Now that school has been in session for several weeks, parents and guardians have a sense of how their child is doing. For some, that might be concerning.
Early struggles could have a lot of causes. Some kids need time to adjust to a new teacher, perhaps a new school and different classmates. Others may be challenged by the difficulty of lessons as they move up a grade. And for some, the stress of adding athletics, music lessons or other non-academic activities into their schedules may take a toll on schoolwork.
So, is this problem something you can cure with patience, time-management tweaks and maybe a talk with the teacher? Perhaps, maybe even probably. But … maybe you have this uneasiness, seeing your child struggling and not knowing why. Should you be worried? Does this problem go deeper? Is a learning difficulty or disability holding your child back?
A diagnosis of learning disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can only be made by professionals. However, parents and caregivers worried about their child’s school performance can watch out for warning signs of dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. Susan Barton, creator of the Barton Reading and Spelling System, which we use at Reading Success Plus, compiled a list of these signals. The dyslexia and ADD/ADHD lists are on the Reading Success Plus website.
Early warning signs of dyslexia
Language difficulties among preschoolers and early elementary students often are written off as “something they will grow out of,” but symptoms of dyslexia can show up at a young age.
One of those is right-left confusion. Lawrence Kloth, co-founder of Reading Success Plus, says that if a child is baffled when they are asked to hold up their right or left hand, that could be a sign of trouble.
Anne Kloth, the other co-founder of Reading Success Plus and Lawrence’s mother, remembers Lawrence’s difficulty tying his shoes. In retrospect, she says, that was one of the first signs of her son’s dyslexia.
Lawrence and Anne recalled another early signal of his dyslexia – trouble decoding words. “When I was younger,” Lawrence says, “I thought that every word that started with the letters P and I was pizza. Even if it was a piano, I would still guess it as pizza, because that’s the only way I knew how to attack and discern those words. I didn’t know any other strategies.”
Other symptoms that show up in preschool or early elementary include delayed speech; chronic ear infections; mixing up the sounds and syllables in long words; trouble creating rhymes; and difficulty memorizing their address, phone number, or the alphabet.
“Dyslexia wasn’t on our radar then,” Anne says, referring to Lawrence’s preschool years. “We didn’t have this list of warning signs. So, by kindergarten we knew something was wrong. We just didn’t know what it was.”
Elementary school struggles
As reading and writing become more central to an elementary student’s experience, the more likely it is that symptoms of dyslexia will show up.
“The first thing to look for is trouble with reading,” Lawrence says. “See if they’re having trouble decoding words, if they can’t read fluently, if they sputter when they try to read aloud. Watch for skipping propositions (at, to, for, from) or trouble with sight words. Do they guess words based on shape or context instead of decoding?”
Spelling difficulties also become more pronounced at this age.
“Dyslexic students seem to have no idea how to spell,” Lawrence says. “They have to guess. And if they aren’t taught the right way, they will not learn to spell, because they aren’t being taught the skills they need to decode words.”
Difficulty with handwriting, or dysgraphia, often accompanies dyslexia. Illegible writing or pain when holding a pencil, while not technically part of dyslexia, may indicate that the student’s brain is wired in such a way that dyslexia likely is also present. The symptoms of dysgraphia are listed here.
Behavior-wise, pay attention to your child’s complaints about stomach pains or headaches in the morning before school. Those might be a sign of school-related tension, not just a desire to stay home in bed that day.
Stakes increase in upper grades
All the previous warning signs carry over into high school: difficulties with reading fluency, comprehension, and spelling. But because the nature of schoolwork changes in high school, the problems manifest themselves in different ways.
Notably, the increased emphasis on written expression, including research papers, vividly exposes the dyslexic student’s disability. Bright students who may have a solid understanding of the material often fail a class because their inability to spell or put together a grammatically correct sentence makes it impossible to express what they know.
Dysgraphia makes the situation worse. Issues with fine motor skills make handwriting painful because the student can’t correctly grip a pencil. While their classmates comfortably fill up a page, the dysgraphic student’s hand feels as if it were on fire because of the awkward grip that they just can’t correct.
“That pain hampers them before they can finish a page or even a paragraph,” Lawrence says, speaking from his experience. Even typing, a common accomodation for students with dysgraphia, was difficult for him. “So, they have to stop and rest, and that costs them more time. All of that is on top of the slower processing that people with dyslexia have. It all piles up on these poor kids.”
The result is poor grades, even though the student has average or higher intelligence. Their disabilities keep them from showing what they know.
“When I was in high school,” Lawrence says, “if I was taking a written test, I’d probably answer at a sixth-grade level. But if you gave me an oral exam, you’d be blown away by how well I knew that material. I’d answer at grade level or higher.”
With the help of an early diagnosis, a family that was able to get him help outside of school, and various classroom accommodations, Lawrence was able to overcome his disabilities and eventually graduate from college. But those without such support face bleaker futures. Many end up dropping out.
“That’s why recognizing the warning signs, getting a diagnosis and getting tutoring or other help is so important,” Lawrence says. “We want to lift that barrier for those individuals. We want to make sure they have the chance to reach their potential, get good grades, and go on to do whatever they want in life.”
ADHD could be factor
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is another condition that could be at the root of learning difficulties. According to a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.1 million children in the United States between ages 2 and 17, or 9.4 percent, have at one time been diagnosed with ADHD.
Further, ADHD often co-exists with other learning disorders. About 50 to 60 percent of those with ADHD have another disability. And the ADHD-dyslexia connection is strong. The International Dyslexia Association reports that 30 percent of people with dyslexia also have ADHD.
The Reading Success Plus website has a list of warning signs of ADD/ADHD. Here are some of them:
- Inability to sit still, restlessness, fidgeting; or, lethargy, being physically there but mentally gone.
- Mood swings, low tolerance for boredom.
- Trouble starting or staying focused on a task, often overwhelmed.
- Easily distracted.
- Impulsive, impatient, difficult to wait for their turn.
- No tolerance for boredom.
- Difficulty with time management.
- Odd sleep cycles, hates to go to bed, difficult to wake.
Lack of focus and constant boredom are telltale signs, Lawrence says, and behavior that appears to simply be defiance may have roots in this disorder.
“It’s a mental drain for them to go through school because they’re expected to hyperfocus on a task that they don’t really want to do. It’s really difficult for them. They can get resentful and moody sometimes, because certain things set them off.”
Lawrence, who has ADHD, always wanted to know the reason he had to do something that he felt was boring.
“I probably bothered everybody, but I wanted to know why,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s ADHD or dyslexia. These children want to know why they’re doing something, and if they don’t get a good explanation, they shut down.”
Where to turn
Parents who see these warning signs have many options for help. A child’s teacher is a good place to start with learning concerns, and the school may have resources to define and respond to learning disabilities. The family physician can diagnose ADHD as well as physical impairments such as vision or hearing problems. Professionals such as psychologists can diagnose dyslexia.
At Reading Success Plus, we offer comprehensive placement screening that can help determine why your child struggles and suggest instruction to help them overcome their difficulties. We can pinpoint difficulties in the areas of phonemic awareness (sounds of letters), decoding, spelling, fluency and comprehension.
“If you see these warning signs,” Lawrence says, “I would recommend looking at tutoring. At Reading Success Plus, we can do online tutoring anywhere in the world or in person in the Grand Rapids or Troy offices. If you want in-person help and don’t live near us, look for options in your area, or reach out to us and we can see if we can help.”
Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy. It offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing, as well as personal and family coaching. You can get more information at readingsuccessplus.com. To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to https://readingsuccessplus.com/#contact.