When children are very small (I’m talking about babies and toddlers), it’s easier to recognize their cries as a plea for help. Babies cry when they need something (diaper changes, food, or sleep), and I think most people would agree that a crying baby should have their needs should be met. Toddlers begin to talk and throw tantrums, but it’s generally understood that toddlers have yet to be in full control of their emotions. Toddlers require adults to manage a situation that is out of their control so they can learn to regulate their own emotions.

It can be more challenging to recognize the needs of kids as they get older. I feel like this is especially true because of the existing stereotypes about the different stages of child development. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into who stick to the stereotypes they’ve heard of for kids. I swear, there are so many people that think of kids progressing from lovable babies to cute elementary kids to stubborn teenagers. (I personally haven’t found these stereotypes to be true.) I think another common assumption is that kids will pick up skills like communication, organization, and social behavior through observation. While this is true for some kids, others need additional support.

It’s imperative to meet the needs of the kids that need extra support. Their self-esteem and sense of worth plummet as they continue to struggle. Without intervention, they become more at risk for substance abuse, school drop-out, college drop-out, or incarceration. In order to know how to help your kid, it’s important to understand when to provide. One particular rule of thumb is the idea of productive struggle. Every child has their own challenges as they grow. But challenges should be mostly productive and even somewhat motivate kids. They should push kids a little outside of their comfort zone. When kids struggle to the point of things being overwhelming and miserable, that is when they need help.

I have personally adopted the motto, “kids succeed if they can.” This means that when kids have the right skills, they can succeed. It also assumes that kids want to be successful, that they don’t actually want to be trouble-makers (who would’ve thought!?) Conversely, this implies that when kids aren’t succeeding, they must not have the right skills. It becomes the responsibility of the adults to help the kids learn the right skills. I think if everyone adopted this way of thinking, we would see more successful and well-adjusted teenagers and young-adults. I think another byproduct would be happier parents as well. But, alas, that all takes time and education.

So let’s talk about the indicators of a struggling child. There are in fact many behaviors that indicate a disorder.

  • Difficulty concentrating
    • Students who need frequent reminders to focus may be experiencing poor working memory–holding, processing, and building on new information.
  • Emotionality
    • Kids with learning disorders may feel shame or embarrassment for their deficits. They struggle with low self-esteem. They typically have school-related anxiety because they don’t understand why they can’t keep up with their peers.
  • Not living up to their potential
    • Kids with learning disorders often fail to live up to their potential. Their work does not reflect how bright they really are. This can be described as the discrepancy between ability and aptitude. (Ability is what kids are able to do, while aptitude is what kids should be able to do.) It’s clear that the kid’s aptitude is much greater than what they demonstrate in their schoolwork. Also, just because a kid’s aptitude is much higher than their current efforts, this doesn’t mean they are capable of achieving more. When a student isn’t able to demonstrate their full abilities, it means they additional tools to reach their full potential.
  • Hiding out
    • Kids who have learning disorders are aware that they have more difficulties than their peers. When students come across as excessively shy–not contributing during group projects, sitting in the back row, doing everything in their power to avoid being called on–they may be trying to hide a learning issue.
  • Missing homework
    • Students with learning disorders often struggle to get their homework turned in on time–or at all. This could be due to embarrassment of handing in incomplete/incorrect homework, forgetting the due dates, or losing their homework.
  • Executive function difficulties
    • Executive function skills include self-awareness, self-control, working memory, emotional regulation, self-motivation, planning, and problem solving. Kids with learning disorders will have a challenging time grasping any number of these skills.
  • Avoidance
    • Kids with learning disorders may try everything in their power to avoid school situations that trigger their anxiety or stress. They may opt for easier tasks or classes rather than choosing the ones that will challenge them.
  • Poor social skills
    • Learning disorders don’t just affect a child’s academic performance in the classroom. Kids with learning disorders often times have poor social skills. This can include behaviors that make them appear immature or awkward, not knowing how to respond in situations, unsureness of how to express themselves, missing verbal and nonverbal social cues, and sharing information in socially inappropriate ways. Some of their other behaviors may include standing too close to other people and being oblivious to people’s reactions.
  • Social isolation
    • Social isolation is often another indicator of a potential disorder. There are a couple possible reasons for a child’s isolation. Their peers may be bullying them or they may not know how to interact with other kids.
  • Physically awkward or uncoordinated
    • Learning disorders have the potential to affect a child’s coordination and motor skills. Kids with learning disabilities will sometimes appear physically awkward or clumsy.
  • Overly dependent on parents
    • A kid that is not learning independence should raise some red flags. Kids may be reliant on their parents for a number of reasons: they may not be able to advocate for themselves; their parents may provide security; or they may not know what to do without their parents telling them. While kids need some guidance from adults, they also should be developing some independence as they grow.
  • Messy handwriting
    • Sloppy handwriting can be a byproduct of a learning disorder in kids.
  • Doesn’t make connections
    • Learning disorders affect can affect a kid’s ability to make connections. Kids may remember information, but may forget why it’s important. They may also pay attention to details but miss the bigger picture.
  • Thinks in literal, concrete terms
    • Kids with learning disorders may think slightly differently than their other peers. Their thinking may be more literal. This more concrete thinking can apply to social situations and also academics. Kids that think in literal terms will miss subtle cues in language or they will have trouble in their classes with figurative language.
  • Changes the subject abruptly in conversations
    • Kids with learning disorders may have difficulty having and maintaining conversations with other people. It can be hard for them to stay on the same subject or follow the story-line in a conversation. When a conversation is already going they may change the subject abruptly.

Just because your child struggles with any of these it doesn’t mean they have a disorder. It could just mean those skills are not as developed. But if you are able to spot several of these behaviors in your child (especially if it’s consistent), it could mean that their learning needs are not being met by a traditional school environment. The next question is how to handle the potential issue. First, talk to your kid. Ask them if they are experiencing any trouble in school or what their frustrations are. They may not have a name for what they are going through, but your kid is the best source for what their problems are. I would also recommend talking to your kid’s teachers and administrators. They are the adults that see your kid every single day, so they will probably have some good insights as to what your kid is like at school. You can also talk to your pediatrician, and if it’s necessary get an evaluation for your kid. But be proactive about handling the situation. As frustrating as it is for you to nag your child, just remember, your child is frustrated too. They want to feel successful just as much as you want them to. After all, who wouldn’t want to be successful?


Childmind.org–Tips for Recognizing Learning Disorders in the Classroom


Signs of a Struggling Child

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