Learning disorders usually present in children at a young age. However, that doesn’t always mean that a diagnosis will be provided promptly. Often, parents wonder if their child’s delays or behaviors are normal (because what’s normal, anyhow?) or think they’ll “grow out of it.” Fortunately, there are other key figures who are often able to pick up on learning disorders more quickly and easily: teachers.
This comes as no surprise, as teachers spend 7-8 hours a day with their students. In addition, they have unique training, education, and expertise working with these young individuals. Therefore, it’s important that parents and teachers work together to understand, identify, and address learning problems in kids. This will help to ensure that children with learning disabilities learn and live well alongside their classmates.
So, first and foremost: What do learning disorders look like? We’ll look at the different types of learning disorders as well as common early symptoms. Also, what exactly is autism? While autism is not a learning disability, children with autism do often have a special way of learning. We’ll talk more about it below. And finally, how can parents and teachers best partner to help a child with a learning disorder?
Note for parents: You are not a bad parent if you don’t pick up on signs of a learning disorder in your child. However, it is important that you listen to your child’s teacher when they say something seems off and to seek out professional help sooner than later.
What Are Learning Disorders? Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Others
Learning disorders interfere with areas of learning and cause children to struggle with certain topics and/or skills. For example, a child might have trouble telling their right from their left, writing, drawing, or even following instructions. While these problems might surface in childhood, these disorders are a lifelong challenge — they don’t just simply “go away.” With the right support and interventions, though, someone with a learning disability can achieve great success in school, work, and their relationships.
Some common early symptoms of learning disabilities include problems with reading, writing, and/or math; poor memory; trouble following instructions; difficulty telling time; trouble staying organized; problems paying attention; and clumsiness. Different types of learning disabilities include:
- Dyslexia: This presents as late talking, slowly learning new words, and a delay in their reading abilities.
- Dyscalculia: Dyscalculia affects one’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based problems.
- Dysgraphia: This learning disability predominately affects writing abilities including spelling, handwriting, and trouble putting thoughts onto paper.
- Auditory processing disorder: Individuals struggle to process sounds — they may confuse the order of sounds or struggle to separate two different sounds from each other; for example, they may not be able to separate someone’s voice from background music.
- Language processing disorder: This is a subset of the former disorder and is characterized by challenges in processing language or spoken communications.
- Visual perception/visual motor deficit: Those with this deficit have poor hand-eye coordination and struggle with fine motor skills. They might also have difficulty navigating their surroundings.
- Non-verbal learning disabilities: With these, children have problems with interpreting nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.
It’s important to know and keep in mind that having a learning disability does not mean the individual has below-average intelligence. In fact, many people with learning disorders are average or even above average. This is one reason why it can be difficult to diagnose a child with a learning disorder.
Is Autism a Learning Disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not a learning disorder; instead, it’s a neurological developmental disability that affects one’s ability to communicate, interact, behave, and learn. The ASD scale ranges from people who are gifted to those who are severely challenged. ASD starts presenting before the age of 3 and can continue to develop over time.
As with most disorders, ASD is not just one thing — it can’t be packed neatly into a box. The symptoms and severity vary from person to person. However, there are some common “red flags” to look out for in children. These include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Repeating words or phrases over and over
- Getting upset over minor changes
- Having obsessive interests
- Not responding to their name by 12 months old
- Having difficulty talking about their feelings or understanding others
- Reacting unusually to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
ASD centers around behavioral, developmental, cognitive, and emotional areas. Behavioral areas include inappropriate social interaction, poor eye contact, compulsive behavior, impulsivity, repetitive movements, self-harm, or persistent repetition of words or actions. Individuals with ASD may also have developmental delays in speech and language, in addition to difficulties with fine and gross motor skills.
Cognitive deficits can include intense interest in selected things or topics. Emotional signs of ASD focus on lack of eye contact, limited connection or awareness of others including siblings and peers, and emotional disconnect from parents and others.
Parents and Teachers Unite
As we touched on earlier, it’s extremely important for teachers and parents to work together to not only identify potential learning problems in children but to create the best environment possible for kids based on their unique needs.
Dr. Tom DeGeorge, PhD of Thriveworks Counseling in Philadelphia, PA—specializing in children, adolescents, relationships, and families—says parents and teachers must create a healthy partnership when working with a child who has a learning disability. And being candid about establishing that relationship is vital.
“The best thing a parent can do to assist a teacher with their child is to establish a supportive and informative relationship, letting the teacher know that you want to work with him/her to provide support,” Dr. DeGeorge explains. “By establishing an open dialogue early in the school year, you avoid any miscommunications, and both parties are better equipped to handle any future issues.”
Parents should also divulge both their child’s strengths and weaknesses to teachers. “Sharing with your child’s teacher the areas of strengths and concern for your child allows that teacher to connect in a more positive manner,” says Dr. DeGeorge. “Appropriate connections allow both parties to stay connected throughout the school year and show your child that you are invested in their education.”
Supporting Your Child Every Step of the Way
Whether you have an inkling that your child has a learning disorder or your teacher has raised their own concerns, it’s important to speak with a professional. Psychologists can perform psychological testing, which will allow all invested parties to better understand the child’s behavior, personality traits, intelligence, strengths, and weaknesses. Ultimately, these tests can help to identify and diagnose a learning disability or developmental delay. This also gives other mental health professionals (whom you may consider working with) a starting point for treatment.
Once you better understand your child’s unique needs, you can work with their teacher(s) as well as healthcare providers to address those needs — and, in turn, give them the best experience possible at school and every other facet of life.