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Common Signs of Learning and Thinking Differences

Common Signs Your Child Might Be Struggling With Learning and Thinking Differences

We've partnered with Understood to help parents spot signs of possible learning and thinking differences in their children.

For some children, school just makes sense. Everything from essay writing to long division is a piece of cake — learning comes easily and schoolwork isn't a problem. For others, learning multiplication tables or figuring out what rhymes with "cat" seems impossible.

That's what school can be like for a child with a learning or thinking difference like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADHD. In the United States, at least 15 million children — that's one in five — learn or think differently. Yet many kids may not have a diagnosis or receive special education services in school, which means they may not be getting the support they need.

The sooner kids who learn or think differently get the help they need, the more likely they are to thrive in school and daily life. Yet many parents and caregivers don't see the signs that something is going on with their child until their child has already fallen behind in school. According to a recent survey conducted by the social impact organization Understood, 62 percent of parents of children who learn and think differently said they wished they'd had tools or resources to help track changes in their children's behavior prior to their diagnosis. That's why Understood partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics on Take N.O.T.E., an initiative that aims to help parents identify learning and thinking differences in children. It includes a simple, four-part memory device — notice, observe, talk, engage — to help families make sense of their child’s difficulties. Read on to learn a few common signs that children might learn or think differently and what parents can do to help.

Difficulties With School and Homework
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For many parents, the wake-up call that something is going on with their child might be a failing grade on a book report or math test — but if you look closely, the signs often appear before that. Children who learn and think differently might have trouble reading and recognizing letters or have a hard time with rhyming and spelling. As a result, they might seem stressed about reading — or avoid it altogether. Struggling to pay attention in class or when doing independent schoolwork can also be a sign of learning and thinking differences. They might even refuse to do their homework or frequently need extra help from parents and teachers to stay on task. In general, school can be a source of anxiety for kids who learn and think differently, to the point where they feel afraid of school or get frequent stomach aches or headaches.

Social Struggles

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The classroom isn't the only place where children who learn and think differently can struggle: their social lives can also prove challenging. Keep a close eye on your child's friendships, as struggling to make or keep friends can be a sign of a deeper issue. Kids who learn and think differently can have trouble understanding social cues like body language and the conversational flow. They might interrupt often, or not get jokes and puns. Managing their emotions can also be challenging for kids with learning and thinking differences, making it difficult to form friendships.

Trouble With Organization and Daily Routines

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Sure, all kids leave their rooms messy from time to time, but children who learn and think differently might be disorganized to the point it interferes with their daily lives. Think regularly losing their schoolbooks or homework or combing through a pile of clothes to find a clean outfit every day. They might also have trouble following directions with multiple steps. Applying math in real life can also be a challenge for some people who learn and think differently. They may struggle to tell time or calculate how much change they'll get back from the cashier, for example.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

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If you're seeing any of those signs in your child, you've already taken the first step: noticing if anything is out of the ordinary. Next, follow the framework laid out in Understood's Take N.O.T.E. initiative:

  • Notice if something is going on with your child that is out of the ordinary.
  • Observe and track patterns in your child's behavior.
  • Talk to your child, their teachers, social workers, aides, or caregivers about what you're observing.
  • Engage with trusted professionals, like pediatricians.

The realization that your child might have a learning or thinking difference can be overwhelming at first. Instead of rushing to conclusions or trying to diagnose your child yourself, work step by step. That way, when you're ready to talk to your child's pediatrician about what you've observed, you'll have plenty of information to share. Visit the Understood Take N.O.T.E. website (or the Spanish language version) for more information, downloadable tools, and expert advice.