to have a better overview of the definition of culture. According to Nunez, Nunez Mahdi, and Popma (2017), culture outlines how people perceive, interpret, and judge their world, that as a consequence leads to having a variety of perspectives. Acknowledging the fact that people view the world differently, it is now possible to gain a deeper understanding of when a cultural barrier to learning can occur. In the classroom and/or school, students or teachers with experience of different cultural contexts  may find it challenging to understand, accept, or recognise each other’s perspectives. (Vulcan, 2018).

According to research, the most common cultural barriers that can affect one’s learning manifest with communication, and are related to:

  • language: the meaning and interpretation of words and signs,
  • order: the behaviour based on a sense of logic,
  • persons: the relationship between the speakers
  • organisation: the context of the communication
  • intention and Influence: the aim and the motives of the conversation (Nunez et al., 2017).

In addition,  students and teachers with global trans-cultural backgrounds (Lijadi, 2014) cannot be ‘interpreted’ by previous cultural competence models that are based on an individuals  with one cultural perspective. Overcoming cultural barriers is important since children’s positive or negative behaviour and learning is influenced by their cultural framework, and that is part of the foundation for children to interact, understand, and respect others (Bal, Thorius, & Kozleski, 2012). Furthermore, part of the process of becoming educated, from both teacher and student perspective, is to respect and embrace each other’s cultural background by responding in culturally sensitive ways (Nunez et al., 2017).


According to Friedman (2018), a language learning barrier is defined as “the lack of a common language that prevents two or more people from speaking to or understanding each other through verbal communication.”   Three major language barriers to learning that can be observed in a school context will be explored in more detail in this section. Firstly, students that are exposed to English as an additional language can encounter challenges according to their proficiency, in communicating and understanding (Sepulveda, 1973). Secondly, according to Elsworth (2017), parents or tutors that are not fluent themselves in the language spoken at school, might not be fully involved in the student’s performance due to a lack of communication with the teacher. Thirdly, barriers can occur when the speaker, in this case, teacher, student, or parent, adopts an inappropriate level of language, informal or formal, in the wrong context and therefore respect for the other is not taken into consideration (Usha Rani, 2016).

According to Lantolf, Thorne, and Poehner (2015), when students or parents face a language barrier to learning they are unable to have a strong connection to the teacher, the peers, the community, and themselves. The latter one, relating to self-identity, indicates difficulty in freely expressing thoughts, emotions, and feelings (Imberti, 2007).

Children who might have left their home country for political reasons, children of parents that have moved to another country to work, and children that speak a different language at home from the school one, might be some of the reasons for a language barrier to learning (Arnot, Schneider, Evans, Liu, Welply, & Davies Tutt, 2014).

In order to overcome the learning barrier, according to Tomlinson (2014), the teacher should aim to meet the students’ needs according to their proficiency and ability through differentiated instruction.

A language learning barrier is important to address in a school setting since “language in all its forms is the most pervasive and powerful cultural artefact that humans possess to mediate their connection to the world, to each other, and to themselves” (Lantolf et al., 2015, p. 5). A student unable to communicate due to a language barrier could encounter difficulties in understanding the academics, participating in class, and interacting with peers, becoming an obstacle to learning. Therefore, language learning barriers must be taken into consideration when teaching (Friedman, 2018).


The Mental Health Foundation (2008) notes that mental health is defined by how individuals perceive themselves and their life (e.g., feel, act) and that it affects how individuals cope in times of adversities (e.g., stress, making decisions). It could be said that mental health affects the way an individual functions and is able to participate with their family, community, and peers. Some experiences, genetic characteristics, personality traits or socio-economic circumstances can influence individuals in developing mental health difficulties. These difficulties may contribute to negative experiences of learning and fear of discrimination which could then lead to more serious learning barriers (Lean, Colucci, & Fullan, 2010). Understanding the interplay between these factors and the unique way in which they combine to create barriers for an individual, could be key to enabling learners to overcome those barriers and succeed in learning (Bhugra, Till, & Sartorius, 2013).

Good mental health is crucial to the child’s success in school and life. According to research, students who receive mental health and social-emotional support achieve better academically. When the mental health needs of students are properly addressed, not only do academic competencies increase, but problematic behaviours decrease, the relationships surrounding the child improve and overall positive changes in the classroom climate can be observed (Kavita Kiran, 2015). Most estimates suggest that 10 to 20 per cent of children and youth struggle with mental health difficulties. This could mean that in a classroom of thirty students, five or six students may be experiencing a mental health problem, and three or four of them may have a problem that significantly interferes with their daily life (Schulte-Körne, 2016). It is important that schools are aware of these difficulties, that they include school-based professionals, and encourage mental health interventions within the classrooms (Kavita Kiran, 2015).


Physical learning barriers, “describe a wide range of physical limitations and diagnoses” (Disability Resources Division of Student Affairs, 2020), which lead to one losing parts or entire bodily functions that “predominantly interfere with one’s day to day activities to such an extent that special services, training, equipment, materials and/or facilities are required.” (Ishmael, 2015, p. 62)

The most known and visible physical learning barriers include people who rely on the use of a wheelchair or other mobility device (Disability Resources Division of Student Affairs, 2020). Other physical learning barriers are almost invisible such as sensory impairments, which include both visual and auditory impairments or speech and communication difficulties. The common element, between the different physical learning barriers previously mentioned, is that they often lead to a lack of access which can be wide-ranging from being able to enter a building freely, understanding the materials provided, being able to take notes, or respond to someone (Disability Resources Division of Student Affairs, 2020). Physical learning barriers are broad, can be permanent or temporary and can have different causes and manifest in different ways, so it is essential to always take the individual needs of the children into account and develop strategies based on those requirements (Frederickson & Cline, 2015).

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020), physical barriers describe “structural obstacles in natural or manmade environments that prevent or block mobility or access.” As mentioned previously, the main obstacle people who have physical learning barriers come across is access. Students need to be able to move around freely and safely and be able to reach all materials they need (Drew, 2019). This does not only include the classroom the students are being taught in, but the entire school building. The learning environment needs to be designed in a way that it is accessible for all students with various physical learning barriers, which includes students who use wheelchairs or crutches but also visually impaired students for which for example tactile clues would need to be given, so they can navigate around the school (Willings, 2016). Watson, Cantu and Terry (2017) explain that students with sensory impairments can miss out on crucial information, because it is only given in a way that is not accessible to them, therefore the use of different learning materials is something that needs to be addressed in schools, as well as the repetition of subject matter if students have missed out on classes or information.

According to Frederickson and Cline (2015), students with physical learning barriers can tire easily and may need to rest throughout the day or miss out on classes due to being at home or in the hospital for treatment. Their conditions can change frequently, so they might be fine with walking on crutches one day but rely on the use of a wheelchair the next day, as a consequence, there is a need for flexibility that classrooms might not offer. Moreover, students may struggle with taking notes due to having less developed strength and endurance in their hands, not having automised the hand movements for writing specific letters, or having less developed executive functioning skills (Frederickson & Cline, 2015). There are many areas teachers need to keep in mind if they have students with physical learning barriers in their classrooms, going all the way from the design of the classroom to the delivery of content and methods of assessment.


Social learning barriers are directly connected to the social development of the child and the social skills that the child gains whilst developing. As defined in the APA Dictionary of Psychology (2015), social development is “the gradual acquisition of certain social skills (e.g., language, interpersonal skills, understanding of social cues and behaviours of others), attitudes, relationships, and behaviour that enable the individual to interact with others and to function as a member of society” (p. 994). A lack of development of social skills leads to a lack of personal development, therefore might result in learning difficulties (Damirchi, 2013). James (2002) found that social skills are the foundation of getting along with others.

The underdevelopment of social skills could lead to behavioural difficulties in school, emotional difficulties, delinquency, bullying, difficulty in making friends, inattentiveness, problems in interpersonal relationships, peer rejection, poor self-concept, isolation from peers, concentration difficulties, and even depression. As a consequence, these difficulties could become barriers to learning that would negatively affect the students. Difficulties to develop socially could be due to a larger overall condition or diagnosis of the child (e.g., ADHD, ASD), however, it could also be related to one particular social skill that the child has difficulty to grasp; but also not a part of a larger, more recognised diagnosis or condition (Zach, Yazdi-Ugav, & Zeev, 2016). There could also be internal or external factors that interfere with the child trying to perform a social skill, such as anxiety, chaotic surroundings, home environment, or previous trauma (Buzgar, Dumulescu, & Opre, 2013).

Teachers that are well-informed recognise the importance of the child’s social development. The social development, and therefore the development of social skills, lays a critical foundation for the later academic achievement and work-related skills of the individuals (Lynch & Simpson, 2010). It is crucial to teach social skills in classrooms as numerous investigations indicate that the insufficiency in social skills have a negative influence on the educational performance of the students. It might aggravate learning problems and often results in the appearance of behavioural problems (Yilmaz, 2015). The school environment can influence and benefit the social development of the students. It should be a safe community with necessary interventions like practising empathy and compassion which would enable all students to feel welcomed, accepted and respected. It is also important to encourage the development of realistic expectations for each student along with necessary adjustment, a conversation about a role of failures in the process of learning, and learning how to learn (Selimović, Selimović, & Opić, 2018).


The eight barriers to learning: cognitive, physical, emotional, social, mental health, language-based, cultural, and environmental introduced in this chapter, are all interconnected. As Pennacchia, Jones, and Aldridge (2018) describe, “barriers are interrelated and individuals often experience a complex combination of them.” (p.29) This is because all students need to be considered as individuals, they come from different backgrounds, have made different life experiences, and come into the classroom with their own unique skills, abilities, challenges, and learning needs (Rahman, Scaife, Yahya, & Jalil, 2010). The goal as educators is to consider all the factors that influence the behaviour and learning of a child, and recognise the learning barriers they may encounter, to find the most sensitive and successful strategy to support that student. (Zahid, 2014).

In order to understand the interconnectivity of the eight learning barriers, it is useful to look at the holistic development of children. Six skills can be regarded as essential for children’s positive development: physical, cognitive, language, emotional, mental, and social skills which are necessary to tackle the demands and challenges of the 21st century. (Cremin & Arthur, 2014; Montessori Academy of Arcadia, 2020; Sarkar, 2020). These skills are connected and all need to be developed for children to reach their full potential (UNESCO, 2015). Since the students come from different backgrounds, it is essential to consider the influences both culture and the environment have on the development of these skills (Ettekal & Mahoney, 2017).

To conclude, children come into the classroom with skills they have developed in the physical, cognitive, language, emotional, social, and mental domains. Some students may encounter barriers in any one or multiple of these areas which the teacher should identify as early as possible, so the learning needs of the student can be taken into account. The culture and environment of the student can serve as outside influences on both the behaviour of the student and the acquisition of any of the skills previously mentioned and may therefore be additional barriers to learning.


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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