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The Informed Parent

Learning Disability in the Preschool Child

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 09, 2000

The three-part series on learning disabilities began last month by defining learning disability, discussing possible causes for the disorder, and providing the prognosis for children diagnosed with a learning disability. The following article looks at indicators of learning disability in the preschool child. Guidelines for parents are offered for those who have concerns about their preschooler.

Since preschool children have not had formal academic training, assessing learning disability in this young population is difficult. The most crucial evidence seems to be related to their behavior as compared with expected developmental milestones. While no two children mature at the same rate, if a child does not reach these milestones within the predicted time frame, carefully evaluating the situation offers the child the best opportunity for future academic, social, and emotional success.

Examining five areas of development clarifies how the preschool child compares with expectations for his or her age.

Cognitive Ability

Cognitive ability refers to the skills associated with thinking and reasoning. While it may seem apparent if a child appears particularly bright or dull, only through the administration of a standardized intelligence scale can we know, with some certainty, a child’s learning potential.

An intelligence test assesses several areas of thinking ability. A psychologist or other qualified professional administers the test and analyzes the child’s strengths and weaknesses. The evaluator observes patterns in the child’s responses and behavior and uses the scores achieved on the test to determine the child’s potential for learning and understanding.

Language Development

Language is broken down into two categories: receptive and expressive. Receptive language is what children comprehend from what they hear. Expressive language is what children actually say.

Children’s receptive language develops earlier than their ability to express their wants or thoughts. Even before children can speak, they understand your communications to them. Recall how your baby responded with a smile to your loving words or how your toddler, who only babbled, pulled back his hand when you said a firm "No!" or came when you said, "Come to Daddy."

You can determine how much your preschooler understands by making requests or asking questions such as, "Bring me the dolly," or "Show me your nose." Children have a receptive vocabulary of thousands of words by age four.

Expressive language develops along predictable guidelines. Children first use nouns, then verbs. Later they use pronouns. Later still, more complex parts of speech become part of their vocabulary

Toddlers begin by labeling. Remember how thrilled you were when you first heard "Mama" or "Dada"? Later "Go bye bye" entered your child’s vocabulary. Soon your three-year-old spoke in simple sentences. Now your four-year-old expresses in complex sentences using verb tenses to indicate past and present, plurals such as THEY and THEM, and prepositions such as OVER and UNDER.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills require using the large muscles of the body. When children walk, run, climb, jump, and skip, they use their large muscles. By age four, most children are quite adept at using the large muscles. They walk upstairs and downstairs with one foot per thread. They balance for a few seconds on both their right and left foot. They can balance on a swing, climb the steps, slide down a slide, and ride a tricycle.

Children with learning disabilities develop gross motor skills slower than their same-aged peers. They appear clumsy and uncoordinated long after others their age are agile.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills refer to the use of the small muscles of the body. Skills such as buttoning, zipping a zipper, picking up small objects, drawing, and writing use the small muscles. Girls tend to develop small muscle skills earlier than boys do. Children with learning disabilities often exhibit a delay in fine muscle control. Frustration accompanies their attempts at success.

Most three-year-olds can draw a recognizable circle. Four-year-olds can button a sweater or zip a zipper if the buttons and zipper are large. By the time children are ready for kindergarten, they can draw a recognizable square. Young children may not do these tasks quickly or with ease, but they have the ability.

Social Skills

Preschool children exhibit emerging social skills. Young preschoolers engage in parallel play: playing beside, not with, a peer. Older preschoolers have grown toward cooperative play; that is, play that includes another. By the time children are four-years-old, cooperative play is the norm.

Three-and-four-year-olds have matured to the place where they are quite capable. At this stage of development they will be able to wash their hands and face, brush their teeth, and dress by themselves. Some will need help with buttoning and zippering until they are four or early five. Preschool children can help with household chores such as setting the table or putting away their toys. By the time children are four, they can play by themselves for 10 minutes. They can sit and listen to a story for 10 minutes. They may talk to themselves while they play, and they will participate in "reading" the stories they know.

Is My Preschooler Learning Disabled?

Different children mature at different rates. If your child seems delayed in one of the above areas, it does not mean he or she is learning disabled. Patterns of delay are what parents and teachers need to be aware of.

Many young children attend preschool. Effective preschool teachers have been trained to observe children carefully. They are aware of developmental milestones and when children are and are not meeting them. The teacher will inform you if she does not believe your child is maturing as expected. If you feel that your child is not functioning in ways that are appropriate for his or her age, discuss this with the teacher.

More than likely when you take your child to the pediatrician, he or she takes an updated developmental history. This is a good time to voice any worries you have about your preschooler’s maturity in the areas discussed above. The pediatrician will alleviate your fears or talk with you about any lags that seem out of the ordinary. Pediatricians know the appropriate referrals to make and how to guide you in the steps to take to assist your child.

If patterns of developmental lag exist, a formal evaluation by a qualified professional will be advised. An effective evaluation includes: a detailed history from birth to present; an in-office observation; a school observation if your child attends preschool; an in-home observation if your child is not in school; administration of a series of standardized tests to determine how your child functions in comparison to others in the same age group.

Finally when all the information is gathered, the evaluator will sit with you and discuss the findings. Recommendations will be made. Following the recommendations is mandatory. When children are at risk for academic failure, early intervention gives the greatest opportunity for future success.

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