Learning Disabilities – Signs and Symptoms in Children & Youth

Does your child struggle with school? Do they dread reading out loud, writing an essay, or tackling a math problem? While every kid has trouble with homework from time to time, if a certain area of learning is consistently problematic, it might indicate a learning disorder. By understanding all you can about learning disabilities, you can ensure your child gets the right help to overcome classroom challenges and succeed in life.

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities, or learning disorders, are an umbrella term for a wide variety of learning problems. A learning disability is not a problem with intelligence or motivation. Kids with learning disabilities aren’t lazy or dumb. In fact, most are just as smart as everyone else. Their brains are simply wired differently. This difference affects how they receive and process information.

Simply put, children and adults with learning disabilities see, hear, and understand things differently. This can lead to trouble with learning new information and skills, and putting them to use. The most common types of learning disabilities involve problems with reading, writing, math, reasoning, listening, and speaking.

Children with learning disabilities can, and do, succeed

It can be tough to face the possibility that your child has a learning disorder. No parents want to see their children suffer. You may wonder what it could mean for your child’s future, or worry about how your kid will make it through school. Perhaps you’re concerned that by calling attention to your child’s learning problems they might be labelled “slow” or assigned to a less challenging class.

But the important thing to remember is that most kids with learning disabilities are just as smart as everyone else. They just need to be taught in ways that are tailored to their unique learning styles. By learning more about learning disabilities in general, and your child’s learning difficulties in particular, you can help pave the way for success at school and beyond.

If you’re worried, don’t wait

If you suspect that your child’s learning difficulties may require special assistance, please do not delay in finding support. The sooner you move forward, the better your child’s chances for reaching their full potential.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities look very different from one child to another. One child may struggle with reading and spelling, while another loves books but can’t understand math. Still another child may have difficulty understanding what others are saying or communicating out loud. The problems are very different, but they are all learning disorders.

It’s not always easy to identify learning disabilities. Because of the wide variations, there is no single symptom or profile that you can look to as proof of a problem. However, some warning signs are more common than others at different ages. If you’re aware of what they are, you’ll be able to catch a learning disorder early and quickly take steps to get your child help.

The following checklist lists some common red flags for learning disorders. Remember that children who don’t have learning disabilities may still experience some of these difficulties at various times. The time for concern is when there is a consistent unevenness in your child’s ability to master certain skills.

Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Preschool age
  • Problems pronouncing words
  • Trouble finding the right word
  • Difficulty rhyming
  • Trouble learning the alphabet, numbers, colours, shapes, days of the week
  • Difficulty following directions or learning routines
  • Difficulty controlling crayons, pencils, and scissors, or colouring within the lines
  • Trouble with buttons, zippers, snaps, learning to tie shoes
Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Ages 5-9
  • Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Unable to blend sounds to make words
  • Confuses basic words when reading
  • Slow to learn new skills
  • Consistently misspells words and makes frequent errors
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts
  • Difficulty telling time and remembering sequences
Signs and symptoms of learning disabilities: Ages 10-13
  • Difficulty with reading comprehension or math skills
  • Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems
  • Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud
  • Poor handwriting
  • Poor organizational skills (bedroom, homework, desk is messy and disorganized)
  • Trouble following classroom discussions and expressing thoughts aloud
  • Spells the same word differently in a single document

The diagnosis and testing process for learning disabilities

Diagnosing a learning disability is a process. It involves testing, history taking, and observation by a trained specialist. Finding a reputable referral is important. Start with your child’s school, ask your insurance company, doctor, or friends and family who have dealt successfully with learning disabilities.

Types of specialists who may be able to test for and diagnose learning disabilities include:

  1. Clinical psychologists
  2. School psychologists
  3. Child psychiatrists
  4. Educational psychologists
  5. Developmental psychologists
  6. Neuropsychologist
  7. Psychometrist
  8. Occupational therapist (tests sensory disorders that can lead to learning problems)
  9. Speech and language therapist

Sometimes several professionals coordinate services as a team to obtain an accurate diagnosis. They may ask for input from your child’s teachers. Recommendations can then be made for special education services or speech-language therapy within the school system.

Getting help for children with learning disabilities

When it comes to learning disabilities, it’s not always easy to know what to do and where to find help. Turning to specialists who can pinpoint and diagnose the problem is, of course, important. You will also want to work with your child’s school to make accommodations for your child and get specialized academic help. But don’t overlook your own role. You know your child better than anyone else, so take the lead in looking into your options, learning about new treatments and services, and overseeing your child’s education.

Learn the specifics about your child’s learning disability. Read and learn about your child’s type of learning disability. Find out how the disability affects the learning process and what cognitive skills are involved. It’s easier to evaluate learning techniques if you understand how the learning disability affects your child.

Research treatments, services, and new theories. Along with knowing about the type of learning disability your child has, educate yourself about the most effective treatment options available. This can help you advocate for your child at school and pursue treatment at home.

Nurture your child’s strengths. Even though children with learning disabilities struggle in one area of learning, they may excel in another. Pay attention to your child’s interests and passions. Helping children with learning disorders develop their passions and strengths will probably help them with the areas of difficulty as well.

Learning disabilities, and their accompanying academic challenges, can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, and behaviour problems, but they don’t have to. You can counter these things by creating a strong support system for children with learning disabilities and helping them learn to express themselves, deal with frustration, and work through challenges. By focusing on your child’s growth as a person, and not just on academic achievements, you’ll help them to learn good emotional habits that set the stage for success throughout life.

Finding support while helping a child with learning disabilities

All children can be both exhilarating and exhausting, but it may seem that your child with a learning disability is especially so. You may experience some frustration trying to work with your child, and it can seem like an uphill battle when you don’t have the information you need. After you learn what their specific learning disability is and how it is affecting their behaviour, you will be able to start addressing the challenges in school and at home. If you can, be sure to reach out to other parents who are addressing similar challenges as they can be great sources of knowledge and emotional support.

Adapted from: HelpGuide.org International

Authors: Gina Kemp, M.A., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.