Recognizing Learning Disability Symptoms in Children

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Most students have difficulty learning at one time or another. In fact, struggling with new material is a normal part of the learning process and not always a symptom of a learning disability.

Some learning struggles can be beneficial to learners. The additional effort required to complete challenging tasks can strengthen problem-solving improve long-term memory.

Learning disabilities represent chronic problems with learning, but not all struggles a child experiences are symptoms of a disability.

Signs of Learning Disabilities

In early childhood, symptoms of learning disabilities may initially appear as developmental delays.

However, many children with developmental delays catch up if they receive early intervention in special education programs. These children don't necessarily go on to develop disabilities later in their school years.

In elementary school years, difficulty with school work and underachievement may signal more serious symptoms of learning problems. Students with symptoms that do not improve over time with appropriate interventions may have learning disabilities.

Parents and teachers may suspect a learning disability when students:

  • Make poor grades despite significant effort
  • Need constant, step-by-step guidance for tasks
  • Cannot remember problem-solving steps because they do not comprehend tasks or the logic behind them
  • Have a poor memory of spoken or written material
  • Have difficulty mastering tasks or transferring academic skills to other tasks
  • Cannot remember skills and facts over time
  • Have strong general knowledge but cannot read as in dyslexia, write as in dysgraphia, or do math as in dyscalculia at that level
  • Have difficulty with communication and language processing, expressive, and receptive language
  • Become very frustrated with school and homework
  • Have low self-esteem

Learning Disabilities and Behavior

Knowing the behavioral signs and symptoms of learning disabilities can help parents and teachers identify the need for early intervention.

The most common behavioral signs of learning disabilities are organized into two categories: internalizing and externalizing.

Common Internalizing Behaviors

Students with internalizing behaviors are generally quiet and may be withdrawn. They are embarrassed by receiving attention and worry that others will see their academic weaknesses.

These students may also demonstrate other common behaviors, including:

  • Boredom and carelessness
  • Disinterest in school or reluctance to go to school
  • Withdrawal in class
  • Disorganization, inattention
  • Work that appears sloppy or poorly done
  • Slow to respond to questions
  • Physical symptoms of stress such as headaches or stomach aches

Students with learning disabilities who internalize demonstrate behaviors that often only affect themselves. As a result, their struggles may be overlooked by the adults around them.

Common Externalizing Behaviors

Students with symptoms who externalize are hard to miss. These students are often loud and disruptive, and they seem to want attention—even if it is negative.

Students who are externalizers may enjoy joking about their poor work and take pleasure in annoying others because they feel it shifts the focus away from their weak academic skills. Inside, however, these students often feel powerless and embarrassed.

Many students with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) are externalizers.

Common externalizing behaviors include:

  • Impulsive blurting out incorrect answers
  • Breaking school rules and being referred for discipline because of behavior problems
  • Behavior problems at home
  • Aggression toward peers or adults
  • Clowning around and inappropriate joking
  • Attraction toward other underachievers
  • Delinquent behavior at home or in the community

Students who demonstrate externalizing behaviors have a more direct and obvious effect on those around them. Their struggles are typically recognized earlier than those of children with internalizing behaviors.

What to Do If You Suspect Learning Disability

If you think your child is demonstrating symptoms of a learning disability, keep a record of what you observe. Make a list of your child's behaviors as well as the strategies you are trying at home.

Contact your child's teacher, pediatrician, or counselor to discuss your child's behavioral and academic difficulties. Their teachers may be able to suggest other strategies you can use at home or school, and can help you get a referral for formal evaluation if a learning disability is suspected.

A thorough evaluation and diagnosis is the first step in determining if your child meets eligibility requirements for learning disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Children who qualify for IDEA services (special education programs) receive an individualized education program (IEP) to help them succeed at school. You can start by learning more about the specific rights under the IDEA you and your child have.

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