A child’s learning disability may not be obvious, especially in the early years when schoolwork is less demanding. The effects of a disability can be subtle, and may only show up during certain activities or scenarios. Being adaptable creatures, children often develop ways to compensate as they grow, making a disability harder to spot. Yet experts agree that the early diagnosis of learning disabilities is crucial to a child’s academic success. It affords the opportunity for early and effective intervention and can help prevent low self–esteem and behavioral problems that may otherwise develop.
Learning disabilities, according to the National Institutes of Health, are “conditions that affect how a person learns to read, write, speak and calculate numbers. They are caused by differences in brain structure and affect the way a person’s brain processes information.” Common learning disabilities are dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia, which refer to difficulty with reading, writing, basic math concepts and coordination/fine motor skills, respectively. Other disabilities cause difficulty with speaking, listening and remembering, and reading non–verbal cues. In general, a child with a learning disability doesn’t process specific types of information in the same way as others, but the effects can be broad. For instance, a single learning disability can affect performance in multiple subject areas, while frustration over a disability can create negative attitudes about school and learning.
Children may have multiple learning disabilities, or a combination of learning disabilities and other special needs, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. An assessment by a trained professional can sort out exactly what challenges a child is facing, but parents and teachers play an essential role in observing signs that an assessment may be needed.
Sometimes, a child will do exceptionally well on an assignment one day but not the next, says Jean Bahney, Ed D, Executive Director of Special Education for the Austin ISD. “Grades can go up and down and fluctuate,” she says. Children with learning disabilities may also have trouble adjusting to new procedures or schedules, she adds, because they have worked hard to master the ones they know.
According to Bahney, about 5,000 children in the district have dyslexia, a common learning disability. If a child dislikes and avoids reading, this could indicate dyslexia, she points out. Inconsistent word recognition is another indication. A child may memorize a particular story or rely on visual cues like pictures to identify words, but when seeing the same words in isolation, may not be able to read them. Children with dyslexia often have difficulty with other aspects of language, including spelling, writing and pronouncing words. They may transpose (or switch the places of) letters and numbers in a sequence, for example, reading “felt” instead of “left” or “tip” for “pit.” Texas has specific rules and policies regarding the identification and treatment of dyslexia, which are explained in a handbook, available here http://bit.ly/2DG0Pav, along with other resources. Research has shown that about 50 percent of all children who have dyslexia have other conditions that impact learning as well, Bahney says.
If you think your child may have a learning disability, contact your child’s teacher to discuss next steps. If possible, share specific examples of the ways in which you see your child struggling with reading, arithmetic, writing, organization, listening or other areas. A wealth of information for parents about the programs and services to which children with disabilities are entitled is available at navigatelifetexas.org.
Some children with learning disabilities receive specific forms of assistance in the classroom. For instance, they might have tests read to them or be allotted extra time to complete them. Children are eligible for “504” services if their disability “greatly limits one or more major life activities,” even if they aren’t failing academically as a result. Major life activities include learning, reading, writing, concentrating and speaking, among others. Special education services are provided to children with disabilities who also have what is termed “an academic need” and tend to be more comprehensive.
Regardless, Bahney says, time is of the essence in terms of pinpointing effective strategies. “The quicker we can figure out what we need to do to help the child succeed, the quicker we can help them learn different ways to process material and or set things up so that it’s easier for them to process, the less the impact on grades or self–esteem,” she explains.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.