Perhaps you had this experience: You approached your child’s school about your kindergarten age child, expressing concern that he or she may have a learning disability. While sympathetic, your school’s psychologist, reading specialist, or other diagnostic expert responded that learning disabilities cannot be diagnosed until a child has been unable to succeed academically despite conscientious instruction.
Several years later, you attended a meeting with your school’s multi-disciplinary team who explained that your child indeed does have a learning disability. Your emotions felt chaotic – a mixture of relief, worry, sorrow – and perhaps frustration or even anger that years had passed since you recognised that your child’s development was not typical, but rather different from his peers in subtle yet important ways.
It is a fact that learning disabilities cannot be 'positively' diagnosed in early childhood. Unlike severe developmental disabilities, learning disabilities are mild neurocognitive deficits that cannot be easily distinguished from the broad range of typical early childhood development.
However, it is also a fact that it is possible to identify children with 'increased risk' of developing learning disabilities in the future, e.g. as elementary school students.
Children with 'increased risk' of learning disabilities frequently share one or more of these characteristics:
- A mother, father, sister or brother with an Autistic Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, or Learning Disability
- Low birth weight, defined as a weight less than 2500 grams or 5.5 pounds
- Delayed speech—failure to combine two or more words into short phrases by 24 months of age
- A diagnosis of ADHD
These risk factors are associated with increased risk of learning disabilities because many learning disabilities are the result of a developmental trajectory that starts before birth, and continues through adulthood.
As preschoolers, children at 'increased risk' have trouble:
- “Reading”—really recognising—signs like Coke, McDonalds and other frequently occurring printed words
- Recognising parts of books such as the cover, title
- Recognising letters of his or her own name
- Quickly retrieving words, measured by asking a child to rapidly name a category such as “animals”
If we know this then 'What about prevention?'
Many of the home-based interventions that can reduce the risk of learning disabilities, especially reading disabilities, are parenting habits that apply to all children.
The common element of all home—based interventions is the systematic exposure of children to rich, engaging, and expressive language. The best example of this is shared reading.
'Shared Reading', is when parents read to their children, and through this activity, books take on an added dimension of parental love and affection. Children hear models of reading that are more accurate and more advanced than their own.
They begin to associate letters with sounds and words with meaning. Using books with predictable rhyme patterns and simple rhythms, such as the Dr. Seuss books, teaches the acceptable and common sound system of our language.
Old fashioned entertainment, based on interaction between adults and children rather than video, fulfills a similar purpose. Telling stories about family history, sharing folk tales you learned as a child, playing word games such as 20-questions or I-Spy are ways parents teach their preschool “language apprentices.”
Apprentices need teachers who listen well and listen patiently, and who can demonstrate good conversational skills such as taking turns speaking without interrupting.
Helping children to play creatively, with other children, and with their imaginations is the oldest form of language and social skill training.
SummaryIn summary, while diagnosis of learning disabilities is not possible at young ages, parents, schools, healthcare professionals and others can be very attuned to delays in language development that confer increased risk for learning disabilities.
In addition, adults can focus particular attention to Low-Birth-Weight children, and children who were not talking by their second birthday, viewing them as especially vulnerable and needing developmental assessment.
Parents, schools and speech and language therapists can team-up to help reduce the potential risk of learning disabilities.