Recognizing Signs of Potential Learning Disabilities in Preschool
Early intervention services can make a big difference for students who are at risk for learning disabilities. What should teachers look for?
Max was 5 when he was diagnosed with a language-based learning disability. But his mother says the signs were visible earlier. She says Max had a hard time learning how to talk.
At 5, Max was identified much earlier than most students. According to a report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 38 percent of public-school students who receive special education services do so under the category of specific learning disability (SLD). But just a little over 6 percent of those students have the SLD identification by age 6; that increases to 40 percent by age 10.
Yet research shows that when students who are at risk for learning disabilities receive early intervention services, they’re less likely to need specialized instruction as they get older.
Learning disabilities are neurologically based. The brain structure and function of students who have learning disabilities differ from those of peers who don’t have the same challenges. One study found that those structural differences exist even before children begin to read.
So why is it that so few students who show early signs—like Max—are identified as having learning disabilities?
Recognizing Struggling Learners
Most preschool teachers know that some students take more time to develop and learn skills. However, while early signs of learning disabilities include delays in developmental milestones, teachers may be hesitant to jump to conclusions, thinking they need to give students adequate time to improve their skills.
Being in remote learning environments can rightfully reinforce this cautious instinct: When all students are struggling to navigate modes of learning that aren’t intuitive to preschoolers, it’s much harder to discern who is finding the act of learning challenging from those for whom learning itself is a challenge.
It’s also true that some learning challenges are much more noticeable than others. Brittney Newcomer, a nationally certified school psychologist and the associate director of learning experiences at Understood, a nonprofit organization centered on helping those with learning and thinking differences—where I also work—told me that preschool teachers are more likely to notice speech issues because delays in language development or difficulty pronouncing words are often the most prominent challenges in young children.
“Because academic skills are just emerging in preschool, it is more difficult to identify patterns with specific academic areas, such as reading and math,” Newcomer said.
This may account for why many students who receive special education support in preschool are identified as having a speech-language impairment. But Newcomer notes there is an overlap with language delays and learning disabilities.
“Difficulties with reading can be related to language deficits. Teachers should pay close attention to language-based tasks. For example, if students are showing difficulty grasping the concept of rhyming, this could demonstrate challenges with the phonological processing that is related to dyslexia,” Newcomer said.
Identifying the Signs
Not all students have difficulty with the same skills, and not all students who have difficulties have learning disabilities. Newcomer suggests that teachers pay attention to clusters of signs, such as when a student has a heightened difficulty in learning numbers, days, colors, the alphabet, and/or shapes.
Pay attention to additional early signs of language-based learning disabilities, including:
- Consistent difficulty naming familiar and everyday objects;
- Using vague words like thing;
- Struggling to come up with the right word;
- Trouble following or remembering multistep directions;
- Difficulty reciting things in the right order (like the alphabet or nursery rhymes); and
- Mixing up the sounds in multisyllabic words (“mazagine” instead of “magazine” or “cimmanom” instead of “cinnamon”).
Some students don’t have trouble with language-based tasks, but struggle with math-based skills, like numeracy. Look for these common, noticeable signs in math:
- Trouble counting out loud (skipping over numbers or reciting them out of order);
- Trouble recognizing, creating, or replicating patterns;
- Trouble connecting number symbols to number words, such as knowing that the numeral 5 goes with the word five;
- Difficulty generalizing a number to more than one group of objects, such as understanding that six can be six crayons, six books, or six children; and
- Difficulty understanding one-to-one correspondence.
Supporting Struggling Learners
Teachers aren’t (and shouldn’t be) diagnosticians, but they’re often the first to notice signs of possible learning disabilities in their students. Noting when, where, and how students are encountering problems with learning and pinpointing specific areas of struggle are the first steps to supporting learners.
Using an observation tracker (like this one) can help identify trends and patterns, such as particular times of day when students struggle or how they respond to intervention or small group instruction. Teachers can also put into place supportive practices that help all students but are especially helpful for those with learning disabilities. For example:
- Using clear language to explain and teach a new skill;
- Narrating or doing a “think-aloud” when demonstrating classroom routines;
- Making classroom expectations explicitly clear and displaying them;
- Providing directions in both written and picture form;
- Teaching, practicing, and reteaching expected behaviors and routines; and
- Providing immediate feedback so students can correct behavior or skills in real time.
Going the Extra Mile
For some students, supportive practices may not be enough. Helping students with potential learning disabilities also relies on early evaluation and targeted intervention, which requires knowing your school’s referral for evaluation process.
Once teachers know what the steps for referral are, it’s time to reach out to the student’s family. Here are some tips to navigate conversations successfully:
- Be direct about why you’re reaching out, but remember that families have their own perspectives and interactions with their child that may not match what you’re seeing.
- Share specific concerns by describing what you’re seeing, providing context, sharing examples, and explaining why this is something you’d like to explore more.
- Ask for input and thoughts in an open-ended way that doesn’t impose your viewpoint. That may sound like, “What are your thoughts?” or “Have you noticed anything similar at home?”
- Share resources to help increase understanding of learning disabilities and developmental delays. Students who have learning disabilities tend to have signs and symptoms outside of school, too, so families may want to use an observation tracker.
- Discuss clear next steps. If referral for evaluation seems like the next reasonable step, loop in the appropriate support staff to explain and walk the family through the process.
Keep the focus on finding solutions to support the student. That support can make a world of difference. Remember Max? He’s now a successful teenage entrepreneur, something which he and his family credit, in part, to the support of the teachers who recognized his challenges and understood how to encourage his strengths.