What Are the Signs of a Learning Disability? PDF Print E-mail

Frank E. Vargo, Ed. D.
Nicholas D. Young, Ph.D., Ed.D.

Parents commonly wonder and ask how they can know whether their child has a learning disability. While there is no one sign that shows a person has a learning disability, educational and clinical professionals look for a noticeable difference between how well a child does in school and how well he or she could do, given his or her assessed intelligence or ability. There are many signs that may indicate that a child has a learning disability, and many of those signs become apparent in elementary school, when a child is increasingly required to demonstrate learning skills and knowledge. If a child is showing a number of such specific problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability. The following is a list of questions (most here specific to elementary grades, but many applicable for adolescents and adults) that parents can ask a teacher to determine the possibility of a learning disability their child their child may have:

  • Does my child have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds?
  • Does my child have difficulties for his/her age sounding out and decoding words and letter combinations?
  • Does my child have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words?
  • Is my child often mispronouncing words or often using a wrong word that sounds similar?
  • Is my child making many mistakes when reading aloud, and does he or she repeat and pause often when reading orally?
  • Is my child having difficulty understanding what he or she reads?
  • Is my child having difficulty with spelling?
  • Does my child have very poor handwriting, or does he or she hold a pencil awkwardly for his or her age?
  • Is my child having difficulties understanding and using fundamental rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation when writing?
  • Is my child showing great difficulties expressing ideas in writing?
  • Is my child having difficulties with organizing his or her thoughts when attempting to write organizationally?
  • Does my child appear to have difficulties following verbal directions?
  • Does my child appear to have difficulties making him or herself understood by using language; for instance, is he or she able to verbalize feelings, frustrations, etc., at a developmentally appropriate level?
  • Does my child appear to have a limited developing vocabulary for his or her age?
  • Does my child appear to have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say at a developmentally appropriate level?
  • Does my child appear often unable to think of the word he or she needs when speaking or writing?
  • Does my child appear to have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, stories, and sarcasm at a developmentally appropriate level?
  • Is my child often unable to retell a story in order and in the appropriate sequence initially presented?
  • Is my child showing difficulties following the social rules of conversation—for instance, appropriately “taking turns” when conversing with another; standing at an appropriate distance from a listener, etc.?
  • Is my child having difficulties memorizing and using math facts at appropriate grade levels; for instance, memorizing the “times tables,” etc.?
  • Is my child having difficulty understanding and applying grade-appropriate mathematical concepts and ideas?
  • Does my child appear to be having difficulties knowing where to begin a task and then following through with the organization and process of completing that task?
  • Is my child having difficulty in class remaining focused and attentive at a developmentally appropriate level?

A teacher who observes a child over time in a classroom setting can provide parents with valuable information as to how he or she is able to learn and function in school in all of the ways that he or she should be able to for his or her age and grade level. If a teacher and parents feel that a child has apparent problems learning to read, write, listen, speak, or do math, then it is appropriate to further investigate those concerns. Such investigations may appropriately include a comprehensive evaluation by appropriate professionals—neuropsychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, etc.—to clarify specific learning problems and also to rule out any other issues that may be affecting a student’s educational progress and functioning.

Frank E. Vargo, Ed. D., is a professor of Graduate Studies in the Master of Arts (M.A.) with Concentrations in Psychology and Counseling of Union Institute & University, Vermont College. In addition, Dr. Vargo is the director of his clinic, The Fireside Center for Psychological and Educational Services, in Leominster, Massachusetts, and he is a pediatric developmental neuropsychologist at North Shore Children’s Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts. Dr. Vargo’s specializations include the diagnosis and treatment of children and adults with learning disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders, and he is a highly regarded adult, child, and family therapist.

Nicholas D. Young, Ph.D., Ed.D., has worked in diverse educational roles for over 20 years including serving as director of student services, principal, graduate professor, higher education administrator, and superintendent of schools. Dr. Young currently serves as the Past President of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) and as the Chair of MASS Small and Rural Schools Task Force. He has presented and published widely on a variety of topics in education and psychology.