While it is true that everyone learns different skills at different rates, there are some signs that parents can keep track of if they suspect that their child might be at risk for developing a learning disability. If there are individuals in your family who have struggled with learning, or if your child has a complex medical history that is associated with increased risk of experiencing learning difficulties, here are some things that could be helpful to watch out for:
Reading. There are a few broad classes of reading difficulties. Two of the most prevalent are those who have trouble learning to decipher printed text (dyslexia) and those who demonstrate fair word reading skills but have a hard time with reading comprehension. These broad groups can also be broken down further (more information about this to come in future posts!). Some of the early indicators for dyslexia, or those who struggle to decode new words and/or recognize common sight-words, include problems with early speech/language development, color/shape identification, and imitating nonsense words. In preschool and kindergarten, some of the speech/language problems may begin to subside while difficulties with identifying letters and learning how to break down words into smaller parts (i.e., syllables) or sounds (i.e., phonemes) become increasingly apparent. Reading builds off of these phonological awareness skills, and children who struggle with breaking apart words into different parts/sounds subsequently have trouble mapping the sounds-that-make-up-words onto the symbols-that-make-up words (aka our alphabet). For those kids who show fair word reading skills but struggle more with reading comprehension, we often see broader and more persistent weaknesses with oral language (i.e., listening comprehension and oral discourse). Sometimes, the reading challenges in these kids do not become more apparent until later grades when school curriculums shift dramatically from focusing on learning-to-read to reading-to-learn and greater demands are placed on a child’s ability to learn from information they are required to read on their own. Finally, some common factors are often seen across the profiles of children who struggle with reading, including difficulties holding onto and manipulating information in mind (working memory), and quickly and easily evaluating information (processing speed).
Math. There is less that is known regarding specific etiological factors from early childhood that predict challenges in math later on. Broadly speaking, research has suggested that many of the same factors that play an important role in learning to reading (e.g., language, verbal working memory, processing speed, and phonological awareness) also play a role in math skills development. Other associated brain factors such as a child’s understanding of visual-spatial relationships and number sense, or how easily it is for you to evaluate quantity. Some early signs of difficulties with math include problems learning the principles related to counting, including 1-to-1 correspondence (i.e., when counting a group of items, each item is counted once), stable order of numbers (i.e., the order of numbers always goes 1, 2, 3, 4, etc..), cardinality (i.e., the last number you arrive at when counting represents the total amount contained within the set), and order irrelevance (i.e., counting the same items in any order, such as right to left as opposed to left to right, gives you the same answer in the end). Keep in mind, these concepts are hard for ALL children to grasp at some point, but most eventually get it over time. For instance, persistent challenges with understanding these ideas into kindergarten can lead to later problems with math skills development. Likewise, learning to add and subtract start out as step-wise processes that typically become more fluid and easy to manipulate over time. When children first learn to add, they usually start off counting all the items in both groups to get to the sum. Then, first and second graders learn a more efficient route: start counting up from the bigger number. As their understanding of number principles and place value improves, they then move on to regrouping and breaking down numbers into easier to manage pieces to help with computation (e.g., 47+56 = 40+50+13 = 103). Keeping an eye out for challenges transitioning between each of these steps may be helpful for tracking future difficulties in this domain.
A final note on the relationship between problems with attention and learning disabilities. It is true that attentional problems often co-occur with learning disabilities. However, research has consistently shown that “fixing” attentional problems does not automatically “fix” learning problems and that the two are separate entities. What we sometimes hear, though, is that, for some people, when their challenges with attention are appropriately addressed, their ability to clear their head and engage their pre-existing skills to do the work that they were assigned becomes easier. This is quite different from suddenly knowing how to do something you didn’t know how to do before!
Science has come a long way in helping teachers, educators, psychologists and learning specialists know what to look for when evaluating learning disabilities in young children. However, parents can provide rich background and contextual information to help specialists better understand how the child got to where they are at when they arrive in our exam rooms. Some of this information can be very helpful for ruling out other potential problems and differentiating between disorders that may sometimes present similarly on paper. Also, the sooner parents and teachers are able to recognize learning challenges in young children, the sooner we can get them some support and help to ensure continued success in school and life.
To learn more about dyslexia, visit the International Dyslexia Association