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.