During the elementary-school years, a child's learning difference becomes more apparent. Youngsters must absorb new vocabulary words at the same time that academic demands increase. Kids who are struggling can fall way behind. To identify a potential learning challenge, ask yourself:
- Does your child have uneven skills — performing well in some areas, struggling in others? Success in one area shows he has the intelligence and maturity to read, but he might have a learning disability that prevents him from recognizing word sounds and linking them to letters.
- Can she decode grade-level texts as well as write simple, coherent sentences? At this age, a child should be reading on her own, as well as writing about what she has read, using accurate spelling. If her progress in acquiring these basic skills is slow, she lacks strategies for reading new words, or she stumbles when confronted with multi-syllable words, you need to find out if this is because of a learning disability.
- Does he mispronounce long, unfamiliar words? Speech should be fluent. A child who hesitates often, peppering his speech with "ums" and pauses or struggles to retrieve words or respond when asked a question, is sending important clues about a possible learning disability.
- Does she rely heavily on memorization instead of learning new skills? By 3rd grade, your child should be able to summarize the meaning of a new paragraph she just read, as well as predict what will happen next in the story.
- Is his handwriting messy, even though he can type rapidly on a keyboard? Misshapen, wobbling handwriting can be a sign that your child is not hearing the sounds of a word correctly, and therefore is unable to write them down.
- Does she avoid reading for pleasure? And when she does, does she find it exhausting and laborious? This could be a sign of a learning disability.
What to Do Now
Schedule a conference with your child's teacher, the school support staff, and your pediatrician to get their perspectives on whether your child has a learning difference. Together, you can decide if your child should be formally evaluated for a learning difference or if other steps can be taken first — perhaps moving him to a smaller class, switching teaching styles, or scheduling one-on-one tutoring or time in the resource room.
Don't be shy about asking questions: Is your child's progress within the normal range? Why is he having all this trouble? Should you consult another specialist (a neurologist, a speech-and-language expert)? Trust your gut. If you're not getting the answers you need, find someone who can give them to you. Meanwhile, at home:
- Help your child flourish: She needs to know that you love her no matter what, so put her weaknesses into perspective for her. Empathize with her frustration (remind her of some of your own school difficulties), and reassure her that you're confident she will learn to deal with it.
- Focus on what he does right and well: Does he love to paint or play baseball? Make sure he has many opportunities to pursue and succeed in those activities, and let him overhear you tell Grandma how well he played in the last game. Prominently display his trophies or ribbons.
- Start a folder of all letters, emails, and material related to your child's education. Include school reports as well as medical exams.
- Collect samples of your child's schoolwork that illustrate her strengths as well as her weaknesses.
- Keep a diary of your observations about your child's difficulties in and out of school.
- Help him set up a work area at home as well as the materials he needs to study.
- Show her how to organize her backpack and how to use a plan book for assignments.
- Coordinate with teachers so you can practice at home the skills he learns at school.