Could Your Child Have A Learning Disability? Know The Signs And Seek Help Early

learning disability

Are you afraid that your child may have a learning disability, especially if he or she is about to enter primary school?

Among school-going children in Singapore, two of the most common disabilities that affect learning are dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Dyslexia is a learning condition that affects the brain’s ability to translate information received from the eyes or ears into understandable language — people with dyslexia need more time to decode language.

ADHD results from differences in one’s brain development and brain activity, and it affects attention, the ability to sit still, and self-control. 

These are just two of the many learning disabilities that may pose a challenge to children in school. According to Singapore’s professional practice guidelines, a child is deemed to have special educational needs when he or she:

  • has been diagnosed with a disability
  • shows greater difficulty in learning, compared to the majority of his or her peers of the same age 
  • requires different (or additional) resources from what is generally available for his or her same-age peers

If you feel that your child may have learning issues, do discuss your observations and concerns with your child’s preschool or school teachers. 

Depending on the difficulties that your child displays, the school may recommend for your child to be assessed by psychologists from the Ministry of Education, or by professionals from a government hospital. Alternatively, your child can be assessed by a qualified private professional. 

Like many parents, you may be tempted to adopt a wait-and-see approach, in the hope that your child is merely a late bloomer. However, this would be a mistake, says education consultant Ashraf Samsudin, who has over a decade’s worth of experience coaching students with special needs.

“Have them assessed immediately so they can get the help they need,” he says.

What Should Parents Look Out For?

It is important to note that no checklist will be able to help you easily spot a learning disability in your child. However, you should monitor your child if he or she has displayed any of these signs while in preschool:

  • Cannot seem to remember the labels for known objects
  • Finds it hard to carry out two or more instructions at a time (e.g. “put the toys in the box, then put it on the shelf”) but is fine if tasks are presented one at a time
  • Forgets names of friends and teachers, or has trouble interacting with peers 
  • Is unusually clumsy
  • Has difficulty sitting still on a chair for more than five minutes
  • People who do not know your child well have difficulty understanding what he or she says
  • Has difficulty writing letters of the alphabet
  • Guesses wildly at words

(Click here for a more detailed preschooler checklist.)

If your child has entered primary school, some tell-tale signs of a learning disability might be:

  • Difficulties with reading — remembering sight words, sounding out words, and reading comprehension
  • Difficulties with basic spelling and grammar — for instance, does it take hours to prepare for a spelling test?
  • Difficulties with math concepts 
  • A lack of organisational skills, such as the ability to pack one’s schoolbag for the next day, or being unable to keep track of one’s homework
  • Not understanding oral instructions 
  • Difficulties with verbal expression
  • Acting out over minor situations
  • Being easily distracted, or finding it hard to listen to others

(Click here to see examples of a dyslexic child’s written work.)

Know That Your Child Can Be Helped

“It’s not an easy journey. I have to confess it’s a real test to my patience and sanity dealing with my son,” says a local mother of a boy, now 13, who has ADHD. “But it has taught me that when I accept and recognise that I have a child who requires my additional attention and love, it is easier for me to seek relevant help to intervene and assist him in becoming independent.”

She and her husband decided to send their son for an assessment following a parent-teacher meeting when he was in Primary 1. However, her son was only formally diagnosed with ADHD in Primary 3. (Read her story here.)

For Mdm Mastzainah bte Jalil, her daughter, now 15, got off to a rough start in Primary 1, because she struggled with spelling and writing. 

“She would cry herself to sleep almost every night, telling me that she didn’t want to go to school the next day,” recalls Mdm Mastzainah. “This went on for about two weeks before I decided to write a note to the form teacher sharing my suspicion that my daughter could be dyslexic. I received a phone call from the form teacher that very night; she told me that she found my daughter eloquent and smart, but her written work didn’t match up, and she shared my sentiments that my daughter could be dyslexic. Together, we decided that my daughter should get tested for dyslexia.”

It took six months for Mdm Mastzainah to receive confirmation that her daughter was indeed dyslexic.

“My husband and I were called in to a meeting with the school principal, vice-principal, head of department, form teachers, and counsellors to discuss the results of the test and how they would support my daughter,” she says. “Support is essential.”

In fact, Mdm Mastzainah has two children who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, but she remains unfazed. “I take it one step at a time, and deal with whatever is in front of me before moving on to the next challenge,” she says. “I have built bonds with [my children’s] teachers and they have always been willing to assist me, which makes me feel less alone. I believe we’re all sincere in wanting to help my children towards a better future.”

Want to talk to other parents about special needs and learning difficulties? Join the conversation on our forum.