How to Spot Early Signs of Learning Disabilities

Three Parts:Considering Risk Factors and Early Indicators in ChildrenSpotting Signs in Early Education SettingsIdentifying Signs of Certain Common Learning Disabilities

The term “learning disability” can strike fear into the parents of small children. In reality, though, most children with learning disabilities have normal (or even above normal) intelligence and only require some adaptation and individualization in the learning process in order to succeed. The first step in treating a learning disability is diagnosing it, but an accurate diagnosis of a learning disorder in a young child can be a challenge.[1] If you have younger children, however, you may be able to spot early signs of potential learning disabilities and (in coordination with teachers, doctors, etc.) take proactive, adaptive measures.

Part 1
Considering Risk Factors and Early Indicators in Children

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    Weigh your child’s risk factors for a learning disability. A learning disability can occur in any child, and the potential causes are numerous and often indeterminate. There are, however, certain risk factors during the earliest stage of life that may increase the likelihood of a learning disability.[2]
    • For example, premature babies are more likely to develop learning disabilities. Certain early life injuries or illnesses, particularly if they affect the brain, can also increase the risk. In some cases, frequent ear infections or sleep disorders in young children can also indicate an increased likelihood of a learning disability.
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    Track delays in speech, walking, and other motor skills. Part of why it is so difficult to identify a learning disability in a young child is that all kids develop at their own pace. Some walk at nine months, others at twelve, still others at fourteen. Some infants pick up talking quickly and chatter away, while others acquire language skills more slowly. That said, noticeable delays in the development of skills like walking, talking, and manipulating objects with the hands can sometimes indicate a learning disability.[3]
    • Everyone seems to have an opinion on the “right” age for an infant to begin walking or talking, but you should rely on your child’s doctor to conduct regular assessments and determine whether your infant is on a typical path.
    • For sake of reference, though, most babies start walking at around 12–15 months, speaking two or three words (other than "Mama" or "Dada") at around 12–15 months, and can stack a few wooden blocks with their hands by around 15 months.[4]
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    Take note of atypical behaviors and skill levels. Children with learning disabilities are sometimes described as restless, impulsive, impetuous, inconsistent, easily distracted, and inappropriate in behavior. Of course, plenty of kids without learning disabilities also possess one or more of these qualities. Look for qualities and behaviors that are noticeably more significant or unusual for a child of your kid’s age.[5][6]
    • You may also notice difficulties in regards to age-appropriate skills. Preschool-age children (between three and five years old) should be learning skills like like identifying words that rhyme, or differentiating between right and left, up and down, before and after, first and last, and yesterday and tomorrow.
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    Watch for a lack of enthusiasm for childhood activities. Children with learning disabilities are sometimes shy or introverted, and may have trouble making friends. They might prefer to observe the other kids playing without joining in. When engaged with other kids, they may quickly lose interest or be distracted. Once again, though, many kids without learning disabilities possess some or all of these qualities as well.[7]
    • Some kids with learning disabilities may not be shy, and yet still have difficulty interacting with other kids and engaging in activities with them. Some, for instance, are prone to talking rapidly and at length on a single topic that the other kids may not find interesting.

Part 2
Spotting Signs in Early Education Settings

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    Talk to your child’s teacher. You know your particular child better than anyone else, but an experienced preschool or kindergarten teacher has observed or interacted with dozens or hundreds of kids. He may pick up on possible signs of a learning disability that you as a parent are unable to perceive. Talk to your child’s teacher(s) regularly and raise the topic of potential learning disabilities if you have any concerns.[8]
    • Whether or not your child has a diagnosed learning disability, work with her teacher(s) to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses and adjust the educational experience to better utilize the former and minimize the latter.
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    Ask about speech and language concerns. You or your young child’s teacher may notice, for example, that your kid can run through the “ABC song” flawlessly and yet have trouble identifying individual letters. Or, he may demonstrate pronunciation difficulties without any speech impediment, or have trouble identifying and recalling new words.[9]
    • Remember as always, however, that all children develop at a unique pace and on a unique path. If your child’s speech and/or language concerns are to the point that he doesn’t want to learn anymore, that can be an indicator of a possible learning disability.
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    Look into difficulties with reading, writing, or mathematics. Even in preschool, signs of challenges in these core aspects of learning may be apparent to a teacher. If your child has delayed development in one or more of these areas, and especially if the delay is combined with a lack of enthusiasm or interest, further investigation into the possibility of a learning disability may be warranted.[10]
    • For example, a child who has a lot of difficulty properly grasping a pencil or crayon may have difficulties with hand-eye coordination related to a learning disability. An inability to visualize the concepts of addition and subtraction could be another sign.
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    Consider other possible signs as well. School settings provide ample opportunities for interaction with other kids, so problems with interest or ability to make friends or play with others will often become more apparent than at home. Extreme separation anxiety might also indicate a possible learning disability.[11]
    • Issues with poor coordination, such as falling regularly or having trouble joining in physical activities, might also be more clear in school. Or, challenges with paying attention, following directions, or keeping organized may be more obvious to a teacher than a parent.[12]

Part 3
Identifying Signs of Certain Common Learning Disabilities

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    Watch for indications of dyslexia. Learning disabilities come in many forms, and are truly unique to each individual. Dyslexia, though, is one of the most common learning disabilities. Children with this condition often have difficulty recognizing the connections between letters and sounds or with spelling and word recognition.[13]
    • In younger children, potential signs of dyslexia can include: delayed speaking ability; difficulty learning songs and rhymes; difficulty distinguishing left from right; trouble remembering numbers in order; difficulty expressing himself and/or understanding what others are saying.
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    Look for evidence of dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a condition that causes difficulty with writing, often characterized by awkwardness in holding and using a writing instrument to the point of body discomfort. Not everyone with poor handwriting has dysgraphia, but incurably poor handwriting is one potential indicator of the condition.[14]
    • Recognizing dysgraphia can be more difficult in young children who can’t yet write letters and words extensively. But watch for a strong dislike of drawing pictures or trying to write letters, or an interest in drawing or writing that quickly wanes once the child makes an attempt.
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    Consider possible signs of dyscalculia. Like dysgraphia, dyscalculia is a learning disability that usually becomes more apparent as a child gets older. It typically creates a difficulty in understanding basic mathematical concepts like positive and negative numbers, fractions, and arithmetic.[15]
    • Young children with this condition may have difficulty describing or understanding simple arithmetic (like adding or taking away “apples”), or struggle to understand sequencing (such as the time sequencing of events).
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    Identify signs of Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). Also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder, APD affects sound and how it is processed by the brain.[16] If your child has APD, she will be unable to distinguish between similar-sounding words (like belt vs. build, three vs. free); be unable to locate where sounds are coming from; be unable to block out background noise and find it distracting; take all language as literal, making metaphors, puns, and jokes difficult to understand; find it difficult to remember information given verbally, including directions.[17] One sign of APD is if your child says "What?" a lot, even if you know she heard what you said.[18]
    • Language Processing Disorder (LPD) is a specific type of APD in which the child struggles only with processing language and does not affect how other sounds (background noises, where sound is coming from, etc.) are interpreted.[19] A child with LPD will find it difficult to interpret spoken language and will struggle to express herself verbally. She may be able to draw or describe and object but be unable to to give its specific name.[20]
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    Notice signs of Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVD or NVLD). A child with NVLD has superior verbal skills, but will have difficulties with his motor, visual-spatial and social skills.[21] This child may have difficulty with social interactions because he has difficulty recognizing facial expressions or body language. He will have difficulty with fine motor skills like tying shoes and you may notice bad handwriting; he may also appear "clumsy," often bumping into things or people and have difficulty with understanding directions and spacial orientation.[22]
    • A child with NVLD may also ask a lot of repetitive questions in class — to the point of being disruptive — and have difficulty switching gears.[23]
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    Pay attention to difficulties with visual perceptions. A child with Visual Perceptual or Visual Motor Deficit has difficulty processing information that is delivered visually, or through the eyes. You can watch for certain behaviors that indicate Visual Motor Deficit, such as closing one eye while working, holding papers at an odd angle while reading, yawning while reading, holding writing instruments too tightly (to the point that they sometimes break), and complaining about sore eyes and words blurring on the page.[24]
    • She may also lose her place while reading; have difficulty copying, cutting, and pasting; and often mix up similar-looking letters, like b and d or p and q.[25]


  • Never assume a learning disability or try to diagnose one yourself. Use your observations and those of others (such as teachers) as guidance, but rely on medical and/or mental health professionals to make the actual determination. A clear diagnosis may not be possible until your child is around ten years old, though.
  • Though not considered a learning disability, dyspraxia is sometimes present in children with dyslexia, dyscalculia or ADHD.[26] Dyspraxia is a condition that affects coordination and can make balance and posture difficult for your child. Watch for excessive clumsiness and/or difficulty with tasks that require fine motor skills.

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Categories: Attention and Developmental Disorders