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How Can You Tell If Your Toddler Struggles With Learning?

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Parents often worry about their toddlers’ development. In fact, it’s one of the top concerns parents share. Is my child progressing at the right rate? Are they able to do the things they’re supposed to do at their age?

It can be hard to know when your toddler has a developmental difference that might lead to learning challenges. And understandably, parents are on high alert for any signs that their children might need extra help or might encounter problems as they go into preschool, kindergarten, and beyond.

What Are Parents’ Worries About Learning Differences?

Let’s face it, most parents of toddlers — especially first-time parents — worry about everything. A child could be speaking in sonnet form at six months, and the parents would still worry about how they’re going to do in future school assessments. But there is a special worry slot reserved for learning. Parents fear learning differences and disabilities and how they might impact their children’s futures.

Fortunately, today’s generations are keener on learning differences than previous generations. We know that learning differences and difficulties exist and that children who struggle with traditional academic skills have more alternative routes to success and well-being than ever. The mistaken assumption that a learning difficulty implies a lack of intelligence is thankfully less common now. The long list of highly successful people with learning disabilities helps, too: stars such as Cher, Daniel Radcliffe, Tommy Hilfiger, Jim Carrey, and Charles Schwab show that learning differences don’t have to hold people back.

However, because there is such a wide range of progress in literacy among toddlers, it can be challenging to determine whether a little one has a learning difference or is a late bloomer.

The first step to becoming more aware of how your child is doing is to do some research. What is actually considered a learning disability?

What Is a Learning Disability?

Some of the most common forms of learning disabilities are:

  • A reading or language difficulty (e.g., dyslexia)
  • Trouble processing math (e.g., dyscalculia)
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills or spelling (e.g., dysgraphia)
  • There are many other forms, too. More than 4 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with at least one learning disability, and as many as 20% have learning and attention challenges.

What this means is that learning difficulties are very normal. The number of children who were diagnosed and received special provisions under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was 7.2 million during the 2020-2021 academic year. That figure has gone up from 6.5 million in the 2009-2010 year, suggesting that our ability and willingness to identify and provide for learning differences (and other disabilities) are increasing.

Learning disabilities are typically uncovered when a child starts school, but it can take a lot longer. Often, preschool and kindergarten teachers first begin the identification process. However, schools vary, and many have limited funding and resources for specialized assistance. So, parents frequently have to put pressure on local authorities to help.

How Can Parents Look Out for Learning Difficulties as Their Children Grow?

A good way to spot any learning differences in your child is to be proactive about play. Until you have evidence that your child might be struggling, simply providing rich play experiences can help. Focus on stimulating curiosity, imagination, and problem-solving. Using building blocks, coloring, playing with measuring cups in the bath, and taking nature walks are all great foundational activities that will start to grow and challenge your child’s learning.

From here, you can see if your child displays any of these behaviors to know if they might need extra help:

Is speaking difficult?

Speaking difficulties can be a sign of certain learning disabilities. Is your child repeating names for familiar objects and colors? Can they follow the sounds of a word and repeat them in the correct order?

If you’re providing a rich verbal environment, you can give your child a chance to practice increasingly complex speech. You can invite your child to elaborate on simple or one-word responses by asking questions. Ask what your child wants for lunch, for example, and if they respond with “sandwich,” see what questions you can ask to help them use more words. Do you want a big or a little sandwich? How should I cut it? What’s your favorite kind of sandwich?

If your child seems frustrated or distracted when responding to simple questions, they might need help focusing. Asking them to look at you while you speak or giving them a directive to follow might help.

Is listening difficult?

Listening can be another indicator of how someone might learn. Does your child struggle with attention when stories are read aloud? Do they find it challenging to listen to directions and follow them?

Lots of children find it difficult to focus on what they’re hearing, to engage and make sense of it so that they can act on questions or prompts. If this seems to be the case with your child, you could try breaking directions down into smaller chunks. Break down a story into smaller parts while taking time to ask questions about what’s happening to check that your child is following along.

If your little one is struggling to follow one- or two-step directions, you could model the action for them. “Let’s do it together,” you could say. Then, go through the task step by step along with them, describing what you’re doing as you do it so that they have a chance to connect the words with the actions.

Are physical activities difficult?

How does your child engage with physical activities, such as running, jumping, or balancing? Visit the playground. Try out a range of movements, from skipping to galloping in a mini race to climbing to standing on different surfaces. Does your child adapt to these activities?

Encourage activities that develop strength, such as using the bars or ladders on the play equipment. If your child still struggles to balance, they might need extra help with their physical learning.

Playing alongside your child can help them learn, too. Do they have trouble stacking blocks, holding a crayon or paintbrush, or using an age-appropriate toy when left alone? Try doing it with them, taking turns to play.

What Next?

If you try these things and notice difficulties or differences, start a log of observations and examples of the suspected learning difficulty. Take photos of your child during difficult activities (without seeming to criticize them) and begin compiling specifics you can share with a specialist. This will help tell the story of your child’s challenges beyond the assessment room.

Then, you can consider consulting your pediatrician. If a professional is warranted, your pediatrician should have resources available. Sometimes, a child is simply developing at a slower rate or has an eyesight or hearing issue getting in the way of learning.

Keep some healthy perspective about development. Remember the old German joke about a child who never speaks? One day, faced with a bowl of soup, the boy — now 17 years old — says, “Mother, this soup is tepid.” The mother, astonished, asks her son why he hasn’t spoken before. “Because, Mother, up until now, everything has been satisfactory.

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