Early Warning Signs of Learning Disabilities

It is important to recognize the early warning signs of a learning disability.

Does a child enjoy listening to a story? Can he recall the events in correct sequence? Is he distracted by ambient sounds or sights as you speak with him? Children who have significant trouble with absorbing information, recalling events, speech, letters, or numbers may have a learning disability.

Parents are usually the first to recognize delays in their child reaching early developmental milestones, such as their baby’s first step or first word.

However, the learning problems of children may go unnoticed for years until they reach school where the child’s persistent difficulties in reading, writing, or math become evident. As tasks become more complex, a child with a learning disability may have problems with organization, study strategies, and remembering more information.

The first years in school

Some children with a learning disability may understand a story when read to them but struggle answering questions thereafter. Other children may be able to recite the alphabet in correct sequence, but have trouble naming individual letters when pointed out.

Parents are encouraged to recognize the early warning signs of a learning disability from as early as pre-school. A recent study conducted at the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that 67 percent of young students identified as being at risk for reading difficulties were able to achieve average or above average reading ability when they received early intervention.

Difficulties in expressive language

Early warning signs for difficulties in expressive language include:

  • Difficulty keeping words or syllables in words in correct sequence (e.g. “I go to want the bathroom. “Is it a “spaghetti” or is it “pisgetti”? Is it an “animal" or “aminal”?);
  • Using incorrect verb tenses, pronouns, or plurals (e.g. “Here is what I doed at school.”);
  • Getting to the point and clutter their speech with distracting, unnecessary information;
  • They have difficulty putting sounds together when reading words, or pulling sounds apart when trying spelling words.

Difficulties in receptive language

Early warning signs for difficulties in receptive language include:

  • Unable to retrieve information from a conversation.
  • Unable to explain important details or yesterday’s story.
  • Unable to absorb information comfortably and need it repeated.

Late or unidentified children with learning disabilities can demonstrate poor self-esteem, failure to thrive in school, and difficulty in the workplace. Because these individuals are unable to express their knowledge or struggle mastering certain skills easily, they can get frustrated, angry, and even depressed because they feel different from others.

Children who are quiet and well-behaved in school may go unnoticed and not receive special services. Individuals who possess above average intelligence and score at or above the minimum requirement for services may also fall under the radar for services.

Early warning signs of a learning disability through the ages

Sometimes it’s apparent that a child has a disability related to speech, language, reading, writing, or math.

Perhaps a child is showing problems with coordination, memory, or motor skills. There are certain clues that parents can look for that their child may exhibit at an early age. Becoming aware of the early warning signs of learning disabilities and getting children the help they need early on, provide a better chance at succeeding in school and in life.

Many young children may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors (ldonline.org): 


  • Delayed speech compared to other children,
  • Pronunciation problems,
  • Difficulty learning numbers, the alphabet, days of the week,
  • Difficulty rhyming words,
  • Restlessness,
  • Poor concentration and easily distracted,
  • Difficulty reading,
  • Trouble following directions or routines,
  • Poor grasp of a writing utensil.

Grades K-4

  • Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds,
  • Confuses basic words (runeatwant),
  • Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home),
  • Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =),
  • Slow to remember facts,
  • Slow to learn new skills, relies heavily on memorization,
  • Impulsive, difficulty planning,
  • Unstable pencil grip,
  • Trouble learning about time,
  • Poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings, prone to accidents.

Grades 5-8

  • Reverses letter sequences (soiled/solidleft/felt),
  • Slow to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies,
  • Avoids reading aloud,
  • Trouble with word problems,
  • Difficulty with handwriting,
  • Awkward, fist-like, or tight pencil grip,
  • Avoids writing assignments,
  • Slow or poor recall of facts,
  • Difficulty making friends,
  • Trouble understanding body language and facial expressions.

High School Students and Adults

  • Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing,
  • Avoids reading and writing tasks,
  • Trouble summarizing,
  • Trouble with open-ended questions on tests,
  • Weak memory skills,
  • Difficulty adjusting to new settings,
  • Works slowly,
  • Poor grasp of abstract concepts,
  • Either pays too little attention to details or focuses on them too much,
  • Misreads information.

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