Does My Child Have a Learning Disability?
If you suspect your child might have a learning disability, here's how to start planning.
Although many kids may struggle with schoolwork throughout their academic careers, it’s often hard to know if your child has a learning disability. There is no one behavior or learning difficulty that equals a diagnosis and learning disabilities can affect nonacademic areas of your child’s life, too. So, what happens when you suspect your child might have a disability? Educators and experts have shared their thoughts on how to get your child evaluated for a learning disability and how you can support her academically and in everyday efforts.
Symptoms of a Learning Disability
A learning disability can present in many different ways, says Colin Montgomery, a family educator at INCLUDEnyc and a former special education teacher. A learning disability is simply a disorder in one or more of the processes kids use in understanding and using language, and can express itself in reading, writing, or math, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It can also be nonverbal or look like an attention issue because your child has an auditory processing difficulty.
The many issues that might arise because of a learning disability make it difficult to figure out if your child has one. After all, it’s common for kids have trouble with certain units in science class or resist doing their homework. Sometimes, you need to puzzle it out to see if a learning disability is to blame.
“Inside the classroom you can see kids struggling. Then you can see them come home and be unhappy to do their homework,” says Cassie Reilly, the transition coordinator at Northport High School. “Homework gives parents a chance to see if kids are able to apply the skills they’re learning at school, at home independently. And if they’re not able to, that’s a sign to reach out to the teacher.”
Another sign of a learning disability, Reilly says, can be that your child is trying so hard to get something right but is making no progress. When you hear “needs to be working more toward potential” or “not trying hard enough” from your child’s teacher, that’s a warning.
Unlike children with intellectual disabilities, kids with learning disabilities often have average or above-average IQs that their grades don’t reflect. When your child’s intellectual abilities do not match up with his ability to do schoolwork, that’s a red flag, says Erica Maltz, founder and CEO of WhizKidz Tutoring LLC in Westchester and a former educator. Poor executive functioning can also come into play with learning disabilities.
“If you hear from a teacher that your child is disorganized, disengaged, not completing assignments…it might be a sign of learning troubles,” Maltz says.
Could it be Something Other Than a Learning Disability?
“With some students, you might think it’s a learning disability, but they could be moving from another school or district in New York, or another state, and they just didn’t have good instruction [before],” Montgomery says. “[Learning issues] might be a function of being a multilingual learner, or the student wasn’t given appropriate instruction in the past.”
Transitioning between grades can pose challenges for some students, Reilly says, and sometimes anxiety is just anxiety. Parents and educators need to consider the big picture of the child and evaluate her educational strengths and weaknesses against each other.
Harold Levinson, M.D., director of the Levinson Medical Center for Learning Disabilities in Great Neck, points out that some symptoms of learning disabilities can be attributed to inner ear and cerebellum problems—issues that can be fixed with medication. If your child is finding learning difficult but also has memory and speech problems, uncoordinated balance, poor concentration, high activity levels and impulsivity, and was late to walk and talk, he might have an inner ear issue.
What Should I Do?
If you’ve exhausted alternative explanations and still suspect a learning disability, you should begin the process of getting help. While many parents proceed directly to getting their child evaluated for an Individualized Education Program, there are some other options to consider first. For example, many schools offer intervention programs such as extra help in certain subjects that kids can participate in without an IEP. Completing a year of extra programming in areas where she’s struggling might be enough to get your kid up to speed.
"The [New York City] DOE is supposed to provide at-risk services [called Response to Intervention] for students who are behind academically,” Montgomery says. “There should be opportunities to get that foundational instruction, repeated instruction, without needing to automatically get an IEP.” In fact, the New York State Department of Education mandates all schools offer RTI, though districts have the freedom to design their own programs as long as they meet basic state criteria.
Schools also generally screen students’ math and reading levels at the beginning of the year. If you’ve previously been concerned about your child, now is a good time to check with her teacher and see if she has progressed from last year. The City, a nonprofit news outlet, recently reported that two Brooklyn elementary schools will implement a basic screening for dyslexia that will hopefully help diagnose more kids, earlier.
Start by talking to your child’s teacher, Maltz says, and other professionals involved in your child’s life—school specialists, mental health professionals, and tutors. And if a teacher says your child is fine, but your gut tells you he is not, you should still proceed in getting help. Another tip? If you don’t have one already, get your child a tutor. Tutors working 1-on-1 with children helps tremendously in terms of skills and confidence, Maltz says, and you can always switch to a tutor who specializes in a specific learning disability, if necessary, after your child is evaluated.
Asking for an Individualized Education Program Evaluation
“Two things parents should think about: advocacy and trust,” Maltz says. “An IEP is the most beneficial way for students to get the services they need in order to learn successfully in the classroom. And parents need to be involved in every part of the process.”
Your district’s head of the Committee on Special Education should be listed on the school district website. Make your request to have a CSE meeting in writing. Ask for a full evaluation for your child—educational, psychological, speech and language, and occupational and physical therapy, if necessary. While you can pay for a private evaluation by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or neurologist, it’s very expensive and many evaluators don’t take insurance, Maltz says. Even if you decide to evaluate privately, get a school evaluation done anyway. It’s free and having more information can only help.
When going through an evaluation, ask questions. Know who is conducting different parts of the evaluation and where it will take place—some kids will benefit from seeing the testing room before the evaluation. And always make sure your child has gotten a good night’s sleep and had a healthy breakfast before testing, Maltz says.
Throughout your child’s evaluation and beyond, especially if she is classified, remain her supporter and cheerleader, Maltz says. Encourage him to take an active role in understanding his learning disability and advocating for himself. Many students have recently started attending their IEP and CSE meetings. If your child understands his IEP, he can notice when standards are not being met in the classroom.
“It’s important to remember, also, that it is not [you] and your child against ‘the system,’” Maltz continues. “Everyone sitting at the table [during a CSE meeting] does want what’s best for your child so [she] will become an independent learner in the future. And when you go in prepared, it’s a different ballgame.”
Maximizing Your Child’s Individualized Education Program
Your child’s IEP should be responsive and supportive, says Colin Montgomery, family educator at INCLUDEnyc. The program usually includes two sections: The Present Levels of Performance discusses your child’s current academic standing, strengths and areas that need work, and social and physical development. The Measurable Annual Goals section outlines the skills your child needs to build upon to reach his goals. The IEP should also note the following:
The area(s) the student is struggling and the goal(s) or intervention to help her progress in that area
- The family should have a clear understanding of how they can reinforce support at home.
- For learning disabilities, teachers should break down instructions into clear steps, organizational tools, and checklists; prioritize foundational skills that students are lagging in [like phonics in reading] while also providing support in grade level standards.
- Organizational tools, like graphic calculators and checklists, that can help students access the grade level curriculum
- For writing, teachers should use modeled examples and tools that help with each step of the writing process.
- Executive functioning skills (and which tools can help) should be mentioned if they are an issue for your child.
Remember that your goal is to give your child the skills for everyday life, not just get her to grade level, says Cassie Reilly, the transition coordinator at Northport High School. It’s about understanding what she can do and helping her reach her potential.
By Jacqueline Neber