Parents and Teachers

What To Do When You Suspect a Child Has a Learning Disability

According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 33% of students receiving special education services during the 2019-2020 school year were doing so under a learning disability, a higher percentage than any other disability category. Research shows that early intervention can offer the necessary support to children, their families, and their schools to help students succeed academically.

Unfortunately, many parents and guardians struggle with determining next steps when they suspect their child has a learning disability. This guide explains, step by step, how to get your child the support they need in school and home.

Steps to Take If You Suspect Your Child Has a Learning Disability

  • Step 1: Understand the Warning Signs
  • Step 2: Speak with Your Child’s Teachers 
  • Step 3: Get a Diagnosis
  • Step 4: Help Your Child Understand
  • Step 5: Talk to the School About an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Step 6: Get Outside Help
  • Planning for Your Child’s Future

Step 1: Understand the Warning Signs

First, you should understand the common warning signs of a learning disability. Learning disabilities can take on many different forms in kids, so one specific type may not be as easily recognizable in your child as it is in another. Still, several common signs may indicate a potential learning disability. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institue of Child Health and Human Development lists a few common signs:

  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Poor memory 
  • Trouble telling time
  • Math, reading, and/or writing challenges
  • Poor organizational skills

The problem is that these signs can also indicate other issues unrelated to learning disabilities. And, if a child only experiences one or two of these problems, it can be challenging to pinpoint them as a learning disability.

It’s also important to consider your child as a whole. Do they seem like they get anxious about going to school? Are they having trouble keeping up with their classwork and getting decent grades? Has the teacher noticed excessive behavioral problems with your child at school? These problems can also point toward an underlying issue, like a learning disability. 

Most importantly, trust your gut. As a parent or guardian, you know your child best. If you believe that something is interfering with your child’s ability to learn, it’s worth looking into more. 

Step 2: Speak with Your Child’s Teachers

Once you suspect a learning disability, you should meet with your child’s teachers. This can include a general education teacher, special education teacher, and any teachers of specialists (like those for art, library, or physical education) that work with your child. If your kiddo has an IEP, make sure you ask to speak with the specialists that work with them, too.

What you’re looking for here is input from these school representatives who know your child well. Bring up your concerns based on what you see at home and how your child reacts to school, tests, or specific classes. Then, ask their teachers if they see any similar signs at school that you might not see at home.

Take notes and ask for proof, if possible. For instance, the teacher might be able to provide recent results of an assessment or classwork grades. Make copies of any documents teachers and specialists offer as proof.

That information can help you as you gather documentation to seek a diagnosis. You can also keep it in your personal files for future reference, especially if your child gets a diagnosis and becomes eligible for special education services added to their IEP.

Step 3: Get a Diagnosis

If your child’s teachers and specialists share some or all of your concerns, you have an even stronger case to bring up to their pediatrician. However, you can still ask for an appointment to voice your concerns, even if your child isn’t exhibiting the same signs at school that you see at home.

Your child’s pediatrician is the first person to talk to for a diagnosis. Although they typically aren’t the person who diagnoses a child, they will note your concerns and refer you to a specialist if needed. In some cases, the pediatrician may suggest requesting an evaluation with the school psychologist to determine if more testing may be required.

Other specialists may also diagnose a learning disability based on the signs your child displays. For instance, a speech-language pathologist can diagnose speech disorders, like dyslexia and written language disorders, while a clinical psychologist may diagnose executive functioning disorders and ADHD. 

Some evaluations can be lengthy, depending on what the specialist is explicitly looking for. They may take a few hours spread over a couple of days to complete. However, this much time is necessary to rule out potential areas of concern, ensuring an accurate and complete diagnosis. 

Step 4: Help Your Child Understand

After your child’s diagnosis, take time to talk to them about what it means. Children might automatically assume that something is wrong with them simply because they don’t know a different way to internalize their feelings. It’s essential to help them understand that you can get them the support they need now that you know what is causing their challenges.

Point out that everyone — even you — has strengths and challenges, but those challenges don’t define anyone as a person. Instead, they give people different ways of thinking about and doing things, but they usually find solutions, especially when supportive people are in their corner. Your child will have you, teachers, specialists, and others helping them along the way.

Open the door to communication by asking if your child has any questions about their diagnosis or what happens now. They might want to know how things could change in school or what kinds of assignments they might have difficulty completing at higher grades. Answer each question as honestly as you can.

Also, prepare to help your child at home as much as possible. Get advice from their pediatrician and diagnosing specialist on ways to support their learning. Doing so can make for a more seamless transition from school to home, showing your child that there’s always support available for them.

Step 5: Talk to the School About an Individualized Education Program (IEP)

With a diagnosis in place, you can speak with your child’s school about getting an IEP if they don’t already have one for another IDEA disability

Technically, you can do this without yet having a formal diagnosis for your child. Instead, you’d request an evaluation from the school, explaining that you’re doing so because you believe your child could have a learning disability. The school will then complete an evaluation or deny your request for one.

In many cases, it’s better to have documented proof of your child’s learning disability diagnosis. While the school still needs to determine whether the child is eligible as a child with a disability under IDEA, the process can be smoother with a diagnosis in place.

After the school determines your child is eligible, a representative will contact you to set up an initial IEP meeting to craft the IEP. You’ll become part of your child’s IEP team, along with other teachers, specialists, and school representatives.

Here’s a guide to the IEP process that could help you navigate it and understand each piece of the IEP.

Step 6: Get Outside Help

Keep in mind that your child’s school can only do so much. There are several hours each day and week that your child won’t be in school, and they’re just as crucial as in-school hours. 

Speak with your child’s pediatrician or diagnosing specialist to determine what support to provide outside of school. They’ll provide suggestions for activities to practice at home and other specialists to see who can assist your child with specific goals. For instance, an occupational therapist can work with a child with dysgraphia on their fine motor and handwriting skills.

Most importantly, understand what goals are on your child’s IEP and work to meet those goals at home, too. If your child has dysgraphia, they could have a goal for writing complete sentences rather than fragments at least 80% of the time. Therefore, you might spend a few minutes after school each day helping them practice writing full sentences.

Keep communicating with your child’s teachers to learn what your youngster is doing in school. Then, extend that practice to home for additional support.

Planning for Your Child’s Future

I know that getting a diagnosis for your child can be overwhelming, sad, scary — all the emotions. But think of it as a positive thing. With a diagnosis, you’ve confirmed your concerns and can now work toward getting your kiddo the help they need in and out of school. 

I invite you to look around Behaviorist for other IEP-focused guides that explain how to get what your child needs from an IEP. My goal is to provide one of the best resources out there for parents to feel comfortable advocating for their children. Here are just a few that may be helpful after reading this article:

If you have any questions about learning disabilities, the IEP, or special education in general, leave a comment below or email me. I’m always happy to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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