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Red flags of a learning issue

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By Carol Lloyd

The saying goes that during third, fourth, and fifth grade one switches from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” What happens in this age group that signals learning issues for parents or teachers?

The red flags for third and fourth grade are actually similar to those for lower grades, but the expectations are higher. For instance, if kids can’t attend, can’t sit in a classroom, if they start having emotional and behavioral reactions or not liking school, these can all be red flags. If they don’t have persistence in doing things that are hard for them, they may suddenly stop following the rules.

At this age you may see a decrease in school motivation. A lot of kids who didn’t get identified as having learning disabilities earlier have been actively compensating all these years. They can be very slick at hiding things. I recall one fourth-grader who was good at faking everything — he was reading at a first-grade level, but no one knew. There are a lot of cover-up artists out there. A lot of these attractive, personable kids learn how to get people off their backs.

[By fifth grade] kids start to have trouble if they haven’t developed persistence. Kids need to know that part of learning means working through hard things. I really can’t emphasize enough how important persistence is. I knew one kid with Down syndrome who was so tenacious — who stuck with it and stuck with it — she ended up reading at the level of her peers. On the other hand, there are kids who have the intellect but give up. Parents contribute to this because they don’t want to let their kids get frustrated — if you have this idea that all learning is fun, then they aren’t going to work through the hard stuff.

Parents need to know the benchmarks. By fourth grade most kids can read aloud, and they can do spontaneous writing.

If you’re worried that your child has a learning issue but you haven’t heard anything from the teacher, should you assume everything is OK?

 I don’t know how to say this, but I would not trust any school to give an accurate assessment of your child’s skill. You’re the parent. There are a lot of trained teachers who can miss problems. If it was me as a parent, I would start the process of trying to assess my child, but then I would probably get some outside help.

What happens in middle school? What are the signs that your child might be struggling with something beyond the huge transition from elementary school?

One major sign is not being able to handle their complicated schedules. At this point, they have multiple teachers, and so this is the time when kids with LD suddenly have trouble with organization and turning in homework.

With kids with AD/HD and ADD, you start hearing about social issues. The same goes for Asperger’s disorder, a subtle form of autism. You may notice your child is having a lot of trouble in and outside the classroom. In elementary school you’ve got these nice and gentle teachers who may adapt to your child’s learning style. In middle school they may not be as tolerant, if your child can’t work in groups, for instance, or doesn’t understand nuances of socialization or pragmatic language. It may become a problem for them academically. Of course there’s more social politics, and certain kids may have a harder time with that stuff. There’s less emphasis on “We all need to get along” than in elementary school.

Are there really kids who don’t get diagnosed until middle or even high school?

Sometimes I see parents who may have homeschooled their kids or may be in denial that something is wrong. Sometimes it’s just that the child is having trouble making friends.

Sometimes it’s more subtle problems that finally become apparent. The kids may not test low enough to qualify for services [earlier on], but they are now struggling with writing, organization, and completing things on time. Suddenly they’re under a mountain of work they need to do.

In high school sometimes the trigger is the college application process. It’s hard to get into college. Kids start losing interest in school — they get into drugs — and there’s this anxiety around getting into college.

Do you see kids in high school coming in for assessment?

Definitely. We actually diagnose a lot of people during their first year of college.

Theoretically, the first year of college is harder than high school. Certain hardworking kids put all these hours in, so they make it through high school, and then college is more than they can handle. Suddenly they wonder: Do I have a problem?

Sometimes they’ll learn that they are slow processors or that they didn’t learn phonics. They managed to figure out content from the context, and they worked so hard — but they don’t know how to sound out or they’ll realize they don’t have the basics of writing down notes. They’ll say, “It’s hard to form things with my pencil." There are these bright hard workers who can get through high school, but the reality is that they have a learning disability.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"How can you get the doctor to listen to you about a concern if they don't want to check the kid for that issue but says everything is ok and normal?"
"I have 2 grandson whom I homeschooled for 3 years, from the 4th-6th & 5th-7th. They were accepted back into Public School into the 7th & 8th grades, but experiencing problems staying focused. The younger often doesn't hand in completed homework or complete all classwork. I believed him to just be lazy and rebellious. Could this really be an LD child? CPS has never tried to really assist amid my often voiced concerns."
"How does a kid get tested if they are in college. How do you find a reliable source for testing?"
"When my now 7th grader started school my husband and I noticed that our son was not as attentive as he should be when being read to or given direct verbal instructions. We went through several testings and found out that he had Auditory Processing Disorder. He is now signed up with the 504 plan and his teachers make accomadations when given verbal inst. such as making sure his chair is in the front of the class and when they talk they turn around as well as give written directions. He also receives extra time on exams. This has helped him tremendously and is now mastering his classes. His self esteem improved and he is in advanced classes. I am glad that we were astutue enough to realize and try to find a solution to help our son. This was a great article. If learning issues are caught earlier a solution or accomdations can be made to better assist our children."