HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

Third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade signs of an LD

How do you know if your child has a learning disability? Learn to read the signs.

By Carol Lloyd

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: 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?

Curtis: 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.

GreatSchools: 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?

Curtis: 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.

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

Comments from readers

"need help identifying LD please. (son is 9) looking for a good school in Soquel, Capitola, Aptos area "
"My son has a problem with attention span. He gets nerve about everything he does. He will make the 100 for a while then lose focus and start making the c's d's f's. This has been a problem for me for some years now. I had him tested and the doctor said nothing is wrong with him. But as a parent I see him losing himself and it seems to me that he does know what is going on around him. If there is some type of program for him please let me know of it. What I am trying to say is that he seems lost and not aware of his surrounding."
"this is very true!!!!!!"
"I have a eight year old he will be in the fourth grade next year. His previous school he is attending is ok, but I see anger when he does not know something or he is trying to get it but the teacher has so many kids in her class room to were she feels that he is no problem so he is just there basically. I am searching for a school in elementary and in the Florissant district. I also need a school were they can put some time into their students and find a solution for issues with math. Do any one no of a charter school in the city that takes county residents."
"Does anyone know of a good home-schooling program that is geared toward children with learning LD's"
"A very shallow article. It goes much deeper than this. This is focused only on reading and writing. Also, could you maybe mention the common benchmark of being two grades behind the grade you're in school. You could mention NCLB and how that could mean it would be perfectly ok with your school to let your child be flunking subjects and not get any help at all (they will likely be passsed anyway to a certain point). Many, many other things you could mention in this article to not make it so...uninformative."
"my child was born with developmental delays & chronic asthma. I noticed my daughter not thriving @ about 14mos , I immediately reached out for help. My daughter received special services through cbarb . The program was very helpful unfortunately when my daughter turned 3 she oupted out of the program, that was the worst thing my baby could have gone through. When she oupted out of the program the social workers did assist me in skipping her pass the waiting line, but after preschool in kindergarten I began to see more signs with the school already knowing my daughters history with learning I requested that she be placed in special ed. but I was pushed off with excuses like theres nothing wrong shes o.k. she just need more time we see this everyday. So my daughter went to 1st grade the school passes her I went to the school begging for them to test my daughter but they refused saying theres no need she passed, so I say thats exactly the need. I was so mad because I knew my ba! by didn't earn those grades, they acted like they just knew they were doing me or my baby a favor so I go to the school board to request retesting they say they couldn't because she passed but if she had failed she could be retested. My daughter is one of the sweetest, loving, caring and emotional kids anyone could ever ask for. She tells everyone she loves them all day everyday, asking do you need something so much until it's nerve racking but you cant let her know it's bothersome because she cries and I understand because she feel as she's only trying to help. My daughter is the same way with everyone, if someone else cry she cry & when you ask why are you crying she responds I don't know because you're crying. I honestly think thats why shes being cheated out of an education because for 5yrs it's been the same thing & I'm tired of explaining its not hurting them its hurting my baby & whatever hurts my baby hurts me. I don't want my baby to become a statistic sitting arou! nd having baby's waiting on a welfare check because she don't ! know anything and no one will help me get her the help she need, but those same people see her ten years from now she'll be hearing how much of a shame her life turned out to be. My daughter looks as normal as any other child but when she opens her mouth and start to talk you cant miss the fact that she has severe delays and for me to know with no extreme knowledge something is wrong because all I know about d.delays is what I learned since we've been going through this. I also know the teachers are trained to be on the look out so they didn't miss it because I kept everyone informed about her situation they just don't care. Ive always excepted my child L.D. so why cant the system. Lately my daughter has been going through bouts of depression and it's killing me to watch my baby suffer. I only ask that my baby do her best because I know that nothing beats a failure but without a try. I cant believe what I was reading when I got my baby denial letter, the teacher reported it! was my fault my daughter was suffering because she wasn't getting proper help at home. There were so many lies in her report and now that I think about it she's trying to save her own self for not helping me get my baby the help she need. I watched my baby go through this emotional pain for years with ignored request for help and now they blame me,'no,no,no I don't think so'; again when my baby hurt I hurt so if we are going to hurt we will no longer hurt alone, when I see that teacher I'm going to beat that bitch like a drum and when I get finished with her I'm going to find the rest of them who denied my baby for help by the time I'm done with them they'll be testing the 4.0 kids for L.D."
"For the parent requesting help about her daughter. A parent can request testing for special education services at anytime and the school has to honor it. If not, call the district's special education office and request testing."
"I wish this section would have had more information on how to tell if your child has a learning disability. It was somewhat helpful but could have been much more informative."
"Hi, my daugther she got a LD but the school is doing nothing to help her what can I do? she already has an IEP but her school just entitle her for speach only. She needs more I call the school several times, in January I went to the school and they said 'we are going to meet in April because they were busy getting ready for spring break'. I NEED SOME HELP! Can someone reply to me PLease! "
"Most school systems will, with pressure and insistence from the parent, test your child for a language-based learning difference. The Woodcock-Johnson III is a common test. What parents need to know is this: INTERPRETING the testing is what matters. School systems tend to interpret in a way that favors them (because it is expensive to assemble a team and write an IEP and get the extra services that a diagnosed learning difference requires), and they will usually tell you that the child doesn't have any differences that affect him/her academically. Private testing can be expensive, but there is a smart way around a lot of the expense. Get the school to do the testing, but take the tests to an expert for interpretation. Remember, no matter how expensive it is, the sooner the child gets intervention, the more effective it is. Think outside the box: if your child has an issue, stop at nothing to figure it out. Learning differences don't just affect the child while he o! r she is in school. It's a lifelong thing that will affect every aspect of his or her life. Children with learning differences have a high rate of depression, dangerous behaviors, and poor relationships. Maybe your family could have a super simple Christmas, and even extended family could contribute towards the testing instead of pricey gifts."
"I feel like this article spoke to me. It is exactly how I often feel about my fourth grader. These are concerns I've had about his learning to persist through tough things since he was in first grade. Because he is not a problem in school and he meets benchmarks he gets no attention from the teachers."