Early Childhood

by WellspringCSEarly Childhood Education

To understand that learning disabilities can be diagnosed in preschool children, one must be aware that learning disabilities are not only academic disabilities. In fact, learning takes place at an amazing rate in preschoolers.  Experienced professionals can identify learning disabilities and at- risk factors for learning disabilities by assessing and evaluating the child’s uneven development on developmental scales.

A Specific Learning Disability is a chronic condition of neurological origin which selectively interferes with the development, integration, and/or demonstration of verbal and/or nonverbal abilities.  Specific Learning Disabilities exist as a distinct handicapping condition and vary in manifestations and in degree of severity.  Throughout life, the condition can affect self-esteem, education, vocation, socialization, and/or daily living activities.

Effective early intervention strategies will improve the child’s chances of future school success, reduce the need for special education services in later years, and minimize the loss of self-esteem brought on by a pattern of school failure.

Early childhood educators and child workers have a significant role in observing the development of the children they serve.  That role includes alerting parents to conditions and signs that, taken within the total context of the child and his family, may indicate problems in learning and adjustment.

Observations made in the natural setting of a child’s preschool or day care center can provide important baseline information that is useful in assessing the child’s individual development and in documenting the child’s response to interventions, along with help in understanding the child’s educational needs.

After ruling out physical problems, such as hearing or visual impairments, the following signs might suggest the risk of a Specific Learning Disability:

  • Showing signs of uneven development in informal self-directed play.
  • Displaying signs of lagging motor development such as quality of movement and how well the child is coordinated.
  • Showing evidence of delays in communication with other children and adults, which includes failure to follow directions, the quality of spoken language, with both receptive and expressive language considered.
  • Showing evidence of problems with memory and attention, which includes how a child functions both individually and in a group.
  • Displaying delays in socialization in a variety of social settings, such as preschool, daycare, religious and play group programs. 

The presence of significant delays in specific areas of development, when other skills are age appropriate and within the average or above average level of development, could indicate, that a preschooler has a Specific Learning Disability. 

Warning signs to consider for predictors of possible Specific Learning Disabilities are:

  • The physical/developmental condition of the child from the earliest days of his life
  • The child’s ability for adapting and compensating. 

The above warning signs don’t necessarily mean that there are problems.  If a child’s pattern of development is uneven, and/or inconsistent, these are the concerns that need to be discussed with a pediatrician, family physician, or early childhood specialist.  Early intervention with a child who is behind in language, social, cognitive, fine motor, or gross motor development can make a world of difference.

Below are medical diagnoses/conditions that may lead to a diagnosis of Specific Learning Disability.

High Risk Factors:

  • Pregnancy trauma, such as infection, lack of pre-natal care, prematurity, drugs, alcohol, smoking, some prescription medications, bulimia or anorexia
  • Cord wrapped around the neck or jaundice
  • Children born without a functioning thyroid system
  • Low birth weight babies
  • Viral or bacterial infections
  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Abnormal development – failure to thrive
  • Any condition, such as infection or injury that involves the brain
  • Family history is considered the most serious risk factor

 Developmental Signs That Might Suggest a Specific Learning Disability in a Pre-School Child

  • Language delay (late in talking)
  • Developmental language disorder
  • Difficulty pronouncing the sounds in words (phonological     disorder)
  • Fine and gross motor delay
  • Motor clumsiness (developmental coordination disorder)
  • ·         Problems with socialization
  • ·         Inconsistency of developmental milestones

Medical Diagnoses/Conditions That Might Suggest a Specific Learning Disability in a Pre-School Child:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Specific genetic syndromes, such as Turner, Fragile X, or Prader-Willi
  • Seizure disorders, such as convulsions, epilepsy*
  • Neurosurgical disorders, such as shunted hydrocephalus*
  • Leukemia survivor, after radiation/chemotherapy
  • Failure to thrive
  • Neuromuscular disorder, such as muscular dystrophy*
  • Central nervous system infection, such as encephalitis or meningitis
  • Brain tumor
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • Recurrent/chronic otitis media
  • Strabismus
  • Tactile defensiveness
  • Cerebral palsy*
  • Lead poisoning (plumbism)
  • Tourette Syndrome*
  • Neurofibromatosis*
  • Childhood history of pica (eating non-food items). *

While these disorders are not considered to be learning disabilities, the incidence of Specific Learning Disabilities is higher in these populations.  Also, it is important to recognize that Specific Learning Disabilities can be present in children who have other handicapping conditions as well.

 What Are Some Assessment Techniques?

Preschoolers can be evaluated by using developmental scales, speech/language assessment, play assessment, observations, interviews with caretakers and teachers, and dynamic assessment which evaluates the child’s ability to learn a specific task with teacher guidance.  Another technique is authentic assessment, such as a portfolio collection of the child’s work and play samples.  Other useful techniques include criterion-referenced assessment, which evaluates the child’s mastery of specific skills, and standardized screening/diagnostic instruments.  The use of a variety of these assessment techniques can assist in determining if the child displays uneven patterns of development.

Who Should Do the Evaluation?It is extremely important to choose professionals who have experience and expertise in assessing young children for Specific Learning Disabilities.  Call the Los Angeles Learning Disabilities Association for suggestions and referrals at 626-355-0240.


 Motor Skills

Does your child have problems with small or large motor co-ordination?

 Cognitive Skills

  • Does your child explore the environment?  If so, how?
  • How does your child problem-solve?
  • How does your child transition from one activity to another?
  • What activities hold your child’s attention?
  • How long is the child’s attention span? 

Language Skills

  • Can your child follow directions?
  • Does your child communicate with words? 

Social Skills

  • Does your child make eye contact?
  • Will your child play with other children or does he/she prefer to play alone?

Psychological Development

  • What is the child’s reaction to physical contact?
  • Is your child aggressive? (hit, kick, bite, spit, throw objects or verbally lash out at others)
  • How does the child express emotions such as fear, anger, frustration and sadness?
  • What is your child’s frustration level?  What does he/she do when frustrated? 


Parents have a unique opportunity to observe their child’s social, language, thinking, and motor skills on a daily basis.  If a child appears to be lagging behind his/her peer group in any of these areas, there are things you can do and ways that you can help.

 Social/Emotional Development

You can encourage a child’s social and emotional development by providing opportunities to interact with people of all ages in a variety of situations.  Learning begins at home.  Children must feel comfortable at home and need a sense of belonging.  Get-togethers of all types, such as family gatherings, religious services, birthday parties, and picnics may teach appropriate social behaviors if your child is capable of learning by example or modeling.  Consider enrolling a child in a preschool program or special classes like play therapy or social skills groups, if additional help and experiences are needed.


Enhance motor skills with simple recreational activities like playing catch or bouncing a ball.  Expand a child’s experience with a variety of activities, such as running, jumping, rolling, climbing, swinging, etc., and later, swimming, karate and gymnastics.  Consider having him/her learn to play a musical instrument.  If professional help is needed, consider physical or occupational therapy.  There are programs available that provide therapy for motor delays.


It is important to read to your child before the age of one.  Choose age-appropriate books.  As the child gets older, talk to him/her about the stories and pictures in the books you read.  As language develops children should be able to answer questions about the stories they hear.

By age three, your child should be using words to communicate his/her needs.  A child should be able to follow simple directions such as “pick up your toys”.  Children who need additional help with processing expressive and/or receptive language may benefit from speech and language therapy.


Children want to learn.  Early concepts of numbers and letters should be part of their everyday experiences.  It is important to support your child’s interest in trains, dolls, animals, etc.  Singing songs, reading books, and playing games together will give your child opportunities to learn. 

Parents Communicating With ProfessionalsMany parents feel intimidated when talking with professionals.  Some parents may accept what the professional says without question.  Parents know their children better than anyone.  Your observations and feelings about your child may well be correct. 

Suggestions For A Productive Meeting

Prepare for meetings – make a list in advance of the concerns and questions you have.

  • When you don’t understand something, ask for clarification immediately.  The professional may not even realize he/she has used technical language or jargon.
  • Take notes.
  • Keep a notebook of all information and documents given to you by professionals.
  • Following the meeting review your notes and reports.
  • Write down all follow up questions for your subsequent meetings.
  • It is critically important that you take a friend or family member who can be supportive, remain objective and helpful in remembering what was said during the meeting. 

Asking Questions

The following are some lead-in statements that are good for clarifying and sharing information:

Describe for me . . . . .

Tell me more about . . . . .

Give me an example of . . . . .

Can you tell me about . . . . .

It is also important that you fully understand what was said by the professional(s) and that your understanding is what was meant.  Paraphrasing is a useful technique to use for this purpose, as well as to help you process the information you have received.  The following are good lead-in statements for paraphrasing:

What I think you mean is . . . . .

I understand you to say . . . . .

What you are saying means to me that . . . . .

Do you mean . . . . .

Now, as I understand it . . . . .

Let me make sure I’m understanding you . . . . .

I hear you saying . . . . .

Your concern seems to be . . . . .

Are you saying that . . . . .

 These lead-in statements can be used for sharing information:

Let me tell you about . . . . .

Let me share with you . . . . . 

Specific Questions Parents Might Want to Ask the Professional

  • Are my child’s problems due to a hearing or visual impairment?
  • What kind of tests/assessments are used to determine if my child has a problem?
  • Will I receive a copy of the test results?
  • What kind of help is available for my child?
  • What should I expect this therapy/intervention to accomplish?
  • What can I do at home to help my child?
  • Could his/her condition have the potential to cause physical injury to himself/herself or others?
  • What behaviors should I watch for at home that will help me understand my child better?
  • How will I know my child is making progress?
  • What changes can I expect to see in my child’s behavior?  Development?
  • What is the best way to deal with these behaviors at home and school?
  • Does my child need other services such as occupational or physical therapy, or adaptive physical education?
  • Are there agencies available that will help my child with his/her specific needs?
  • Are you willing to share the findings of your assessment and observations with others? 

Communicating With Parents

It is the responsibility of the professional to help parents understand the child’s specific disability and individual needs.Professionals should support and encourage parents, creating an atmosphere of trust in which parents feel respected, heard, and supported as equal members of the team that is working with their child.  Use layman’s terms and explain any technical terms you use.  Trust in the parents’ instincts and their understanding of the child.

Ask parents what their goals and dreams are for their child.Be realistic and honest about your perceptions as to what the future holds.  When appropriate, refer parents to other resources and support groups.

Professionals should always review their notes and all pertinent information regarding a child prior to meeting with the parents.

 By the age of three, if you suspect that your child has a disability or has been diagnosed with a disability, you need to contact the Director of Special Education for your local school district.  The school district is mandated to provide services to three year olds if they have a handicapping condition.  If you have questions call LALDA at 626/355-0240 for assistance. 

The content of this Early Childhood page was partially taken from “When Pre-Schoolers Are Not ‘On Target’ In Their Development”, a publication of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.  This document was revised by Carol Burton, M.A., Cathy Fickas, M.S. Diane Kerchner, B.A. and Judy McKinley.