Detecting learning problems in your child

Six areas parents should focus on when assessing their kids.

By Priscilla L. Vail, M.A.T.

In the olden days, railroad crossings had signs saying Stop! Look! Listen! Those words are still valuable today. We need to Stop and give ourselves time and space to understand what's going on around us. We need to Look for danger or caution flags to avoid colliding with onrushing trains. We also need to Listen. As children grow and venture beyond the safety of home, it is as if they are approaching a railroad crossing, and an intersection with school, community and the world. To understand warning signals, you, as a parent, need to Stop! Look! Listen!

Many academic difficulties are language based, so the first place to look for red flags is in the language system. Here are six areas:

The age at which a child starts to speak can indicate that child's comfort with language.

Children who understand and use words easily have figured out that the sounds people make in conversation represent different things and people in the world: "Ma-Ma," "cookie," or "baby." First, children begin to understand the language they hear, then they mimic language in return. Most adults take this for granted, but we must Stop! and appreciate what a complex task the child is performing.

Some children catch on to words early. For others, language is a hard game or a difficult system. These children are sending a warning signal. If spoken language is difficult or unappealing, usually written language (reading and writing, letters and numbers) will be too.

Receptive language is what the child takes in, first through listening and later through listening and reading.

You as a parent need to notice whether your child's receptive language channel works effectively. Does your child enjoy listening to stories? Can your child tell you what happened in the story? Can your child remember the high points (or the details) of yesterday's story? Does your child absorb those pieces of family news they're not meant to hear: Uncle Ernie's on a binge, or why does Aunt Sophie wear those eyelashes at her age?

Children who absorb such information comfortably are demonstrating good receptive language skills. Children who are uninterested in stories, do not follow and remember a story line, or don't pick up news from conversation are flying a danger flag. They will miss news, explanations, questions, and concepts now. Later on, the process of reading may either not make sense to them or may be too difficult. At all ages, we need to Stop! Look! and Listen! to a child's receptive language.

Expressive language is the vehicle for giving out ideas, questions, emotions, or facts.

In normal development, children practice expressively what they have taken in receptively. Parents need to Listen!

Does your child use pronouns, plurals, and verb tenses correctly? Most children are reasonably accurate by first grade. The elementary school child who says, "Here are the thingies I branged for Tom and I" is telling us a lot. Can your child retrieve needed words smoothly? The child who strains when trying to use such words as "marker," "basketball," or "peanut butter" is, in effect, saying, "Listen! I have trouble finding the words I need."

Does your child keep sounds in correct sequence or do individual sounds or syllables slide around? Is it an "elephant" or an "ephelant"? A "hamburger" or a "hanga-burger"? A "birthday party" or a "birthparty day"? Children who tangle their sound sequences in spontaneous speech are warning us they will probably have trouble stringing sounds together when trying to read words, or breaking sounds apart when trying to spell.

Litter and clutter are warning signals. Most children can say what they mean so that others can understand them. Children who have trouble getting to the point, who litter and clutter their speech with distracting, unnecessary information, are telling us their thought processes don't go straight to the target. This difficulty will hamper their reading, classroom discussion and, above all, their writing all the way through school...and life. They need help.

Some children have trouble with the mechanics of reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic.

It takes them a long time to learn their letter sounds and to recognize sight words. They may have trouble with pencil grip and handwriting. In the manner of many beginners, they may reverse their letters or numerals. Unfortunately, some children today never receive direct instruction in these early level mechanical skills. But research shows all children need this information. Those who still struggle after instruction that works for their peers need multi-sensory instruction which brings together eyes, ears, fingers, and muscles.

Some children have trouble organizing themselves in time and space.

They aren't sure where things belong, what to do first, and what comes last. These concepts underlie smooth function in the adult world as well as in childhood. "Nexterday" is a long time coming.

Lots of kids have trouble with the vocabulary of time and space - later, until, whenever, in a while, on time, at two o'clock. Teach these words to your child as if they were terms in a foreign language. For some children they are. Build the structure of time and space into your family life as soon as possible. Since apples don't fall far from trees, you might give yourself some help, too.

Some children misunderstand social cues.

They don't know how to ask to join a game or to negotiate sharing or taking turns. Children who are isolated, or who isolate themselves by their behavior, don't do well on group projects or in team sports, are seldom elected to class office, and usually sit home alone when others are at birthday parties. The sadness, anger, or frustration born of being "out" may interfere with concentration, memory, and general availability for school work, not to mention fun.

Are labels helpful or harmful?

Let me tell you about my boatshed and me. At summer's end, our family puts the canoe, the paddles, lifejackets, Frisbees, and fishing gear, along with any unused canned goods, in the boatshed. One year, by mistake, we left the cans on the floor where they sloshed around in surging winter storm water. In June, the cans were there, intact, but their labels had soaked off. Although I could identify a can of soup, I had no idea whether it was shrimp bisque, chicken with stars, split pea, or jellied consomme. Was this can baked beans, artichoke hearts, or stewed tomatoes? Which was for kids, which would be delicious with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of curry? Which needed to be piping hot, which chilled? For the food offered to match the appetite of the recipient, we needed to know what was what and who was ready for lunch.

The same is true for children and schooling. If Martha or Sam has trouble learning letter sounds, we need to prepare multisensory training. If Joe and Dawn have trouble with reading comprehension because they have weak receptive language, let's say so, and target some specific help. If Jamil goes through math like a buzz saw, but can't remember how to spell "friend," let's give him scope with numbers and help with spelling. We need to Stop! Look! and Listen! Then we need to use the information we gather to make a good plan. Labels are dangerous when they replace a person's humanity and individuality, but they are invaluable when they provide the precise terminology to decide who needs what, when, where, why, and how. After all, what's to be gained by giving watery broth to a student ready for hearty stew, or clam chowder to someone allergic to fish?