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Does Your Child Have a Learning Disability?

How to spot signs in struggling students and enhance school success.

Four years ago, Nicole Weiss noticed her oldest daughter, then in first grade, was struggling with writing, spelling, and memorizing CVC or “consonant-vowel-consonant” words like “cat” and “hot.” “My gut was telling me that something was not right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” says Weiss, a Longmont mom of two.

Weiss recognized other red flags: letter confusion, a failure to put shoes on the correct foot or be able to tie them, and an inability to ride a two-wheel bike, unlike her peers.

When her daughter read, she labored with fluency (reading accurately, quickly, and with expression) and comprehension, despite being an articulate speaker. “But when we read [a] story to her, she fully understood the meaning,” Weiss says.

This story is a common one, says Elsa Cardenas-Hagan, a speech and language pathologist and chairperson for the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.

“Usually the children that seem pretty verbal and seem like they should be able to have these skills oftentimes ask, ‘Why am I having this trouble because I’m just as smart as anyone else?’” Cardenas-Hagan says. “When a child isn’t keeping up with peers and has all the potential to keep up, then we worry.”

After paying for a private evaluation, Weiss’ daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joining the one in five U.S. students who face learning and attention issues, according to several organizations including the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

In the organization’s report “The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5,” based on data from the 2015-2016 school year, 48 percent of parents believe incorrectly that children will outgrow these difficulties; 33 percent of educators say that sometimes what others call a learning disability is just laziness.

As defined by the NCLD, learning and attention disorders like dyslexia and ADHD “are brain-based difficulties in reading, writing, math, organization, focus, listening comprehension, social skills, motor skills, or a combination of these.” However, they are “not the result of low intelligence, poor vision or hearing, or lack of access to quality instruction.”

“It’s actually a neurological disorder,” says Stephanie Sharp, a Denver-based, licensed child psychologist with specialized training in assessment. “The brain literally works differently for kiddos and individuals with learning disabilities.”

If you suspect your child is suffering from a learning disability, start here:

The earlier, the better.

“Don’t wait and see,” says Cardenas-Hagan. “Parents are often guilty of saying, ‘Maybe it’s just a part of development.’ It’s almost as if [parents] are thinking it’ll work itself out.”

Sharp says, the more quickly professionals can identify something is not working for a student, the quicker they can find an effective intervention that’s proving to work. “If we’re able to get in there and intervene early [in early elementary school], the outcomes are better,” she adds.

Early intervention also means curbing social and emotional difficulties. “[Kids] start having more self-awareness and comparing themselves to peers. They start feeling different,” Sharp says. “That can really come into play and affect their self-esteem. It’s another reason why early intervention is the key.”

Talk with teachers.

It’s always beneficial to establish good communication with your child’s teacher early, before problems arise. “Ask questions of the teacher, ‘How is my child compared to others?’ ‘How did my child do on these screenings?’” says Cardenas-Hagan.

The idea is to keep discussions calm. “Your emotions are high; this is your kid,” says Weiss, who is earning a master’s degree in special education. “But coming in like a bull in a china shop just makes people not want to deal with you. If you feel like there is something that might not work for your child, have a chat with the teacher and try to problem solve it.”

As a result of early intervention, fourth grade was the best yet for Weiss’ daughter. “She was the secretary of the student council, on a swim team, and built great relationships with friends,” says Weiss.

Consider private testing.

Having worked in the school system, Sharp suggests hiring a private practitioner, simply because schools are often lacking the resources, training, and time to evaluate students quickly. “The benefit of clinical evaluation is that we have more time that we can spend really delving into the data and our backgrounds are, in particular, focused on these types of [learning disability] assessments,” Sharp says. “We can work with the school team and gather all that data, identify what’s happening, and come up with a plan.”

These evaluations can result in an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a special-education plan, or a 504 plan, which provides extra support for a student’s (ages three to 21) individual challenges. Protected under differing legislation and varying slightly from one another, each provides accommodations for students while allowing them to remain in a standard-classroom setting with peers.

“Sometimes private evaluations can be helpful, depending on the disability evaluation and whether or not they align with the [Colorado Department of Education’s] definition of a disability,” says Dr. Claire Thomas-Duckwitz, a Lyons-based licensed psychologist specializing in individuals with neuro-developmental disabilities, and a school psychologist. “These diagnoses are often a messy process, and sometimes the law isn’t clear,” she says. “But more or less, private evaluations can often lead to 504 plans; IEPs are trickier.”

Thomas-Duckwitz says it’s important for families to keep in mind that the plans are complicated, and it’s difficult to recommend a one-size-fits-all approach. As parents begin to navigate their child’s learning disabilities, don’t give up. Answers do exist, but be prepared that finding the ones that can help your child might take a while.

Eight signs your child may have a learning disability, according to the National Institutes of Health:

  1. Difficulty with reading and/or writing
  2. Problems with math skills
  3. Difficulty remembering
  4. Problems paying attention
  5. Trouble following directions
  6. Poor coordination
  7. Difficulty with concepts related to time
  8. Problems staying organized

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, research supports the existence of contributing factors that may help alert parents to learning disabilities:


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