HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

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.

Comments from readers

"I have to say after reading most of the comments from parents, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Many of the parents are demonstrating the same difficulties they are concerned with their child exhibiting... Coincidence ? "
"i want to really thanku for this writeup because am learning to build on this and help children with learning my country most people will not admit this truth and seek help i wish to use this to help children with learning difficulties.thank u "
"my daughter is havin such a hard time with reconizing letter ... she a really smart girl but everytime i teach her a letter within a min she forgets ... omg i feel so terrible "
"My 5year old daughter has a remembering problem we count to 10 together. When she goes on her own she only remembers to number3 is that something I should be worried about......p "
"Please be a positive role model and use proper English, punctuation, and spelling. It is quite discouraging when the parents of these children with learning disabilities seem to have the same difficulties with basic skills they should have mastered in by the 3rd or 4th grade. "
"Hello I am very angry with these school systems. I have a 7yr old son that has ADHD and dyslexia and he attended public school for Kindergarden and first grade my son writes from bottom to top,unledgable hand writting,cant sit long,writes letters and numbers backward but all of them diden,t notice but wanted to leave him back. I wrote a letter requesting test for an IEP and they denide him saying he's intelligent so I took my child out the system and payed to have him tested and teaches my son myself because these schools don't care weither your kids learn so I,m still trying to to get my son an IEP and a good school. NO HOPE!!! "
"I have a 4 year old and he is in head start and i have notice that my son teacher knows that he has A.D.D.and she always telling me that she cant handel him but the other two asist.teachers tell me that he understands very well but cant stand still but they have no problems with him.I would like to know what more can i do to help my son hes aready going to speach teraphy,social-psicologist,and social worker with the dept.of educacion,but it seems that nothing is working cause she still cant understand him,and keep him still."
"I am amazed at reading some of the responses from parents/families. I am wondering what part of the country many of you live? I live in Minnesota. There are programs such as early intervention and birth to three that are designed to help identify learning issues with children early on. Early intervention with any diagnosis is very important. Public school districts cannot deny you any OT or speech services. There is no way a public school district should deny any child an IEP (individual education plan). Even if a child attends a private school, the public school district will provide these services. Your child may have to bus to a public school to receive those services, but they are entitled to them. Your taxes (state and federal) are financing these services and as a taxpayer, your child is entitled to them. Be an advocate. Do not be afraid to challenge. You know your child best. You must also supplement your child's education at home. Work with them at an early age. Read! to them early on, 15 minutes a day. You will be shocked what your child will learn at home. The classroom should be a complement to what you teach at home. Hopefully, the teachers and the parents are on the same team, but the parents are the coaches."
"I would like to say that this information is very helpful. I have a 5yr old son who is speech and language impaired and everyday is a learning experience for me. I do have other concerns and was wondering what should be my next step?"
"my son is 3 yrs old and is not talking yet. he not around children at all because there is no one in my family in his age range. he says little thing like; no, when he doesnt want something, eat, when he is hungry, and shoe, when it's time to go outside or leave. a spech therapist told us that they do speech therapy through schools so, i would have to wait until he is in school. im scared for him when it is time for him to go to school because he will not respond back to whoever is speaking to him. he understands very well, but doesnt talk. but when he does speak jibber jabber he acts out what he is saying. please help."
"I had to respond to the parent who worries that teachers won't want to work with her son if he's labeled LD. I'm a teacher, and I love working with kids with learning difficulties of all kinds. It's interesting and challenging. I try to organize my day so I can find time to work individually with students who need it. It's hard when I've got so many kids in my class who need my time, but it's always my goal. I spend lots of planning time after school figuring out how to help individual kids in the next day's lessons. For me, seeing that a child has an LD label is just the start. It gives me an idea of some strategies to try, but it doesn't substitute for getting to know the child. I know parents want what's best for their kids, and it's hard to decide what to do when kids are struggling in school."
"My son is having these problems. I dont know how to fix them. He does say words backwards, he gets frustrated trying to tell a story and says 'nedermind'. How do I help him. His first grade teacher thinks there is a bigger problem. I think when he decides he has to learn it, then he can. For instance, after he stopped saying 'I cant do it' he learned to tie his show in about 10 minutes. I need help to help him. What do I do?"
"Hello my daughter is repeating second grade due to reading and comprehension. She had trouble from day one is school. She is in private school. i don't know is the school is to fast for her or if she need a special school. She gets distracted very easy and has no interest in school she complains its to much for her. I don't know she need a school with less kids per class. Please advise me what to do. I don't know where to go a have her tested, or where to find a school that is right for her. thank you."
"This article is very useful. Thank you. It helps to have so many examples of the specific problems I might notice in my child, rather than just terms like 'phoneme awareness.' I am watching my 2 year old carefully because my husband struggled with reading as a child. My son seems to be on track to-date and my husband is now an avid reader with great comprehension. I will do what I need to do to help my son, but I don't want to project problems on him that don't exist. This site is giving me lots of tools for what to watch for and when to seek help. Thank you."
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges:"
"I believe more schools need to accept 'Dyslexia' and have the testing available when a student exhibits poor learning, esculating discomfort in a school setting, or cronic complaining on a daily basis. Learning disabilities can destroy a child, if not properly handled in school. We need to have a qualified school employee, preferably the school psychologist, be certified to evaluate for dyslexia and incorporate what is essential in the child's IEP. Until school districts are willing to have more types of testing available, because they can do this, some kids will be left behind and eventually become discipline problems out of continual frustration as their own academics fall behind. We need to have 'The right page' for all students."
"my son now almost to be 8 failed 1st grade thru public school. In 2nd grade he know catch up, but I afraid with summer coming upon us he will regrese & be behind as he was in 1st grade. He has dyslexia, ADHD, asthma, DD & others. Any good summer prorgams not too expensive?"
"Hello. My son he's 5 years old. He just came last December 2008 from my country. Now he's in kindergarten. How can i teach him English. Do you have any summer programm. Please send me impormation. Thank you."
"My eight year old son has been struggling with his Reading Response assignments in class all year long. He was an independent reader at 20 months, can zoom through a book and recall what he read, but can't translate those thoughts to paper well. He is always behind on his assignments and prefers to receive help to organize his thoughts. Neither positive nor negative reinforcement seems to be a major factor in whether or not he completes the writing assignment. He says he hates to write, yet he completes his handwriting and spelling assignments with no problem. His teacher thinks that we should have him tested, but she won't tell us what she thinks he should be tested for. He is in the gifted program, but his grades have slipped recently, and I am afraid that he will no longer qualify for the program if we can't figure out what is the obstacle for him. What should we do?"
"I have a question about my daughter who is just finishing up her Kindergarten year of school. She just turned 6 a couple of weeks ago. She still tends to write some words backwards...Example: 'ot' instead of 'to' - I notice it more in smaller words that only contain 2 or 3 letters, more than longer words such as the word 'they'. Most are site words obviously at this age - but still I am wondering if I should be concerned - or should I not be if it does seem to be decreasing - as she used to do it a lot more frequently when she was 3 and 4. ??? Help???? Her speaking/language skills are above average in my opinion. She was an early talker - had no problems whatsoever communicating. Doesnt miss a beat - no problems with social cues...etc - I was reading everythign you had listed on this email - to determine if I should be concerned at this point? I would appreciate any feedback you have - Thank you, Beth"
"My son just turned 14 and within the last few months we have noticed things going wrong with him at home, school, etc. He has always been a very good student but lately is forgetting to do assignments, forgetting to hand them in when he does do them, not doing well on tests even though he is studying, grades going down, forgetting normal everyday things like brushing teeth, leaving things home, forgetting to do what just asked to do. Can you give me some advice as to what to do about this. We all are very frustrated and before it causes family problems need some advice. Thank you."
"i have a eight year old son that we adopted when he was 3. I do not know if he is bmd or adhd. he was abused before we got him. He is very loveable and would not hurt anything. he can do math in a flash, he got the science award. He can spell, but then he does not rec. the word. He is pretty hyper and seems to get worse during reading and writing. He was a drug baby and went from home to home. help please tommi"
"We have a 14 year old son that has struggled with learning since starting school. At fifth grade he was put into support education because his teachers evaluations and poor performance across the board. He has continued with support thru the present time. He is in 9th grade. We feel his major weaknesses are in test performance, reading comprehension, organization and prioritization. Adam's support efforts at school has afforded him with small classes for support, smaller study sessions in his classes when available, private testing where either he or a teacher can read out loud the questions. His teachers have classified him as ADD, however his doctor and parents do not wholeheartly concur with this diagnosis. During the last 6 months, Adam did try the medication Concerta without much improvement. Currently, he is on the edge of not passing, the high school environment, curriculum and pace is proving too much for him. We are searching for some answers to help him with his sc! hooling and future. Where do we go from here?"
" I have a 5 yr old son who has every problem listed above. He was in special needs pre k for behavior. when it came time to go to k they wouldnt put him on an IEP. now it is dec. he has been in k for 4 months and he still is only identifying letters writing in all caps, and gets genuinly upset when i try to teach him lower case letters and writing. he is behind on everythng in school. but when i ask for an IEP they still say his behavior is bad but not bad enough for IEP. How can i get an IEP for him I dont care its for behaior? isnt there an IEP for kids who arent learning and behind? He still says things like that thingy and pronounces words wrong. he also talks so fast that u cant understand him 1/2 the time. they say his speech is fine. I think my school is just against IEP. when they tested him at age 5. they tested him 2 wks before he turned 5 so they can grade him on the 4 yr old scale. Is there anything I can do?"
"I, like many parents, think my daugter is very bright. At 8 years old she is fluent in two languages, helps her 6 year old brother with his homework on a nightly basis and can finish a fifth grade level chapter book in two days. Unfortunaley her grades are not reflecting the bright child I see at home. Her teacher says she rushes through her work and refuses to try harder even when given the opprotunity to correct her mistakes. What could be going on? and what can I do to help her? "
" My son is 6 year old, is now on a IEP, in a special education classroom. He didnt do well in kindergarten last year and his teacher felt hehad some learning disability, was behind his peers(he didnt do pre-school) very shy about interacting with peers or people outside of comfort zone, and som speech problems. He was to be place in a early learning classroom, but it was half a day, so they place him in a LD classroom with kindergarten thru 3rd grade. He was label with eary learing something and mildly CI. I would like to know if this classroom or program is where he need to be. he do not like going to school anymore."
"My daughter has been having difficulty learning in various areas: 1st if was spelling, sound out words, beginning, middle and endings, so there she could not apply rules to spelling because she did not know how to spell the base word. 2nd we went to another school for the last 5mths due to family emergency which resulted with a death in the family and in that school there she was eager to learn, had great grades (not excellent, but A's and B's). Now we are back home and she is having the same difficulties again. The classrooms are open classrooms, the school she attended for 5mths had closed classrooms. 3rd her difficulties are in reading, spelling, grammer/punctuation, following directions, social studies, science tests are always F's, she now is making C's and has 2 D's in science and social studies. She is working hard to learn, she spends 4 hours on homework after school many times just to grasp what is being taught. How long should an 8yr old be spending on homework? Now I am told to go to a Ph.D for diagnosis and but also a Develpment Pediatrician would also be good for diagnosis, which would be the best type of evaluation and doctor to check for a disability? My son has aspergers and is on an IEP with accommodations/mods, with speech and ot in high school, should I be looking for the same extensive evaluation as with my son? She had no social deficits, she is an outdoor kind of girl, loving and caring, and compassionate for others, can however be sensitive to name calling but as far as getting along with others she seems to do well. Please send me information in reference to this matter a/s/a/p. thank you."
"I have a 10 yr old daughter, She's repeated 3rd grade twice. She had a speech delayment when she was a toolder,she got her speech therapy in school n finished a couple of years ago. My big concern is that she is doing very poorly in school, her teacher & I are concered because one day she's doing very good in her tests & than down hill and we don't know what to do.She is reading at 2nd grade level n I've noticed that she has trouble in math n she also has trouble consatrading.Her teacher n I fill that she needs to be in a small class where the teacher could help her one on one, the class she's in now has close to 30 students,her teacher says that she gets easily distracted.Even I have trouble with her at home when it comes to doing her homework.Like I said earlier it's in her math area that she has the most problem. Can u help me find out what's going on with her. "
"i think my 13 year old has the litter clutter syndrome.on top of other things. shes almost 14. she was held back in the second so shes only in the seventh grade and she still doesnt know common sense things that are obvious to my third and sixth grader..i know shes not adhd.i know shes not special ed material as far as being slow.i think she doesnt comprehend what she doesnt want to comprehend.which is everything that has to do with school.even though i dont think shes slow or is adhd.i do think something is seriously wrong."
"My daughter is in the 3rd grade and the teacher has asked us to have her checked ADD. She is having a hard time with reading comprehension. My little one is a awesome child. She is full of joy. She does have a 504 plan but the teacher does not think this is helping and feel that testing for ADD would be the best for her. Please help me."
"After missing app.5 weeks of school last year, my daughter finally agreed to let her 7 and 10-year-old girls live with me. They attended summer school, and both improved dramatically with that and the help I gave them. The oldest is now making A's, and one B on her report card. The youngest made A's and B's on the first report card. The school put her in a special reading class, and now she has one A, one B, one C, and one D. Now it is a struggle to get her to do any school work at all. She has lots of trouble with reading, but I'm not sure if it is because she missed so much last year, or if she does have a problem. How do I tell the difference?"
"Speaking about learning problems. In grade school,as a CHILD...I FOUND THAT I Had I had a problem with math. And this my parents found out because, they could see that I was very frustrated at times when it took me like forever to learn..they realized that something wasn't right with me, so they had me tutored after school.The tutor was okay,but she was also expected alot from the children. Then,later on when I became a Senior in High School the same problem came up once again. My Counselor, miss Terry was a real Godsent and she also gave me advise before I graduated. I went on to a Community College and got some extra help because it was all documented. how to work out I was able to figure it out on my own which pretty nearly drove my parents crazy till one day that got me. And the learning problem is still with me this very day. So, it can be helped and your child will make it through school, but it will or may take a life time till they get the proper help. just don't give up and do help them but only when needed. ERC"
"My son is a very bright 11 year old. He is fasinated with numbers and birth dates. Once you tell him your birth date; he is able to remember those dates and will quote them at random. He is in special education through the public school system; however, I don't feel that he is getting properly educated. My son requires one on one instruction for him to learn. He is receiving class work that he basically has to do on his own with little instruction. The only instruction that he will receive is if he brings his work home. He dosen't have a learning disability; he is an intelligent child with learning differences. However, these differences are failing him in school. I don't know if I should keep him in his current setting, get a tutor or seek private schooling. "
"Another thing to factor in is if the child has older siblings with disorders such as Asbergers, etc. The younger child without a LD will mimic the speech pattern of the older child."
"I am a special needs teacher and always in search of good referencing materials for parents. This article does a magnificent job explaining warning signs as well as helping parents understand what 'labeling' truly means. Too many parents are quick to blame the teacher, when in essence, we are their ally-- with their child's best interest at heart!"