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Red flags of a learning issue

How do you know if your child is struggling with a learning issue? Learn to read the clues.

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. Normal, right? Maybe not a lot of fun for the person trying to explain that the balloon man closed his stand for the day. But it might elicit a sympathetic smile from a passerby. Toddlers will be toddlers, we understand. Now picture the same child collapsing into tears because a balloon slipped from her hand eight years later. Not the same situation, despite the fact that it's the same person experiencing precisely the same frustration. Time has passed and with it our expectations of appropriate behavior have changed.

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 issue. So says Steven E. Curtis, author of the book Understanding Your Child’s Puzzling Behaviorand 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.

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?

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 AD/HD, 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.

Kindergarten: Is it too early to catch a reading disorder?

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"How can you get the doctor to listen to you about a concern if they don't want to check the kid for that issue but says everything is ok and normal?"
"I have 2 grandson whom I homeschooled for 3 years, from the 4th-6th & 5th-7th. They were accepted back into Public School into the 7th & 8th grades, but experiencing problems staying focused. The younger often doesn't hand in completed homework or complete all classwork. I believed him to just be lazy and rebellious. Could this really be an LD child? CPS has never tried to really assist amid my often voiced concerns."
"How does a kid get tested if they are in college. How do you find a reliable source for testing?"
"When my now 7th grader started school my husband and I noticed that our son was not as attentive as he should be when being read to or given direct verbal instructions. We went through several testings and found out that he had Auditory Processing Disorder. He is now signed up with the 504 plan and his teachers make accomadations when given verbal inst. such as making sure his chair is in the front of the class and when they talk they turn around as well as give written directions. He also receives extra time on exams. This has helped him tremendously and is now mastering his classes. His self esteem improved and he is in advanced classes. I am glad that we were astutue enough to realize and try to find a solution to help our son. This was a great article. If learning issues are caught earlier a solution or accomdations can be made to better assist our children."