What do tears, rhyming, storytelling, and gripping a pencil all have in common?
Don’t answer. Just imagine this scene: an 18-month-old falling on the ground and bawling over a lost balloon. Now picture the same child collapsing into tears because a balloon slipped from her hand eight years later.
When does a tantrum turn from difficult to diagnosable? We all know that the meaning of the behavior changes radically with the age of the child. But when it comes to our children, it can be difficult to see. As parents, filled to the brim with worry and love for our ever-changing children, we easily get caught in a limboland of wondering: Is that normal? Should she still be doing that? Her brother never did that — maybe she’s got an issue.
The common factor in the laundry list above? All can be clues that a child is struggling with a learning or behavioral problem. So says Steven E. Curtis, author of the book Understanding Your Child’s Puzzling Behavior (Greenleaf, 2008) and a licensed child clinical psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of children with emotional, behavioral, developmental, and learning difficulties. He offered to walk me through the first signs and symptoms of a learning disability for kids in preschool through high school.
GreatSchools: What are the primary warning signs for children in kindergarten? Is it fair to judge them on their academics since some kids develop more slowly?
Curtis: Kindergarten is a time to start getting to the basics, so though they may all not be reading, there are certain benchmarks to keep in mind. They should be learning the alphabet as well as the sounds of the letters. They should be learning to count. They should also be developing their fine motor skills: learning to copy words, cut paper into shapes. Most kindergartners begin to read simple words too. Finally, parents should continue to look at their children’s ability to understand stories.
Those are the main indicators: Do they have their sounds, numbers, and letters?
Of course, you might not hear much from your teacher if your child isn’t reaching these benchmarks. I used to teach general education teachers. The philosophy they’d been taught is “wait and see,” but the research suggests that if you catch this stuff early, you get better results. With language, you’ve got to hit it early — or kids get left in the dust. For instance, a preschooler and a kindergartner will learn phonemes better than a first- and second-grader. Once you hit first and second grade, you start going into content reading, and so kids who are still struggling with learning to read have a harder time.
There’s an idea in general education that learning to read is like osmosis — and it’s true! Most kids learn to read and write with very little instruction. About 80% learn like that, but the other 20% don’t learn that way. They need it broken down and need it to be taught.
It’s clear that we can impact this 20% with early intervention. With intensive instruction, they can get on track early before their self-esteem takes a hit.
Kindergarten is also the age when some kids are having trouble reading because they are having trouble seeing accurately. Sometimes their eyes aren’t tracking, or they are not focusing on the page. If your child is having trouble with early reading, it’s worth having their eyes checked too.