Learning Disabilities: How to Identify Learning Disabilities in Kids


Thinking about whether or not your child has a Boy sitting on the ground learning disability is not the foremost thought on most parents’ minds the first six weeks of a new school year. They’re more intent on getting after-school soccer schedules set up, PTA assignments taken care of, and homework routines in place. Yet, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, or NCLD, those first six weeks are the most critical time in identifying potential learning challenges. And you as a parent are one of the most critical figures in shaping a happy academic future for your child.

But many parents hesitate to act because they’re not sure if their child actually has a learning disability, and don't know what to do if he or she has one. The first step for a parent who has any doubt is to do a little bit of research to see if any learning challenges they notice qualify as “learning disabilities.” The NCLD offers an interactive checklist to help parents accurately ascertain the situation. Dr. Sheldon Horowitz, EdD, NCLD’s Director of LD Resources and  Essential Information, encourages parents to act decisively if they suspect their child has a learning disability. “Nobody knows your child better than you,” he says. “Don’t wait until someone else comes to you and says they think something is wrong. Give yourself permission to ask questions, and to have conversations with doctors and educators.”

Many parents, if they set up an appointment to have a conversation with their child’s doctor, would be surprised to learn that pediatricians do not diagnose learning disabilities so much as identify them, using group consensus with educators based on the criteria established by the child’s school district. A lot depends on context. A child that attends a rural school in the Appalachias, for instance, may not be identified as having a learning disability in comparison with his classmates, whereas a child from a wealthy family in Sun Valley, Idaho who has some difficulty reading may be identified more quickly because most of his classmates reach or exceed the benchmark set by his school. But pediatricians do play an important role in starting the ball rolling.

How to Identify Learning Disabilities in Kids

Working With Pediatricians

It is important to have a learning disability identified as soon as possible, so that a child’s educational experience can be tailored accordingly. To that end, Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, a board-certified pediatrician at The Mount Sinai Medical Center for more than 14 years, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a mom of two children, provides this checklist that parents can use with their pediatrician in any discussion about their child's academic progress:

  1. Don’t Wait – While early warning signs of learning disabilities can be identified in children as young as three or four years of age, according to the NCLD, most children with learning disabilities are recognized around third grade. Providing early help is a child’s chance for future success.
  2. Write it Down – Before your child’s back-to-school or annual physical appointment, keep a written record of any observations of your child struggling so you can share specific examples with your pediatrician. As there’s no single indicator or profile to fit everyone, parents can refer to this list of signs of LD for guidance.
  3. Come Prepared – If available, bring report cards, samples of schoolwork and notes from parent-teacher meetings. It’s also helpful to know your family’s medical history and whether or not any relatives are known to have had a learning disability or other disorder that impacts learning. Knowledge is power—the more background information you can provide, the better.
  4. Be Assertive – It’s absolutely within reason to ask your child's pediatrician to write a letter or join in a phone call with teachers, school psychologist, or other personnel. Don’t be afraid to speak up and set clear and actionable next steps.

Colored lockers

Working With Educators

Once a learning disability has been identified in a child, he or she may qualify for special education services within their school district. Soon after a parent meets with their child’s doctor, they should also meet with their child’s teacher, who is obviously another very important part of the team that helps make their child’s educational experience a happy one, to write an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or 504 Plan. These plans specify annual goals, special education and related services, accommodations, participation in state and district-wide tests, needed transition services, current performance, and measured progress. Dr. Horowitz says, “It’s a living, breathing, organic blueprint that can be changed during the course of a child’s education. Parents should involve their child in the IEP team meetings as soon as they are old enough to understand the process and take accountability for their part in it. This should be by high school, if not sooner.”

Working With Other Resources

A parent of a child recently identified as having a learning disability can be reassured that there are a plethora of resources out there to help them. The National Center for Learning Disabilities is a good resource, a means whereby people can “cut through the clutter” of internet information to find facts, support groups, and other helps specific to their needs and/or location. In general, NCLD works to:

  1. Disseminate information to and partner with parents, physicians, educators, and advocates of people with learning disabilities
  2. Work with school principals nationwide, as part of their RTI Action Network, to devise effective school-wide approaches to collecting good data on student progress, so that principals can design good research-based ways to identify and educate children with learning disabilities
  3. Provide definitive information on learning disabilities to those who influence public policy

Specifically, and more importantly to parents, NCLD provides a Resource Locator, which can direct them to chapters of organizations like the Learning Disabilities Association of America, to camps and extracurricular activities, as well as financial aid resources, videos, podcasts, and interviews with experts. Parents are advised to exercise care in selecting LD resources for their child, and make sure that any agency, person, or approach they use is based on sound, scientific data.

“Overall,” says Dr. Horowitz, “we’re just looking for happiness in learning and in life for kids with learning disabilities.” Isn’t that what we as parents ultimately want for our kids, as well?

Do you have children with learning disabilities? What were the most helpful resources to determine their needs?

All photos courtesy of Flickr (boy reading, lockers, pen).

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