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Learning Disability or Behavior Problem?

LD and ADD/ADHD Expert Advice from Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D.

Q: How can you tell after only two months in kindergarten that a child has a learning disability versus a behavior problem?

A: The answer is you can't -- or at least not easily. First of all, children develop at different rates and the range of what's "normal" in children in kindergarten is quite wide.

A lot of children get identified as students with a learning disability in the second or third grade, because that's when the curriculum (especially reading-related subjects) starts to get much more difficult. It is difficult to identify a learning disability in younger children, since the expectations of teachers are so broad, and teachers tend to expect much more variation in children's ability and rate of learning. However, some behaviors in young children have been shown to be linked to later learning disabilities. A child who exhibits several of the following behaviors may be showing the symptoms of early learning disabilities:

  • Seems clumsy and bumps into things or people.
  • Has uneven profile of skills; talks really well, but can't zipper or button.
  • Looks but doesn't seem to "see"; watches but doesn't respond to what he sees.
  • Appears to be listening, but doesn't understand what is said.
  • May have very short attention span.
  • Understands well, but has difficulty expressing himself in words.
  • Acts younger than his or her chronological age.
  • Either overreacts or underreacts to things. Emotions may not match events.
  • Seems disorganized, chaotic. Takes more time to get ready and do things.

It's often the case that undiagnosed and untreated learning disabilities lead to feelings of frustration and failure in young children. What a teacher might see is a child who acts up or who is resistant or oppositional in order to avoid that thing that he or she dreads most -- learning.

It's very important to rule out underlying learning disabilities as a possible cause of a child's inappropriate behavior. It's also important to realize that unfortunately, some little children have underlying emotional problems that take a real toll on learning. If a pre-schooler is spending a lot of his/her time worrying about something, or hearing voices that aren't there, it is no wonder that he or she has "holes" in learning that look very much like learning disabilities.

The key to answering the dilemma of whether the problem is related to learning or behavior is a multi-disciplinary evaluation carried out jointly by teachers, psychologists, pediatricians, and anyone else who provides service to the child.

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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.


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