Recognizing Learning Disability Symptoms in Children

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

Most students have difficulty learning sometimes. In fact, struggling with new material is a normal part of the learning process and not always a symptom of learning disabilities. Some learning struggles are beneficial to learners. The additional effort required to complete challenging tasks can strengthen problem-solving improve long-term memory.

In early childhood, symptoms of learning disabilities may first appear as developmental delays in some children. However, it is important to remember that many children with developmental delays may catch up with early intervention in special education programs and will not 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. Suspect learning disability symptoms 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;
  • May have difficulty with communication and language processing, expressive, and receptive language;
  • May be very frustrated with school and homework; and
  • May have low self-esteem.

Learning Disabilities and Behavior

Knowing what behavioral signs and symptoms to look for helps parents get earlier intervention for children with learning disabilities. Common behavioral signs of disabilities fall within two categories, internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Students with learning disabilities who internalize show behaviors that mostly affect themselves and are sometimes overlooked by the adults around them. Students with externalizing behaviors have a more obvious effect on those around them and are usually recognized earlier as having problems. Both groups of students are at-risk for being seen as being problems rather than having problems.

Internalizing Learning Disabled Students

Students with internalizing behaviors are generally quiet and may be withdrawn. They are embarrassed by the attention and worry about the possibility of their academic weaknesses being seen by others. These students may show a range of 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

Common Externalizing Behaviors of Students With Learning Disabilities

Students with symptoms who externalize are hard to miss. These students are often loud and disruptive. They seem to want attention, even if it is negative. They may enjoy joking about their poor work. They may take pleasure in annoying others because they feel it shifts the focus away from their weak academic skills. Inside, however, they may feel powerless and embarrassed. There are many ways that externalizers show problems. Some of these 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

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

What to Do If You Suspect Learning Disability

If you suspect learning disability symptoms, keep a record of the problems you are having at home. List the strategies you are trying to address the symptoms. It is important to contact your child's teacher or counselor to discuss your child's problem behavior symptoms and academic difficulty. Teachers can suggest other strategies to use at home and at school and can assist you with making a referral for formal evaluation if a learning disability is suspected.

Diagnosis through evaluation is the first step in determining if your child meets eligibility requirements for learning disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Children who qualify for IDEA services, also called special education programs, will receive an Individualized education program. As a parent of a child with a disability, you have specific rights under the IDEA.

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