Promoting Success: Early Indicators of Learning Disabilities in Preschool Children

By Gillis, Margaret C. | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Promoting Success: Early Indicators of Learning Disabilities in Preschool Children


Gillis, Margaret C., Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Approximately 5% of all children of school age in public schools in the United States are identified as having a learning disability and are receiving some form of educational support services (LD at a glance, n.d.)- With so many schoolaged children identified as having learning disabilities, it is important to consider how learning disabilities develop and have an impact on young children. If we understand how learning difficulties manifest in young children, parents, teachers, and other professionals can recognize early signs of difficulty and offer additional support as needed. This article summarizes the research on skills and behaviors that seem to be early indicators or precursors of learning disabilities in pre-kindergarten children (ages 3-5). Understanding these skills and behaviors will help us identify children who may be experiencing difficulty so we can provide additional support, placing the child on an early pathway for success.

Children may exhibit observable behavior patterns in early childhood that foreshadow learning disabilities (Lowenthal, 1998; Steele, 2004). Early intervention and educational support of these children before they enter school may smooth the transition allowing them to be more successful in kindergarten and beyond. Although children may not be formally identified as having a learning disability until they reach school age, quick and cost-effective screening measures could be used in preschool to recognize children who may be at risk for a learning disability (Satz & Fletcher, 1988). In a model such as response to intervention (RTI), screening occurs multiple times each year to determine whether children are making adequate progress on key skills, early literacy skills in particular (Coleman, Buysse, & Neitzel, 2006). When parents, teachers, and other professionals are able to identify behaviors in pre-kindergarten-age children that indicate they might be struggling with learning, early intervention can be provided to respond to those needs. The skills and behaviors that contribute to academic success or to learning disabilities in young children have been identified through conceptual literature as well as research.

Conceptual descriptions of precursors of learning disabilities include a wide variety of behaviors relating to deficits in language and literacy skills (Joshi, 2003), memory, socialemotional, self-regulation, and motor skills (Lowenthal, 1998). Catts and Hogan (2003) argue that developmental language impairment in early childhood is the most reliable sign of a potential reading problem, while others suggest that skills such as name-writing could be indicative of early literacy skills (Haney, 2002). Aspects of a child's temperament, such as activity level and attention span, also may have an impact on learning (Teglasi, Cohn, & Meshbesher, 2004).

Although relatively few research studies have specifically investigated early indicators of learning disabilities, many have contributed to the pool of knowledge by investigating predictors of achievement or academic skills and discussing the low end of the spectrum of skills and achievement as it relates to learning difficulty (e.g., Badián, 1982; Ellis & Large, 1987; Cilbertson & Bramlett, 1998). The skills and behaviors identified by researchers as early indicators of learning disabilities can be grouped into six general skill categories: language, literacy, early math, social-emotional, self-management, and perceptual motor. The skills identified give us an idea of which areas to focus on when screening and assessing young children in pre-kindergarten and the early school years.

Language Skills

Early language skills appear to be among the most important contributors for future reading and academic success. Skills such as sound blending (e.g., c/a/t makes cat), rhyming, discrimination of beginning sounds, morphology (i.e., combining words, word stems, and affixes to express meaning), and speech comprehension have contributed to children's reading skills and ability up to several years after initial assessment (Ellis & Large, 1987; Felton, 1992; Gilbertson & Bramlett, 1998; Olofsson & Niedersoe, 1999). …

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