Common Indicators of Specific Learning Disabilities in Children

As children and adolescents settle back into their school routines, academic struggles and underachievement may become more apparent. 

While there are many potential reasons for learning difficulties in preschool and school-aged children, one unique group of disorders involves students who learn “differently.” Specific learning disabilities (SLD’s) are neurologically-based processing problems that interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America. They also can interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning and attention span.

“While many children struggle with reading, writing or other learning-related tasks at some point, a child with a SLD often has an uneven learning profile,” said Kurt Klinepeter, MD, professor of pediatrics at Brenner Children’s Hospital, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “The sign of SLD’s vary from child to child and can go undiagnosed or mistaken for laziness or indifference—which is often untrue.” 

According to Klinepeter, the most common SLD is language-based which primarily manifests as reading and comprehension deficits. The common term for a reading disorder or disability is dyslexia; yet, there may be other aspects of learning problems other than just reading disorders. 

To help ensure students succeed in school, parents should be familiar with the signs of SLD’s and consult with a pediatrician or school counselor should they have concerns. 

Common indicators of SLD’s can include:

Preschool age

  • Problems pronouncing simple words or confusing words that sound alike
  • Difficulty learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, days of the week
  • Trouble controlling crayons, pencils and scissors or coloring within the lines
  • Struggles with buttons, zippers, snaps or learning to tie shoes

Ages 5-9

  • Trouble learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Unable to blend sounds to make words or confuse basic words when reading
  • Consistently misspells age-appropriate words
  • Trouble learning basic math concepts and difficulty telling time 

Ages 10-13

  • Difficulty with reading comprehension, math skills or handwriting
  • Trouble with open-ended test questions and word problems
  • Dislikes reading and writing; avoids reading aloud
  • Lack of organizational skills (bedroom, homework, desk is messy, misplaces items)
  • Trouble following classroom discussions or expressing thoughts aloud

Early identification and accurate characterization of a child’s learning disorder is the key to successful educational planning, followed by involvement in evidence-based treatments. 

“In the case of language-based SLD’s, the encouraging news is that specific language and literacy interventions in young children do make a difference in long-term outcomes,” said Klinepeter.