Learning difficulties – identifying the early warning signs, red flags and risk factors

Learning difficulties – identifying the early warning signs, red flags and risk factors

Research has shown that up to 75% of learning difficulties can be remediated if they are detected before the end of a child’s Grade 1 year (or earlier). Knowing the early signs, red flags and risk factors of learning difficulties can assist you to get your child the support and assistance that they need. Some of the early signs, red flags and risk factors to look out for are as follows:

1. Delays in language and speech development

Children who are not achieving their language milestones are at risk of developing a learning problem when they enter formal schooling. Language delays may be seen in a child’s vocabulary, articulation, verb tenses, plurals, pronouns and pronunciation of words and sounds. Children who speak late are also often those children who are delayed in the development of their pre-reading skills.

2. Difficulty learning nursery rhymes

Children begin learning nursery rhymes by the time they are 2-years-old. Nursery rhymes help children develop an understanding of the sounds of language (which is also known as phonemic awareness), they build memory and articulation, they develop social routines and listening skills. Some children may have difficulty learning rhyming patterns because they are struggling to isolate and break up words into individual parts.

3. Trouble with colour recognition

Colour recognition plays an important role in a child’s cognitive development. Colour is part of the world around us and it is one of the first ways that a child can make distinctions between the things they see. Early identification of colours helps create the cognitive link between visual clues and words.

4. Trouble with identification of basic shapes

Shapes are symbols which are used as a way of identifying and organising visual information. The ability to recognise shapes relates to a child’s ability to read symbols (or letters). Recognition of shapes also plays a role in number recognition and the development of early mathematics skills.

5. Struggles to follow directions or routines

The ability to follow directions and routines shows that a child can process information and focus their attention effectively. Children who have difficulty following directions or routines may: struggle to follow multi-step instructions, be easily distracted, take a long time to respond, misreads directions, miss key information, have difficulty recognising what is important information and what is not, find it hard to remember details and mix up the order in which things can be done. While there are times where this can be considered normal, these red flags might be a sign of attention and concentration difficulties, slow processing speed or language processing difficulties.

6. Difficulty recognising familiar signs

By the time a child is 2 or 3 they should be able to recognise pictures, symbols, signs and logos (for example, your grocery store logo or favourite restaurant). The ability to recognise that signs and symbols have consistent meaning is important for the development of pre-reading skills.

7. Challenges with sequential information

Examples of sequential information that children should be able to identify includes the letters of the alphabet, days of the week and the numbers 1 to 10. The ability to remember this information is developed within a child’s sequential memory. By the time a child turns 6-years-old they should be able to remember basic sequential information including a few letters of their own name, know three words that begin with the same letter, recognise words that rhyme and those that do not rhyme.

8. Difficulty with word finding or word recall abilities

Children who have difficulties with word finding and word recall abilities are often struggling to learn colours, letters and number names. They might also have challenges naming things correctly and may struggle to find the correct word. This may be an early sign of language processing difficulties.

9. Fine and gross motor coordination challenges

Difficulties with fine and gross motor coordination can affect your child’s ability to learn to read, write and focus for sustained periods of time within the classroom context. If you are noticing that your child has difficulty holding their pencil correctly, struggles to run, jump, throw or catch, tires easily, has poor balance, is clumsy, struggles with sensing direction, has trouble with rhythm or can’t ride a bike it may suggest that they have fine or gross motor coordination challenges.

11. Trouble interacting socially

If your child is struggling with self-regulation (for example, is having temper tantrums and experiencing difficulties with managing their emotions) or is having trouble interacting socially with other children of a similar age, then it might be a sign that they are experiencing underlying learning difficulties or other related emotional and behavioural difficulties.

What can I do about it?

If you are concerned that your child may have delays in any of the above areas it is important that you contact a qualified healthcare professional (such as your doctor, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist or an educational psychologist) who can advise you on the most appropriate course of action to take to assist your child. Early intervention is effective, and it is never too early to address any difficulties or challenges that your child might be experiencing.

  • Wendy Green
    Posted at 09:55h, 20 August Reply

    Hi Wendy

    My son was seen by you about 7 years ago when he was 9. He is now 16. He has had a difficult school journey, but has now found a place where he is happy and thriving.

    For the benefit of other families struggling with learning difficulties/differences, I would like to share some things I have learnt. Every child is different and every situation is different. What works for some doesn’t work for others. I can only share what I’ve learnt from our experience, but I hope it will help.

    I read this recently in an American publication, Dyslexic Advantage, and I believe this was very true for my son. It is something to bear in mind when having a child assessed:
    By the time a child is seen by a testing professional, he has experienced much failure and frustration and many children completely ‘shut down.’
    In our experience, dyslexia is particularly distinctive in this regard; the gap between intellectual ability and ability to ‘perform’ is so great that
    children are woefully misunderstood and under-appreciated.
    Our child was in “shut-down” mode during the period of time he was tested by an array of professionals, all wanting earnestly to help. Looking back, we over-tested him. I don’t believe the results in the reports were completely helpful because of the “fear factor” our child was experiencing due to all the failure.

    I know that remediation helps many children, hopefully most. But it didn’t help my son. In his case, we needed to change the learning environment. I find this quote helpful (credit to Alexander Den Heijer):
    When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.
    Our child was never going to bloom in any school, with any amount of remediation. He needed to be completely transplanted. If a child is not thriving despite much intervention, one needs to look around for alternative options. It is amazing what’s out there, and more is certainly needed. But don’t keep plugging away at the weaknesses. Discover the child’s strengths and interests, and look for every opportunity for him/her to exercise these.

    I pray for all the families with children who don’t fit well into the classroom environment. It’s a tough road, and unsurprisingly, it affects a child’s social abilities too. These are often the most distressing of all, and affect the whiole family. Parents, keep advocating for your child, knocking on doors to see which open. Don’t be discouraged when doors close. Keep looking for opportunities and solutions. Beware of over-testing and over-treating your child. Accept him for who he is. Accept her for who she is. There is potential hidden away in your child that will emerge in time. Don’t give up. Make peace with, and have faith in, the good God who made your child and doesn’t make mistakes.

    • Wendy Maitin-Casalis
      Posted at 11:36h, 22 August Reply

      Hi Wendy,

      Thank you for the comment. I am really glad to hear that your son is happy and thriving. I agree with you that remedial is not always effective and it sounds like a change of environment was the right move for you and your son. Intervention into addressing difficulties is only effective to a certain point. Thereafter its about implementing strategies to support the child in overcoming their barriers as opposed to addressing them. Thank you for getting in touch it is great to hear from you.

      Kind Regards

  • Xoli
    Posted at 17:06h, 17 August Reply

    Wow thanks Wendy this is so informative.I will share this info at work

    • Wendy Maitin-Casalis
      Posted at 11:37h, 22 August Reply

      Thanks for the comment Xoli. I am glad that you found it informative!

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