Does My Child Have a Learning Problem?

How to tell, and how to help

learning disability - girl sad with book
Find out how to spot a learning disability and what to do. Mermet Mermet/Getty Images

Children learn at different speeds and have different interests and aptitudes for learning various subjects. In a typical first-grade class, you might see some kids struggling through Frog and Toad while other students devour more advanced chapter books. It's even true of siblings: One child may love math games while another may dislike working with numbers. This is why it's important for parents to consider the individual differences of each child and try not to compare one child's learning abilities to that of her siblings or classmates.

Parents should also keep in mind that many children today are being given schoolwork that is more difficult and advanced than in previous generations. (You've probably heard the phrase, "Kindergarten is the new first grade," for instance.) The reality is that a child in kindergarten or first grade may not master reading, and that's perfectly normal. If a third grader still isn't able to read beginner books, that's a very different thing than, say, a 5- or 6-year-old not being able to read simple sentences.

That said, there are certain milestones that children are expected to meet as they move through elementary school. In general, children in kindergarten learn to recognize sight words such as "the," "is," and "and" and learn letters (both lowercase and uppercase) and their corresponding sounds. In math, kindergarteners can be expected to learn skills like counting by 5s, identifying basic shapes, and doing basic addition and subtraction.

By second grade, many children are reading age-appropriate chapter books and writing essays with accurate punctuation and spelling, and in math, learning concepts like place value of numbers (tens, hundreds, etc.) and fractions. Keep in mind that these are general milestones, and if you have any concerns about problems your child may be having with school, talk to your child's teacher and pediatrician to discuss possible ways to diagnose whether your child may have a learning disability.

Signs of a Learning Problem in School-Age Children

While some learning problems may be detected in younger children, the most common age at which learning difficulties usually start to become noticeable is when kids enter school. That's when teachers and parents are more likely to notice problems such as a child having trouble holding a pencil properly or working with numbers or learning to read. Some common signs of learning problems in school-age children include:

  • Difficulty writing letters and numbers
  • Difficulty copying shapes
  • Problems learning how to blend letters together to sounds out words
  • Trouble remembering sight words—common words they should remember by sight
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Problems with grammar
  • Continuing to reverse letters after second grade (confusing “b” and “d” or writing “nap” instead of “pan”)
  • Problems learning math and doing calculations
  • Confusing math signs (+, -, =, etc.)
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts for written work
  • Trouble understanding and following spoken instructions
  • Difficulty understanding concepts such as left/right, up/down, and before/after
  • Problems keeping track of school assignments or planning out assignments and completing them.
  • Inability to sit still and concentrate; impulsive behavior
  • Big gap in a child’s IQ/expected academic ability in school and actual performance

If you see signs of possible learning problems in your child, talk to your child’s teacher or school principal about how you can have your child evaluated for a learning disability. (Regardless of whether your child goes to a private or public school, public schools must, under law, provide these evaluations for a child when requested.) And be sure to rule out other possibilities you may not have thought of, such as vision problems, that may be affecting your child's ability to learn; have your child’s eyes checked to make sure the problem isn’t something as simple as his not being able to see properly.

If your child is diagnosed with a learning problem, remember that the diagnosis itself is an important first step in finding strategies and solutions. With early intervention, your child will have a greater chance at finding the help he needs to reach his full potential, whether the problem is dyslexia, ADHD, or dyscalculia (trouble doing mathematical calculations), or other learning disability.

Talk to your child about not feeling bad about himself or thinking that he isn't smart or cannot learn. Explain to your child that learning problems happen because some people simply take in information and process information differently, and finding ways to work around those differences can help your child figure out the material.

And be sure to reassure your child that many children have learning problems, and that most children at one point or another have trouble learning something. With patience, practice, and hard work, they will overcome these obstacles and achieve their best.

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