By Kathryn Streeter
Featured Image by Holly Young Photography
As parents encounter troubling behaviors from young children, how are they supposed to know the difference between a difficult phase and signs of a persistent learning disability? This question has become more and more urgent as we learn how critical it is that parents of children with these kinds of problems quickly identify and implement appropriate professional and home-based support.
What To Look For
Potential development challenges can be spotted at a very young age, says Dr. Anna Osipova, Assistant Professor in the Division of Special Education and Counseling at California State University, Los Angeles. She divides these benchmarks into four categories, referencing “How to Reach and Teach Children and Teens with ADD/ADHD” by author Sandra Rief.
Behavior (by age 3)
- Playing alone
- Using toys with specific function (e.g., cars) with a different purpose (e.g., to spin wheels)
- Difficulty following directions
- Difficulty complying with directions/frequent tantrums
- Getting easily frustrated/giving up easily
- Difficulty changing activities, plans, routines
Language (by age 3-5)
- Delayed or atypical language development. Difficulty with phonology (not recognizing or not using final –s for plurals and 2nd person verbs like runs or walks). Difficulties with morphology (not using final –s in verbs and plurals; adding –ed to verbs that do not use –ed, e.g. runned instead of ran). Immature/atypical sentence structure.
- Difficulties with articulation and sound recognition; difficulties with rhymes.
- Slow vocabulary acquisition; difficulty acquiring new words.
- Word retrieval problems (you know the child knows the word, you heard her use it before, and you see her struggling to find the right word).
- Difficulty following multi-step directions.
- Difficulty forming and responding to questions.
- Difficulty with narrative construction; difficulty following narratives (listening comprehension).
Cognition (by age 5)
- Difficulty with memory (learning words, routines, rules).
- Difficulty with cause and effect, seriation, sequencing, counting (including and especially counting with patterns—by twos, by fives, backwards).
- Difficulty organizing and sorting objects.
- Difficulty with concepts of size (larger/smaller), color, and shape.
- Difficulty sustaining attention for 5-10 minutes at a time.
Literacy/Academics (by kindergarten)
- Not recognizing rhyming words; difficulty learning rhymes and songs.
- Difficulty learning colors, days of the week, alphabet.
- Slower speed in naming objects, characters in stories, etc.
- Overall delayed response to tasks and questions.
- Limited print awareness.
- Difficulty understanding that words are composed of smaller units of speech (phonemes/sounds); and as a result difficulty with sound segmenting and blending when speaking.
- Difficulty recognizing letters and corresponding sounds.
- Lack of interest in books.
- Limited print awareness.
Through the New York-based Child Mind Institute (ChildMind.org), parents have a succinct online check-list at their fingertips. “Parents Guide to Developmental Milestones” lists milestones organized by period of development and tips about when to contact a health professional about your concerns.
Can parents help with their child’s therapy or problems with an outside learning environment? Absolutely, says Osipova, who teaches university-level courses in language and literacy development for students with special needs. A former special education teacher and English/Language Arts teacher for 12 years before moving into her current role at Cal State, she offers a valuable list of proactive measures parents can easily adopt:
- Have consistent predictable routines and logical consequences for misbehavior.
- Talk a lot to your child and with your child; listen to your child.
- Read daily to your child and with your child; read and learn poems, rhymes, and songs; emphasize similarities/differences in sounds; play word and sound games.
- Follow your child’s interests. Build on them and extend them.
- Co-construct narratives.
- Read, co-construct, and retell narratives of different genres. Specifically, make sure that there are opportunities to retell stories (leads to summary skills), predict (leads to hypothesis skills), recount daily events (increases attention and memory), describe what the child/family is doing within the moment (makes lab and other observations more natural later), and story-tell (promotes social studies readiness).
- Model interactions with others.
- Encourage peer interaction.
- Engage in play (physical, sensory, pretend play, cooperative play) with your children.
- Provide children with engaging experiences rich with sensory input: observe and discuss how things look, smell, taste, sound, feel, etc.
- Draw comparisons and contrast experiences.
- Discuss your own and their feelings, as well as the feelings of characters in stories.
- Discuss how feelings are connected to facial expressions and actions and consequences.
- Illustrate and discuss cause and effect, seriation, etc.
- Form partnerships with your child’s teachers/school, counselor/therapist. Find out what they are doing and what you can do at home to magnify the effects of the intervention.
- How do you know it’s time to ask for outside intervention?
Parents can always refer to Child Mind Institute’s guide, which can help them to make their ultimate decision. Among other tips, the guide recommends that parents consider questions like What are the behaviors that are worrying you? How often does it happen? Are these behaviors outside the typical range for his age?
“The earlier the parents discuss their concerns with their pediatricians, the better are the chances for effective intervention,” says Osipova, herself a parent and aware of the benefits of early action. She says pediatricians typically screen for autism and language development at 18 months.
What programs/interventions/resources are out there to help?
Always start with your child’s pediatrician and teachers/counselors, Osipova urges parents. For children under 3, she advises seeking regional centers for help; for children age 3 and older, look to local school districts for services. In all of these cases, Osipova says it’s wise to put your request for assessment in writing. Other available resources include “mommy & me” classes, local libraries, local universities (specifically programs affiliated with research and teacher pre-programs), disability-specific nonprofit organizations, and parent support groups.
Parents can educate themselves from home to help make decisions about intervention. Helpful links on ChildMind org include Symptom Checker, where parents can indicate behaviors which concern them by answering a series of questions; Topics A-Z, a vertical on their site dedicated to providing resources for mental health, learning, and parenting topics for families and educators; and tabs to individual centers of specialty such as ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center, Anxiety Disorders Center, and Learning and Development Center.
For on-location clinical treatment in New York City, Houston families who qualify for financial aid may apply to the Child Mind Institute Cares Fund. This fund offers a daily stipend for travel expenses to families from out of town.
Local Houston Resources
Where do I start? Tips on accessing Houston services for kids with learning disabilities
Early Child Intervention Services is a statewide program under Texas Health and Human Services for families with newborns-3 years of age who exhibit signs of lagging development or are diagnosed with a disability. Early intervention specialists work with families in the home and assemble a comprehensive case management individually catered for the child’s needs.
Pre-K Listing for Children with Learning Disabilities will help parents match their child with the right learning environment. Though your child may not be autistic, Autism Speaks allows parents to scan their area for top-rated preschools which serve children with needs. For example, if 77056 is your zip code, Memorial Pediatric Therapy Associates, The Flourishing Family, LLC, Avondale House as well as The Parish School are options (among others) in a 10-mile radius.
Learning Disabilities Association of Texas offers parents of children with disabilities the support, direction and counsel required to help match needs with available services in your area. This is a member-based group.
Private Therapists Listing emerges through a localized search enabled by Psychology Today. This resource provides a list of private practitioners in Houston who offer specialized services for those with learning disabilities. A great resource to find the best therapist for your child.
The Joy School, Excelsior Academy, The Briarwood School, among many other Houston programs, provide a warm academic environment for children who require special interventions. Some, such as The Monarch School include pre-K.
Harris Department of Education offers school-based therapy services for children with learning disabilities in 26 school districts. Specialist are spread out over the county to provide evaluation and intervention strategies for kids with all types of learning challenges. Go to TxSpot.org for details.