How to Recognize Early Signs of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are usually not diagnosed until students have been in school for about three years, but there are often early signs of disabilities that parents may notice. More importantly, there are also strategies and resources that can help.


Know the Risks and Contributors

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The presence of early risk factors does not conclusively cause a child to have learning disabilities, but it indicates a need to monitor for early intervention needs.

Risk factors for learning disabilities include:

  • Family history of learning disabilities;
  • Injuries and long-term illnesses affecting neurological development
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Poor prenatal medical care and nutrition
  • Prenatal injury or delivery complications
  • Exposure to environmental toxins such as lead or toxic mold
  • Abuse and neglect

It is important to understand that not all learning disabilities occur because of poor prenatal habits. Fortunately, however, many prenatal risks are preventable.


Early Childhood Delays Should Be Monitored

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Developmental delays in any of the following can suggest the potential for learning disabilities:

  • Gross Motor - Large muscle movements such as standing, walking, or pulling up.
  • Fine Motor - Small muscle movements such as grasping objects, moving fingers and toes.
  • Communication - Ability to understand language or to use speech.
  • Cognitive Skills - Ability to think and solve problems.
  • Social/Emotional - Ability to interact appropriately with others and show appropriate emotional responses.

When Delays Are a Problem

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Developmental milestones are reached at predictable rates, but mild differences in development among children are normal. Consequently, moderate delays do not always indicate a problem. It is important to be aware of typical development rates for infancy and early childhood so you can note when a possible delay may occur.


Routine Checkups Can Detect Learning Disabilities and Delays

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Your pediatrician will examine your baby at birth to check vital signs and your child's response to various stimuli. During regular checkups throughout your child's early development, the doctor will check and monitor your child's physical development, cognitive functioning, vision, speech, and language. Keep notes and questions to share your concerns. If there is evidence of a problem, referrals will be made at that time to ​early intervention specialists for evaluation and treatment if necessary.


Signs of Learning Disabilities Can Be Seen at School

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After the first few months of preschool, schedule a meeting with your child's teacher. Share any concerns you have, and ask if your child is on track with development compared to other children. Public school districts provide screening and assessment to determine if developmental delays are present. If so, a school administrator will meet with you to discuss early intervention options available to you. An individual education plan, or similar family services, will be developed to address your child's needs.


Recognize Learning Disabilities as Basic Skills Are Taught

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Children continue to develop at different rates in primary school years. By the time they enter third grade, children should be able to read simple chapter books at grade level, write simple sentences, add and subtract, solve simple word problems, and begin to multiply.

Students may not perform these tasks with complete accuracy. It is normal for some letter reversals and mirror writing to appear in a child's work through first and second grade. Most students will learn to correct these errors with instruction, and by third grade these errors should be infrequent.


Learning Disabilities Show Themselves in a Variety of Ways

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By third grade, suspect a problem when your child:

  • Does not connect letters and sounds
  • Cannot read grade-level text
  • Cannot understand what they read
  • Cannot understand number concepts
  • Does not understand that numerals represent quantities
  • Cannot form letters or remember which letters stand for which sounds
  • Has difficulty following directions, even with help
  • Has poor memory
  • Has difficulty communicating with peers and adults
  • Cannot repeat information or copy items
  • Has difficulty following lines when cutting
  • Has difficulty with attention or behavior

Is Your Child's Learning Problem Severe?

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Keep notes of your concerns to share with your child's teachers. Keep work samples, and go over these with the teacher. If you suspect your child has a disability, ask the teacher, principal, or counselor about assessment to determine if your child has a disability. They will help you through any screening activities, the process of assessment, and completing a referral for your child.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Center for Learning Disabilities. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends, and Emerging Issues.

  2. University of Michigan. Developmental Delay.

  3. Fischer JP, Koch AM. Mirror writing in typically developing children: A first longitudinal study. Cogn Dev. 2016;38:114-124. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2016.02.005

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.