Ask the Experts

Could It Be A Learning Disability?

An ADHD diagnosis isn’t always the answer. Learn how certain red flags, like an inability to communicate or difficulty remembering facts, might mean your child is struggling with a learning disability.

If math is a nightmare for your child, he may have a learning disability. Learn the signs of dyscalculia, and what to do if your child has it.
If math is a nightmare for your child, he may have a learning disability. Learn the signs of dyscalculia, and what to do if your child has it.

Andrew was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in first grade. In the fifth grade, his parents brought him to see me for an evaluation after doing poorly in school. Although his hyperactivity and inattention were under control, he had difficulty retaining what he read and knowing what to write when he was assigned a paper. An evaluation showed that he had both Learning Disabilities (LD) and ADHD.

Melissa, an eighth-grader, was failing her courses. Her teachers encouraged Melissa’s parents to have her evaluated for ADHD. I found that, while she had difficulty maintaining attention when doing homework or independent work in class, she didn’t have problems in other settings.

Curiously, her problems had not been evident in elementary school. My assessment showed that her reading, writing, and math skills were weak for her grade level.

She also struggled with organization and time management. Testing confirmed she had a learning disability. The absence of a chronic and pervasive history of inattention ruled out ADHD.

Between 30 and 50 percent of those with ADHD also have a learning disability. The reverse is also true. As a result, it is wise for parents with a child with ADHD to have him evaluated for a learning disability. Melissa’s case illustrates another problem that can confuse parents. If a learning disability is not recognized early enough, a child might exhibit ADHD-like symptoms  — fidgeting, doodling, looking around the room — that can mistakenly lead parents and teachers to conclude that he has ADHD. What to do?

First, what not to do. Don’t blame the victim -and don’t let teachers do it either. “She just doesn’t work hard enough,” “He’d have less trouble if he only paid attention” — have you heard such statements before, or have you said them to your child? No child wants to do poorly or to fail. Before you blame your child for his problems, try to find the reason for his lack of success.

Red Flags to Look For

The earlier you suspect your child may have a learning disability, the sooner you can get help. Here are some weaknesses to watch for.

In preschool, look for:

  • Communication problems, such as slow language development, difficulty with speech, problems understanding what is being said or in communicating thoughts.
  • Poor motor coordination and uneven motor development, such as delays in learning to walk, color, and/or use scissors.
  • Problems with memory, routine, and multiple instructions.
  • Delays in socialization, including interacting with other children.

In early elementary school, look for:

  • Problems with rapid letter recognition and with recognizing familiar words by sight. Difficulties learning phonemes (units of sound) and sounding out words.
  • Problems forming letters and numbers. Later, problems with basic spelling and grammar.
  • Difficulties learning math skills and doing math calculations.
  • Difficulty remembering facts.
  • Difficulty organizing materials (notebook, papers), information, and/or concepts. Losing or forgetting material, or doing work and forgetting to turn it in.
  • Not understanding oral instructions. Difficulty expressing oneself.

In later elementary school, look for:

  • Difficulty with independent reading and retaining what was read.
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts for written work.
  • Difficulty learning new math concepts and successfully applying them.
  • Increased difficulty organizing school and personal materials.

In middle school, look for:

  • Increased difficulty retaining what was read, organizing and writing papers, and mastery of more advanced math concepts.
  • Increased difficulty with organizing, planning, and developing learning strategies.

In high school, look for:

  • Increased difficulty with reading assignments, papers and/or math.
  • Increased difficulty with organization, as more independent work is expected.

Now What?

If your child has some or all of these difficulties, discuss your concerns with teachers. Request an evaluation. If they don’t think testing is warranted, speak with the principal. (If your child is in a private school, you are entitled to request an evaluation from the public school your child would have attended.) The initial evaluation may consist of observations from relevant school professionals and trial interventions. If this doesn’t indicate a learning disability, a full battery of testing should be done.

If your school refuses to do an assessment, consider hiring a professional to evaluate your child. If the results confirm an LD, go back to your school and ask that your concerns be addressed.

Once your child is found to have a learning disability, it’s important to get help, whether in re-mediating the problems or developing compensatory strategies. Accommodations in the classroom may also be needed. Remember that teachers often chalk up a child’s difficulties to ADHD, not a learning disability. Now you know the difference and can help your child succeed.

Know What’s Expected

A learning disability manifests itself in various ways. Familiarizing yourself with the goals of each grade level will help you recognize whether your child is meeting them.

  • Preschool:In addition to socialization skills, children begin to improve motor skills (coloring, cutting, drawing) and language skills (discussions, stories, play).
  • Kindergarten: A child should develop rapid letter recognition, many sound/letter associations, early number concepts, and the rudiments of writing.
  • First and second grades: A child learns to read by blending sounds with letters and sounding out words. They learn to form letters, and are taught capitalization and early punctuation. They learn basic math concepts, and should master addition and subtraction.
  • Third and fourth grades: The focus shifts from developing skills to using them. Does a child understand what he has read, and can he write a book report? Spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills are further developed, as well as the ability to express oneself on paper. Math skills expand to include multiplication and division. The student learns to express himself verbally.
  • Fifth grade/middle school: The focus shifts to using skills to learn content-history, science. Reading assignments become longer and more complex. Written assignments require the ability to conceptualize and organize thoughts. Expressing oneself well verbally is important. Basic math skills lead to more complex math concepts. Organizing papers becomes important.
  • High school: The focus is on content. It is assumed that the student can read and use what was read, take notes, organize, and write short and long papers. Math becomes still more complex. Verbal comprehension (during lectures) and expression are important. The need to independently organize materials, keep track of assignments, and complete tasks in a timely way is essential.

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