The Warning Signs of Learning Disabilities

The Warning Signs of Learning Disabilities

When the development of academic performance of a healthy child falls short of what is expected for his or her age and intelligence, parents or teachers may suspect the child has a learning disability (LD). Being aware of the signs of learning disabilities will help parents determine if the child should be referred for evaluation. As the name implies, LD is a condition that affects learning and sooner or later is manifested by poor school performance, especially in reading, mathematics, spelling and writing. In addition, LD is a lifelong condition and can significantly impact relationships, daily activities and eventually work and careers.

Warning Signs in Preschool Children:


  • Slow development in speaking words or sentences
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Difficulty in learning new words
  • Difficulty following simple directions
  • Difficulty understanding questions
  • Difficulty expressing wants and desires
  • Difficulty rhyming words
  • Lack of interest in story telling

Motor Skills

  • Clumsiness
  • Poor balance
  • Difficulty manipulating small objects
  • Awkwardness with running, jumping, or climbing
  • Trouble learning to tie shoes, button shirts, or perform other self-help activities
  • Avoidance of drawing or tracing


  • Trouble memorizing the alphabet or days of the week
  • Poor memory for what should be routine (everyday) procedures
  • Difficulty with cause and effect, sequencing and counting
  • Difficulty with basic concepts such as size, shape, colour


  • High distractibility
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Unusual restlessness (hyperactivity)
  • Difficulty changing activities
  • Constant repetition of an idea, inability to move on to a new idea

Social Behaviour

  • Trouble interacting with others, playing alone
  • Prone to sudden and extreme mood changes
  • Easily frustrated
  • Hard to manage, has temper tantrums

Because early intervention is so important, federal law requires that school districts provide early identification and intervention services. The special education department of the local school district can direct families to the agency that provides these services. Families may also want to consult the child’s doctor, who should also be able to refer the family to appropriate resources.

Warning Signs in Elementary School Children:

It is during the elementary school years that learning problems frequently become apparent as disabilities interfere with increasingly demanding and complex learning tasks. Difficulties in learning academic subjects and emotional and/or social skills may become a problem. Warning signs for this age group may include any of those listed above for preschool children in addition to the following:


    • Slow learning of the correspondence of sound to letter
    • Consistent errors in reading or spelling
    • Difficulty remembering basic sight words

Inability to retell a story in sequence

  • Trouble learning to tell time or count money
  • Confusion of math signs (+, -, x, /, =)
  • Transposition of number sequences
  • Trouble memorizing math facts
  • Trouble with place value
  • Difficulty remembering the steps of mathematics operations such as long division

Motor Skills

  • Poor coordination or awkwardness
  • Difficulty copying from the chalkboard
  • Difficulty aligning columns (math)
  • Poor handwriting


    • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on a task

Difficulty finishing work on time

  • Inability to follow multiple directions
  • Unusual sloppiness, carelessness
  • Poor concept of direction (left, right)
  • Rejection of new concepts, or changes in routine

Social Behaviour

  • Difficulty understanding facial expressions or gestures
  • Difficulty understanding social situations
  • Tendency to misinterpret behaviour of peers and/or adults
  • Apparent lack of “common sense”

If teachers have not discussed the possibility of an evaluation already, the parents may request that the child’s school, conduct a formal evaluation. A request submitted to the school principal must be honored by the school system in a timely manner.

Warning Signs in Secondary School Children:

Some learning disabilities go undetected until secondary school. Physical changes occurring during adolescence and the increased demands of middle and senior high school may bring the disabilities to light. Previously satisfactory performance declines. Inappropriate social skills may lead to changes in peer relationships and discipline problems. Increased frustration and poor self-concepts can lead to depression and/or angry outbursts. Warning signs of learning disabilities in secondary school students include the following, which again, should occur as a pattern of behaviours, to a significant degree and over time.

Language/Mathematics/Social Studies

  • Avoidance of reading and writing
  • Tendency to misread information
  • Difficulty summarizing
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Difficulty understanding subject area textbooks
  • Continued poor spelling
  • Poor skills in writing essays
  • Poor grasp of abstract concepts
  • Difficulty in learning foreign language
  • Poor ability to apply math skills


  • Difficulty staying organized
  • Trouble with test formats such as multiple choice
  • Slow work pace in class and in testing situations
  • Poor note taking skills
  • Poor ability to proofread or double check work

Social Behaviour

  • Difficulty accepting criticism
  • Difficulty seeking or giving feedback
  • Problems negotiating or advocating for oneself
  • Difficulty resisting peer pressure
  • Difficulty understanding another person’s perspectives

Again, parents have the right to request an evaluation by the public schools to determine if the student has learning disabilities.


Research has shown that the sooner an LD is detected and an evaluation is begun, the better the chance to avoid school failure and to improve chances for success in life. When parents or teachers suspect a child has learning disabilities, they should seek evaluation.

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