HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

Signs of an LD in middle and high school

How do you know if your tween or teen 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: What happens in middle school? What are the signs that your child might be struggling with something beyond the huge transition from elementary school?

Curtis: 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.

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

Curtis: 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.

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

Curtis: 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

"Based on my experience, having had an ADD son and now an ADD grandson, the schools are NOT set up to deal with ADD children! They are treated as children with behavioral problems, not with medically diagnosed chemical imbalances in the brain. The principal at my grandson's middle school recently sent him to a disciplinary location outside of the school because a teacher had become frustrated with him because he could not do a task that she assigned in the time she assigned. The principal at this particular school has no patience with ADD children. Really, there is supposed to be a "no child left behind", but it does NOT pertain to ADD children. There virtually is NO program in the public school system set up to accommodate them. The only special-needs children accommodated are either neurologically impaired or gifted. I have seen no advancement in the schools' policies since I had to fight the battles for my son in the 80's & 90's. What a waste of these wonderfully ! creative kids! "
"I am wondering about granddaughter who just turned 12 and is in middle school. she can do many things when she want to. however she always have to be threatened when it comes to her school work. She just will not do it and her answer is always that she know the work. Whenever something is taken away, she want to go somewhere or do something special, she gets the work done very quickly and correctly. The teachers complains because her work is going down and you fight with her at home, you try to work with her but she tells you point blank that she don't need any help. She do help others at school and where she may be, other children parents always talk about how smart and helpful she is but she will get her work wrong unless its a special practice test then she'll come home with her paper and announce broadly "my teacher said that if this was the actual test, I'd get all 4's. She went for a one day tutoring just to see and the person said that she is smart but, is outsmarti! ng herself because the drill that he put her through she wouldn't be able to do it if she didn't know what she was doing however it takes her a little while which can affect her when time is of the essence. What can i do to encourage her . She reads very well and above her level which i do not understand. The other day she read a book but said that the teacher wouldn't give her any credit for it because the book had too many pages (538) and was above her level. "
"This article is so true. I suspected something wasn't right when my gifted child stopped making straight A's in 6th grade then eventually began failing school by 10th grade. Despite having him diagnosed with ADD and treated with medications in 7th grade, he still failed to improve. After many meetings with school guidance counselors and teachers, no one could help him and was told by the guidance counselors that no assistance or evaluation by the the district psychologist was warranted until he actually failed a course. I wish I had him evaluated by an educational psychologist by the end of 6th grade because now his hopes of getting into a top level engineering university are gone since his GPA is 1.5. Parents MUST be their child's advocate. If YOU think there is something wrong with your child's learning ability, do something about it. "
"I read the article and am left ok you think you see some signs now what? What direction does one look to take??"
"i'm in 4th grade and never knew that! thanks for the imformation so i can plan ahead. i think schools should talk about this to all the students in the school."
"My son shows all the classic signs of having a learning disability and ive mentioned it to several of his teachers asking for him to be tested and the end result is basically being brushed to the side. Ive even asked his doc. to evaluate him. Necessary paperwork required from school and is extremely fustrating i feel stuck between the two. my grades are horrible attendance is great. isnt that a red flag that something going on. Help any suggestions will be greatly appreciated."
"Where do we go from here? When a child in middle school is finally diagnosed with ADD, what is the next step? What do we as parents need to do to help them succeed in school? Can the school help with accomadations?"
"Currently I've seen one posting from a parent to state she read more to her child and her reading improved. I've watched my 7th grader struggle in school. He's pretty smart and reads, but a hint of LD showed in 3rd/4th grade, but teachers brushed it off, saying it's normal and will resolve itself. He was in private school. He's failing now (in Public School) and no one seems to want to guide us on what to do. I've gotten professional tutors, but I have wondered for the last two years if maybe too much homework (the pacing of daily responsibilities) is the problem. When does things become too much? Things may run too quickly for him, having him feel too much pressure during a limited time period. Maybe homeschooling is the best option when a child is struggling so much in school. When problems like this continue to grow maybe it's best for parents, like myself, to short change themselves on the career ladder, sacrifice promotions to assist our child(ren) more and be ! more at home. By the time I get home he's not interested in correcting what I've looked over. Teachers have too much responsibility to support every student in class (even if they love teaching) and ...I don't have enough expertise as them, although I know how to read and write well I don't know how to identify his learning style and that's where I need help. When I look for support on what resources to look into I receive a blank stare or someone will say they will see what can be done, but then won't follow-up or return calls. An answer is out there, I just don't know where to find it."
"There are no answers in this article. My child has issues that I don't know how to resolve. He's medicated for ADHD, and gets good grades (all As and Bs) because he's smart. He cannot complete projects on time, let alone comprehend what is expected of him. Teachers say he doesn't manage his time well. Duh. He needs help and where do we go?"
"My son Chris is on the verge of expulsion from public schools. I placed him in a christian private school and 3 weeks later he was disenrolled because he doesn't think before he speaks.I'd hoped he was controlling his ADHD but socially he can't control what spews out of his mouth nor has grasped the concept of irritating people for attention doesn't mean they're your friends. I need to place him somewhere but I don't want him in a school with troubled drug-using gangsters. I want him to be safe from the rift-raft type people who refuses to excel in life. He's smart,he's witty,he's vocally explict at times for a shock factor,but he has a good heart, and an innoncence from bad lifestyles that I want to preserve so he doesnt get hardened and turn to the wrong influences that will lead him away from God and his family. Please help me with some ideas for schooling while I transition him back onto his meds in hopes he can complete his 6th grade school year on schedule withot getti! ng expelled. Mom in Manteca"
"My son was diagnosed with ADHD by the school psychologist and by a reg psychologist. He is on this plan that is supposed to adapt to his needs. He is almost 12 in the 5th grade, loves to read, but is failing reading because his teacher will not adapt to his needs. He still cannot write in cursive, still writes big. He struggles to understand what she wants him to do. the comprehension is what he is lacking. If you ask him, he gets it, but testing him or asking him to write it is impossible. He also struggles in Math, but thankfully he has another teacher for that, and helps him, so he does well. he will have him do less work, etc..he gets overwhelmed. this yr. he had-language, english, math,history,reading,computers,and science! He didn't know what hit him! I have been screaming he is overwhelmed. He is not organized and loses everything. It is a can he manage middle school?"
"Great story but it really leaves us parents hanging! What are we supposed to do and where do we go when the school can't or won't find out if our children have a LD? I know something's not quite right with my 11 year old son but I don't know exactly what it is. He seems smart, he's very intuitive, can do 'bits' from all the movies he's seen, reads well (he's in 5th grade and just today tested at 6/2) but he's not doing well in school at all. It appears that he's lazy but I work with him at home and he just doesn't get it. In Math, I explain it to him, give him examples and have him do it. I can see sometimes that he's trying hard to understand. When he does get it, he forgets it. I've had him come home from school all excited because he understands Math or something else and sit and do his homework all along and them bring me this very neat, great looking paper with all the answers wrong! One night he can do it, the next he acts like he never saw it before. He Does! have trouble staying focused, but not to an extreme (I had a step son like that). He can get excited and talk fast but he can also finish things and read quietly. In English/language arts he has the answers right in the book but can't figure it out. We thought he was being too lazy but now we don't think that's it. I know this is too long but the school has no clue what to do, and because he tests that he learns, he doesn't qualify for any services even though he's getting F's! Any ideas, suggestions? Angela White"
"Thank you for this. My son struggled for years and we finally made the decision to homeschool him halfway through 7th grade because he was just as you described--not low enough for services but totally overwhelmed. We know he has a vision processing issue but hoped he could manage it. In a class of 35+ students, the teachers have a nearly impossible task of reaching all students according to their particular needs. I appreciate your information. I am chronicling my own journey of homeschooling a struggling learner at: "
"hi. i am 15 years old and am an ld student. i currently attend bridges academy which is great for your kids but when it comes to someone like me that is only a little off,it's not so great. i need a place that can help me when i need to but teaches a curriculum that will prepare for life outside of school as well as help me to respond better to social situations. p.s it would have to be in the los angeles area such as studio city or north hollywood."
"My daughter was diagnosed with a LD in preschool. As she entered high school she was reading at a third grade level. They stated she needed to read the same books as required for high school. She loved to read but struggled. expecting more can help by her junior yr she was out of all her ld classes and was reading at a high school level. Keep reading to your children so they get a love of books and I believe they can increase there levels of reading."
"Iam interested in learning more of great schools. my son is 14yrs old 7th grade,and has a learning disibility.he's not in school at this time due to his learning difficulties.the school he was attending could not meet his needs."
"Where do you go for an assessment? My child is in middle school and I am in Houston."
"I have a 13teen year old, and from the time she was in the 1st grade, I have been screaming she has a problem learning the basics and remembering them compared to the other kids in her grade. She was finally held back in the 6th, cause she just wasn't passing like she needed to, and now that she is in the 7th she still is failing simple math, she can not keep up with her homework or when it needs to be turned in. She would rather lie or hide it all together. Bu I really feel like she has a problem with learning and I can't getthe teachers in her school test her and keep up with it or give me an answer on wehter or not there's a problem, I need help, or advice to get something done before I have to keep her back another year, If this keeps happening she is not going to get a diploma because she will be to old. Please help me!!!!!!!"