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: Preschoolers’ normal behavior ranges from very civilized to utterly silly to something akin to wild animals. How can you observe such complicated little creatures — who don’t usually read or do math — and know which of them will have learning issues in the future?

Steven Curtis: One of the first things you want to look at is whether a kid can listen to stories and comprehend language. Most learning disabilities are language-related, so this is the best place to start.

Another early indicator is the lack of ability to distinguish phonemes — the basic sounds that make up words. If kids have trouble understanding these differences, then they’re at risk.

A lisp is one of those things that is common but is also a red flag. If kids have lisps, it might be because they’ve had frequent ear infections — so they literally can’t hear. If it goes on for too long, they can have trouble differentiating sounds. So when kids have speech issues, you should always have their ears checked. It could be the tip of the iceberg. It could be a motor issue, or it could be a cognitive problem— due to not understanding certain sounds.

Another red flag is not paying attention. With some kids it seems like their minds are always wandering, and when you see that kind of behavior — especially when it’s related to not attending to stories — it can be a huge sign. If they are always headed for the dress-up corner during storytime, or if they look at you blankly when you talk to them, it can signal that they have a language-processing issue. Kids are sharp— they have fresh brains hungry for information, so when they don’t express curiosity, it can be a sign they just aren’t understanding.

One simple way to check on your kid’s language development is to read them the story and ask them what it was about. If they are clueless, it’s a predictor of a language and learning problem.

Another sign of an issue is if they are super-hyperactive. If left to their own devices, they will tear apart the place. For kids with ADHD, you notice that even before they have learning issues, they don’t attend to stuff; they can’t slow down. Even though these kids are bright in other ways, it’s hard for them to learn because they can’t sit still.