Sometimes, you have a hunch that something isn’t quite right with your child. For example, Jared is in 3rd grade and is still not reading fluently. Because he struggles to sound out so many words, his comprehension is shaky. Emma is in 4th grade and panics when asked to write. She will find any excuse to procrastinate. When she finally gets started, she cannot put her thoughts together to write a coherent paragraph, though she has no problem telling you a story. Although Adam is in the 5th grade, he still struggles with remembering multiplication tables, but he understands math concepts at his grade level. Sharon is in 8th grade and cannot understand her science textbook because of her poor vocabulary and reading skills. However, if you explain scientific concepts orally or give her a simpler book, she understands the concepts perfectly well.
What these children have in common is their average or above average intelligence and a suspected learning disability. If they can get formally evaluated and are shown to have a learning disability, they may be eligible to receive accommodations in school under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or special education services provided to children with disabilities under the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
What should you do if you see your child struggling?
- Talk to the teacher. Find out if your child is having unexpected difficulty with a subject or is significantly behind other students. Ask how the teacher is handling this; if she is providing special assistance or accommodations, is this helping?
- If you and/or the teacher suspect a learning disability, you may request a school evaluation or obtain your own private evaluation.
- The results of the evaluation may reveal a disability. For example, perhaps Jared has dyslexia and can benefit from intensive phonics training. Perhaps Emma has dysgraphia (a writing disability) and would benefit from using a keyboard at school or software that allows her to talk to a computer and have it write for her. Perhaps Adam has a memory deficit and would benefit from using a multiplication chart or a calculator.
Theresa Armstrong, research associate at George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, says you are your child's greatest resource. “As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else. If you suspect that he is struggling with reading or writing or has difficulty learning, talk to his teacher. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15 percent of Americans have some degree of learning disability. Trust your intuition, and don’t be afraid to have your child evaluated.”
Here are some milestones to consider:
By the end of first grade, most children who have appropriate classroom instruction and supplemental reading at home can read simple books. By this time, they should be sounding out only long or unfamiliar words. They should have many sight words down as well as syllable chunks, such as “ton,” so that they don’t have to sound out every word. Dr. Rachna Varia, Director of Testing and Diagnostics at Mindwell Psychology, provides assessments and testing for children with suspected learning disabilities. She suggests that parents should look for these red flags with early reading:
- Your child has difficulty hearing the different segments of a word (example – he may write “tire” for “tiger”).
- When writing, he inserts extra letters.
- He doesn’t recognize sight words that are common in his environment, such as “stop.”
- He consistently reads a word on one page and forgets it by the next page.
- When reading aloud, he pronounces the first segment of a word and then makes up the rest of the word.
By 4th grade, reading should be fluent for age-appropriate books. If a child is still struggling with phonics, his comprehension is compromised, and he is likely to have difficulty with all his subjects. Even math is filled with word problems.
By the end of 1st grade, your child’s addition and subtraction skills should be automatic. By the end of 2nd grade, he should be able to easily compute two-digit addition and subtraction problems and read an analogue clock, understanding the concept of 15 minutes. By the end of 3rd grade, he should know his multiplication facts and understand simple fractions as displayed in pictures. If he is not making these benchmarks, he is at risk of falling further behind.
Requesting an Evaluation
If you met with the teacher and tried some interventions, but you are still concerned that your child is not living up to his academic potential, you can request that the school personnel evaluate him. Make this request by delivering a letter to the counselor, principal or special education administrator that specifies your concerns, including specific observations and evidence. The school administrators are required to set up a meeting with a multidisciplinary team and then evaluate and create a plan for the student within 60 to 90 days (depending on the state’s special education regulations) at the school system’s expense. The team comprises the teacher(s), counselor, special education representative, principal or assistant principal and parent(s). During the initial meeting, the team will decide, based on input from all parties, to what extent your child should be evaluated. The types of assessments depend upon the suspected disability.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, states that local schools are obliged to help identify children with learning disabilities and conduct an evaluation with the parents’ consent. IDEA 2004 requires the use of a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather information about the student, including interviewing parents and teachers and administering tests. According to Steve Pastore, a special education tutor with Tutoring For Success, “A brief description of the hard signs of a learning disability include measurably significant unevenness in cognitive ability and academic progress, as recorded in major sections of standardized tests.”
Private evaluations, which can cost $1,500 to $3,500, may be more thorough and are usually quicker. Most school systems will use the diagnoses and recommendations from private evaluations to develop educational plans for students.
Diagnosing a learning disability is complicated and usually requires many hours of detective work. While some learning differences can be accommodated easily, others require a lot more intervention.
Once the evaluation is completed, the interdisciplinary team will decide on special educational services or accommodations. If a student is recommended to receive special educational services, the team will meet to determine if additional assessments are needed and write an IEP (individual education plan) for his teachers to follow. By law, students are required to be in the “least restricted environment,” meaning that they should have the opportunity to be educated to the greatest extent possible with their nondisabled peers. For example, some students will just receive small group reading or speech instruction for a few days a week, while others may be in a smaller class but mainstreamed for P.E. and music.
Many students are deemed not eligible for special education services, but can receive accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These accommodations, listed on a “504 plan”, can make a big difference in a student’s success in school. Varia helped with this partial list:
- Use AlphaSmart or other keyboard for dysgraphia
- Use recorded books or large print
- Use a calculator in class
- Have extra time on tests or take tests in a small-group setting
- Permit answers to be recorded directly onto test booklet
- Allow the use of a tape recorder to capture responses
- Permit verbal responses or dictated answers
- Allow frequent breaks
- Give the student preferential seating, usually in the front
According to Armstrong, “Specific accommodations would depend on the child’s needs, his classroom setting and many other variables. For example, a common accommodation might be to provide extra time for reading assignments, but a different child might need a longer reading assignment read to him or to use an audio book.”
Students can make tremendous progress with the right interventions. If you suspect your child has a learning disability, or attention or organizational problems that significantly impede his learning, get started on being his advocate. Be patient?this takes time, but it is always time well spent. Meanwhile, you can take immediate steps to get your child extra help from his teacher or a tutor. If your child is struggling, the time to start intervening is now.