HomeLearning DifficultiesLearning Disabilities & ADHDIdentifying a Learning Disability

First- and second-grade signs of an LD

How do you know if your child has a learning disability? Learn to read the signs.

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. 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.

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

Comments from readers

"My daughter is 7 and ending her first grade year and is not reading. We had a traumatic separation from my husband 2 years ago when she was in pre - k . Since then she has basically shut down intellectually. Not sure what to do next "
"Although the mother with the second grade daughter who has been labeled as a bully may not see this due to her comment being from months ago, I as a 20-year veteran teacher must comment still so that others with simular circumstances will also benefit. The school systems are much bothered with the issue of bullying, but the orgins are simply from a frustrated child acting out more times than not. Find the source of frustration- head it off at the pass, so-to-speak and the bullying issue is likely is dissolve. Parents- listen to your children- if they are frustrated- be there for them emotionally. If it is academic, join with your child's teacher for a plan to get on track. If it is social, find healthy outlets for interaction: dance, sports, scouts and the like. Do not allow your child to take untoward control of his life by bullying. "
"But what if in second grade, they can't write longer sentences or short paragraphs and are unable to express themselves in words. What do you do then."
"This is a woeful article. It mentions only reading and writing. Don't be fooled by this article there are LDs in other areas, too- ummm....math for example?"
"Hi What a great article. I have a daughter who has a central auditory processing delay. She is in second grade. She attended a transition class after Kindergarten and before first grade. She is right now being labeled as a bully. She is now getting along with her peers. She plays with certain people one day and other the next. She like to exclude kids at times. Any sugesstions, anyone? "
"My son is in 1st grade. He is doing well overall but hates writing. Part of this is due to having compromised fine motor skills dues to medical treatment for a major illness. I explained this to the teacher and boy, revealing that set some really undesirable things in motion! Although he is getting 3s & 3+s with the occassional 4, we received a letter requesting that we attend a 'Student Success Team' meeting, a euphenism for a meeting to talk about your child's problem! Because he is doing well overall, I was shocked by this. They were so quick to try to label him with a learning disability that we were blown away. I like the idea below about making up games to help him with writing. From now on I will be SUPER careful what I tell the teacher and the school. They were trying to be proactive but were too aggressive."
"My son is in fifth grade now and getting 4s and 3s in everything. But he couldn't read in first grade. He has always loved books, but the decoding aspect frustrated him (he was diagnosed with PDD/NOS at age 2). Here's how I helped him in the summer between 1st and 2nd grade. First, I had him read to me every night from the Bob's books. The first one is like: 'Mat sat.' Sam sat.' They get progressively more difficult, but they're really short, so he didn't stress out too much after the first few nights. I always read to him and my younger daughter, (lying on my bed after their baths in our pajamas) so we just added his reading to us to our ritual. Second, because he hated writing so much I had to get crazy creative: He was fascinated with spies, ships, etc. So I told him that I was a secret agent for an agency and that my job was to decipher messages from our field agent Seven (because he's a seven year old boy). I said I needed for him to be my scribe. I wou! ld decipher Seven's messages as they came in and he would write them down. The bad guys Seven was after were named, 'Big Pig' and 'Fat Cat.' The messages started out easy: 'Big Pig sick.' As he got more comfortable hold his pencil, I made them longer, 'Big Pig says that Fat Cat sank Spyship 1.' We had a great time, and by 2nd grade he had caught up to the rest of the class! Hope this helps. Have fun with your kids!"
"My son is doing better and will be tested in December. He has trouble keeping his mind on what he is doing. He can read simple sentences and I have noticed he is trying but when he gets frustrated he just makes up words that are not there. I am afraid that by December he will not be able to catch up with his classmates. He is very articulate and speaks well. He can draw a picture and tell the story but do to his lack of spelling progress he is not able to write what he wants to explain what the picture means. His first grade teacher used to write what he told her but I think that was more of a hinderence then help. So with all this in mind my son has some of the problems but not all what else should I watch out for."
"My son loves math, is well behaved, a good reader, a star athlete, and makes good grades at school. However, he has very poor fine motor skills. He had difficulty learning to use a fork, and still prefers eating with hands at 8 years. Writing is a constant battle of tears and frustration. He has been in extra writing classes for first and now second grade. Could he have a learning disability causing the problem? WHat other signs should I look for?"
"Very good article. Would love more stuff on 2nd grade learning disability. It makes a lot of since why children act the way they do. Parents really should look into behavior issues and why they act the way they do."
"Thank you for this story! My daughter is in the first grade and received failing grades on her report card in all the important subjects. I was beginning to wonder if she will pass the first grade. Through this article, it has come to my attention that our school just has very high standards. She is reading easy books and has about 85 sight words and its only October! She's fine, Thank you!"