I Suspect My Preschooler Has a Learning Disability

While learning disabilities cannot be officially diagnosed until age six, you may be concerned about developmental differences in your preschooler. Here’s what you should know.

Bringing your child to school for the first time is exciting and scary in many ways, but if you think your child may have difficulty learning, this can compound the anxiety.

Keep in mind that a learning disability can’t actually be identified until the child is at least six. Learning is a complicated process and everyone’s brain is different; some kids are just less verbal than others.

For example, girls will generally develop language sooner and have a larger vocabulary than boys. But just like grownups, children all have strengths and weaknesses. Often, with a little more time and guidance, those linguistic skills will catch up.

However, if your preschooler has trouble speaking, identifying letters and their sounds, or writing his or her name, even with repeated practice, you may be seeing the beginnings of a learning disability. Pay attention, get help, and support your child now for the best results later.

Consult an Expert

Talk to your child’s teacher and share your concerns. Teachers work with a wide variety of children and are experts at spotting problems before they become issues. They also have access to resources to narrow down the issue to its root and address it in a systematic way.

Sometimes, intervening with the kind of instruction that fits your child’s brain can be all you need to address the concern. If intervention doesn’t work, that may demonstrate that your child needs special education services. While schools cannot provide a diagnosis, special educators will assign an eligibility category, or a set of criteria or a pattern a student must fit in order to receive services to help understand and address the problem.

If your child is under six, the school is limited in the assessments they can give, as small children are more difficult to test, and results are more likely to vary with their mood and attention span. As a result, the school may give a more general eligibility to your child, like a Communication Disorder or Developmental Delay, until the child is older and may be given a comprehensive evaluation to find a more specific cause.

You may also consult your family doctor. The symptoms you see could indicate other issues, like attention deficit or autism, which could prevent language from developing properly. Your doctor can help rule these out. Bring a list of your observations and be open about your concerns.

Know Your Rights

As parent, you know your child best, so your voice is key to the special education process. If you suspect your child has a learning disability, you can request an educational evaluation from the school without any cost to you. The school must explain the evaluation process to you and get your consent before they proceed, and they must educate you on the results of the evaluation.

If the evaluation indicates that your child is eligible for special education, the school has to review her education plan with you and get your consent before they begin. If, at any point, you feel left out of the decision-making process, if the school is hesitant to give you information about your child, or changes the plan without you, you should consider these red flags and speak up immediately. For more information on your rights as a parent, go online to your state’s department of education website or ask your teacher for a copy of your parental rights.

Support Your Child

Every child is different, and has her own strengths. Don’t be so worried about your child’s deficits that you forget to celebrate her accomplishments. Remember that it’s just as important to cultivate your child’s sense of curiosity and the fun of learning new things. If school is a miserable experience, your student will withdraw from participating.

Sometimes helping means advocating for your child to get more support, and sometimes it means giving her more room to grow and explore. If your child doesn’t qualify for special education services right away, she may later. In the meantime, practice skills with her at home — you can ask the teacher for resources to help — by reading favorite books together, trying to limit “screen time” in front of the television (which may inhibit language development), and making it fun to learn new things. Continue to monitor your child’s academic progress to celebrate progress and address any new problems that arise.

For more information, visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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