How to Recognize If Your Child Has a Learning Disability


At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we see a wide variety of children — from those who are “whizzes” at almost everything to those who struggle to learn certain skills and keep up with their peers. The parents of these latter children often come to us wanting to know if there’s “something wrong” with their child and if anything can be done to fix the problem.

What we say to these parents (if the evidence is there) is that their child may have a learning disability (also known as LD) and that the sooner they know for sure, the sooner they can get him/her help. We also reassure them that their child can definitely succeed in school, work and relationships, even with an LD.

What exactly is classified as a learning disability (LD)?

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

The term “learning disability” actually describes a range of learning problems which stem from the way the brain gets, uses, stores and sends out information. As many as 15% of children have an LD and characteristically have trouble with one or more of the following skills:

  • reading (the most common type of LD is a reading disorder)
  • writing
  • listening
  • speaking
  • reasoning
  • math

Note: A child is not considered to have an LD if the learning problems are due to another cause, such as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), intellectual disability, or a hearing, vision or motor problem. However, some children may have an LD and one or more other conditions that can also affect learning, and many children have more than one LD.

Is there any one thing that causes LDs?

No, there can be many possible causes. These aren’t always known, but in many cases children with LDs have a parent or relative with the same or similar learning difficulties. Other factors that can influence the development of LDs include:

  • low birth weight
  • prematurity
  • an injury or illness during childhood (head injury, lead poisoning, childhood illness like meningitis)

Ways to determine if your child has an LD

Learning disabilities aren’t always obvious. However, there are some signs that could mean your child needs help in various areas and with certain skills. Keeping in mind that children develop and learn at different rates, it’s important to let your child’s pediatrician know if he/she shows any of the following signs:

Preschool children:

  • Delays in language development. By 2½ years of age, your child should be able to talk in phrases or short sentences.
  • Trouble with speech. By 3 years of age, your child should speak well enough so that adults can understand most of what he/she says.
  • Trouble learning colors, shapes, letters and numbers.
  • Trouble rhyming words.
  • Trouble with coordination. By 5 years of age, your child should be able to button his/her clothing, use scissors to cut shapes out of paper, and hop. They should also be able to copy a circle, square or triangle.
  • Short attention spans. Between 3-5 years of age, your child should be able to sit still and listen to a short story. As he/she gets older, your child should be able to pay attention for a longer time.

School-aged children and teens:

  • Follow directions
  • Get and stay organized at home and school
  • Understand verbal directions
  • Learn facts and remember information
  • Read, spell and sound out words
  • Write clearly (may have poor handwriting)
  • Do math calculations or word problems
  • Focus on and finish schoolwork (tend to daydream)
  • Explain information clearly with words or in writing

Common LDs to be aware of

Keep in mind that not every child with an LD fits neatly within one of the following types. What’s very important is to have your child evaluated by a pediatrician or learning disorder professional.

Reading disorder

Children with a reading disorder (also called dyslexia or reading disability) may have difficulty with:

  • Remembering the names of letters and the sounds they make
  • Understanding that words are made up of sounds and that letters stand for those sounds
  • Sounding out words correctly and at the right speed
  • Spelling words correctly
  • Understanding what they read

Writing disorder

Children with a writing disorder may have difficulty with:

  • Using a pen or pencil
  • Remembering how letters are formed
  • Copying shapes, drawing lines, or spacing things out correctly
  • Organizing and writing their thoughts, feelings and ideas on paper
  • Spelling and punctuation

Math disorder

Children with a math disorder may have difficulty with:

  • Recognizing and drawing shapes
  • Math concepts such as number values, quantity and order
  • Understanding time, money and measuring

Other learning problems

Some children with learning problems may not exactly fit the types of LDs listed above. These problems may include the following:

Nonverbal learning skills

Children who have trouble with nonverbal learning skills (often called nonverbal LD) may have:

  • Trouble copying designs and understanding 3-dimensional patterns
  • Trouble understanding abstract concepts
  • Trouble with math, writing and reading comprehension
  • Problems with social skills and understanding nonverbal cues like body language
  • Poor coordination

Speech and language delays

Children with speech and language delays may have:

  • Trouble reading and writing
  • Trouble with math word problems
  • Trouble following directions
  • Trouble answering questions


Children with ADHD may have:

  • Trouble focusing or paying attention
  • Trouble remembering information
  • Trouble completing schoolwork or homework

Ways you can help your child

If you’re concerned about your child’s problems with learning or think your child may have an LD, we recommend that you talk with your child’s teacher and pediatrician. Teachers and other education specialists can perform screening or evaluation tests to determine if there really is a problem.

Your child’s doctor may want to test your child’s vision and hearing to rule out other possible problems. He/she may refer your child to a pediatrician who specializes in neurodevelopmental disabilities, developmental and behavioral pediatrics, or child neurology. Other professionals who can help are psychologists and educational specialists.

Most children who have learning problems can still be successful in school by developing different ways of learning. Special educational services to help children with LDs may be available in your school district. These may include specialized instruction, non-timed tests, or sometimes changes in the classroom that are geared toward your child’s specific learning style.

One effective way to ensure that your child is indeed getting help is for teachers to develop a written plan that clearly describes the services your child needs, when and how they are administered, and if they are benefiting your child. This plan is called an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Once an IEP is in place, it should be reviewed regularly to make sure your child’s needs are being met.

Specific things you can do

  1. Focus on strengths. All children have special talents. Your child might be good at math, music or sports, or skilled at art, working with tools or caring for animals. Find your child’s strengths and help him/her learn to use them, then praise your child often when he/she does well or succeeds at a task.
  2. Help your child develop social and emotional skills. Learning disabilities combined with the challenges of growing up can easily make your child sad, angry or withdrawn. Help your child by providing love and support while acknowledging that learning is hard, and that everyone’s brain learns in a different way. Try to locate clubs, teams and other activities that focus on friendship, fun and building confidence rather than all-out competition and winning.
  3. Plan for the future. Many children with LDs are very bright and grow up to be successful in life. You can help your child plan for adulthood by encouraging him/her to consider their strengths and interests when making education and career choices. Also, there are special career and vocational programs that help build confidence by teaching decision-making and job skills, and many colleges have programs designed for students with LDs.

Additional resources

Concerned that your child may have a learning disability? Come see us, we’re here to help.

If you’d like your child to be evaluated for a learning disability, as well as advice for actions you can take to help your child improve and succeed, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics. One of our pediatricians will examine your child, discuss the findings with both of you, and offer guidance and referrals. Our #1 goal is for your child to be as healthy and happy as possible, whatever the diagnosis. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

Make an appt

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball