How early should kids be assessed for a learning disability?

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It's a dilemma faced by many parents whose children may have a learning disability: When should they have their kids assessed? There might be concerns about unnecessary labeling if a child is tested at a very young age, but a student with a learning disability might become disengaged from school if his or her difficulties are not identified until later. Is it possible for a child to be "too young" for an assessment?

Part of the issue with testing young kids for a learning disability is that many skills continue to develop between the ages of 6 and 12. It's possible that a young child might have difficulties with handwriting that disappear with time and practice. In addition, children in Kindergarten and Grade 1 are only beginning to learn test-taking skills; they may give up easily or become inattentive in meetings with a psychologist. As a result, although many psychologists assess young children, they are often reluctant to diagnose a learning disability based on scores that may not represent a stable learning pattern.

So if an assessment may not provide a learning disability diagnosis, should parents wait to see if their children will outgrow their difficulties? This is a risky proposition as far as I'm concerned. Most of us tend to avoid or dislike activities in which we lack confidence. Kids who struggle with reading, writing, or math may begin to dislike school or to lack confidence in their learning skills. If they avoid difficult schoolwork, they may fall further behind their classmates who continue to practice and develop their abilities. Even if a learning disability is unlikely to be diagnosed, a "wait and see" approach is usually not the best way to go.

Allyson Harrison wrote about this issue in the Canadian Journal of School Psychology. She recommended that schools begin by screening for difficulties in Kindergarten and Grade 1; that is, school staff should identify kids who may have learning problems as soon as possible. Then, teachers and parents can provide support to allow kids who are struggling to catch up. Harrison suggested that children who have not benefited from extra help by the time they reach Grade 3 should receive a full psycho-educational assessment to identify a possible learning disability. This is a model followed by many schools; teachers are generally good at recognizing their students' learning challenges, and individual support is often provided. Sometimes, though, either because of limited resources or a learning profile that is difficult to understand, the early screening and intervention process is less helpful. These are the situations in which an early assessment could be valuable.

Psycho-educational assessments can provide a snapshot of learning strengths and weaknesses, even for kids who are unlikely to be given a diagnosis of a learning disability. A psychologist who is familiar with child development and experienced in working with young kids can give parents and teachers guidance on current strengths and weaknesses that might affect academic progress, regardless of the presence of a specific learning disability. This may allow interventions to be targeted to the development of specific skills. For example, if a child has trouble recalling letter sounds, but is good at recognizing things that she's seen, then it may be easier for her to learn a "whole word" approach to reading than a phonological approach. It's true that young kids who have large peaks and valleys in their ability profile may need to be reassessed, but an early assessment could provide helpful information allowing early intervention. If problems are identified, homework routines may need to be adjusted too. The bottom line: it's great if teachers can identify kids who are having trouble, intervene early, and recommend an assessment if the interventions don't do the trick. But for kids who are at risk of falling through the cracks for any reason, a psycho-educational assessment might provide helpful guidance for parents and teachers that may prevent future learning problems. Getting information about a child's learning style and abilities is more important than labeling them with a specific learning disability!

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.