Menu Join now Search

Detecting a Learning Disability

You might never guess it from their disparate professions, but Charles Schwab, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom all have something in common.

It’s not success and fame, though they certainly have that. Instead, these four people, like approximately 15 percent of all Americans, have a learning disability.

Their achievements highlight the fact that children with learning disabilities needn’t think of it as a roadblock to success. Instead, when detected and remedied through proper education and skill building, people with learning disabilities have the same academic and professional opportunities as those without.

Parents are usually the first ones to notice that something is amiss with their child’s vocabulary, academic, or social skills. Therefore, knowing the characteristics of a learning disability is important. The Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities recommends looking for specific signs of a learning disability, some of which are listed below. I also asked Ashley Burgess, a special education teacher, to weigh in on what to look for.

In Preschool

  • Begins speaking later than most kids or has pronunciation problems
  • Uses the wrong words
  • Has trouble learning numbers, alphabet, colors, shapes, sounds (rhyming)
  • Gets easily distracted, restless, or has trouble following directions or routines—though this can be normal behavior
  • Problems with coordination—something to watch for especially if paired with troubled learning


Ashley said that in her experience, detecting a learning disability in preschool can be difficult. “Because a learning disability is a deficit between performance (achievement) and potential (ability), at the preschool level, there might not be enough of a discrepancy between the two. Certainly a child with a language delay should be monitored closely as well as a child who has trouble learning numbers, alphabet, colors, or shapes.”

In Grades K–4

  • Has trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Problems with spelling, grammar, punctuation, or organizing thoughts—can be a characteristic but not necessarily an identifying problem—this is not to be emphasized in Kindergarten
  • Makes reading and spelling errors like letter reversals (b/d) and transpositions (wired/weird). Note: this is more of an issue in 2nd through 4th grades. In Kindergarten it is normal and common to reverse letters like writing a 3 instead of an S.
  • Poor handwriting—does not necessarily mean a learning disability, especially if it is the only problem—and especially in Kindergarten when children are just learning to write. Remember not to be too strict in Kindergarten years as it could make your child resentful and think of learning as a chore.
  • Has difficulty remembering facts, basic math concepts, learning new skills, and grasping the concept of time—reason for concern
  • Has poor coordination and sense of surroundings


Because K–4 spans a wide range of developmental ability, testing may need to be repeated. “If a child is tested early on and is not diagnosed with a learning disability in kindergarten and is still struggling with expressing himself with writing in the 3rd grade, he should be retested,” suggests Ms. Burgess. Retesting at a later age might give a more accurate picture of his or her learning disability. Another thing she noted in her work with children was that many of her students had a tough time learning a new skill, and once they appeared to master it, they would forget. For example, a student may have learned and mastered multiplication facts and then moved on to division facts but when the instruction turns to multiplying large numbers, the multiplication facts seem to have disappeared from memory.

In Grades 5–8

  • Problems with reading comprehension, math, and writing; performs below grade level but also has some strong areas
  • Problems with time management—this can be normal but should be watched, especially if in conjunction with other concerns
  • Doesn’t like reading aloud, writing, and math assignments—cause for concern but keep in mind this age group, some can be recalcitrant
  • Has difficulty with handwriting or grips his pencil awkwardly—does not necessarily mean a learning disability
  • Has a hard time remembering things—reason for concern if other factors are ruled out


Ms. Burgess noticed that some of her students had trouble generalizing new information from the classroom and applying it to real world. “For example, they might be able to figure out how much one piece of gum costs in a pack, but when at the store, they had no idea where to start to figure out the information.”

High School Students/Adults

  • Misspells frequently—but some people never spell well so that alone does not signify a cause for concern
  • Avoids reading and writing assignments, and has problems with short answer questions
  • Has trouble with reading comprehension and abstract concepts
  • Has trouble adjusting to new settings
  • Too little attention or too much attention to details


If people have gone this long without being diagnosed with a learning disability, they will have learned to adapt and have compensated relatively well. However, a learning disability does not go away, and may be seen as a way of learning differently.

None of the above signs should be taken in isolation, and parents should not be alarmed if one or more are present. If many are present, it may signal a reason to get your child tested. The earlier a learning disability is detected, the more time a child has the chance to learn helpful strategies for success.

Related Story: Take the Fear Out of Reading Aloud

More You'll Love

Close