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 preschool through high school.

GreatSchools: Parents of first- and second-graders are typically watching their kids deal with more homework and lots of new academic demands. Suddenly you can find you’ve got a kid who loves reading and hates math or loves complicated science ideas but can’t seem to write a three-word sentence.

Curtis: First-grade standards vary widely by district, but at this age kids should be reading words and simple sentences. At this point, they need to learn their phonics — the ability to sound out words. And they should have a good number of sight words — say 100 — by the end of first grade.

In the first few months of first grade, not all kids have this, but by January or February if they are not reading, you start getting really worried.

You also want them to have fine motor control — they should be able to copy words, write their name, do simple drawings, and hold their pencils. If they have trouble picking up a pencil and writing anything down, that’s a red flag.

Another warning sign is kids who are frustrated and angry and inattentive. It may not be “acting out” but a behavioral reaction to what they are being asked to do.
At this point kids should be able to listen to teachers and follow multi-step directions. It’s also the age when they are beginning to organize themselves. (Though a lot of boys don’t organize themselves at a young age.). Being able to sit still in circle time is another benchmark.

In second grade, kids are expected to write longer sentences as well as short paragraphs. It’s also important that they develop verbal expression. They should be able to talk about themselves and what they are learning.