Learning Challenges: How to Identify and Address Red Flags


"In a class of 25-30 students there are 25-30 different learners [who] take in, retain, and produce information in their own unique way."

Image courtesy of Noble Academy

Everyone wants their children to be successful in school. That’s why parents want to know how to recognize problems and where to go for help. In an academic setting, what are the red flags and signs for learning challenges? How are these challenges addressed through programming curriculum?

On April 6, Piedmont Parent Magazine co-hosted a LIVE Facebook Chat with Assistant Head of Lower School and Junior High, Aimee Picon, and Lower School and Junior High Counselor, Julie Bean, both of Noble Academy in Greensboro. During the chat, Aimee and Julie shared their expertise about learning challenges and how they are addressed in school.

Here is the transcript from the LIVE Chat event, lightly edited for clarity and grammar:

Aimee Picon and Julie BeanPiedmont Parent Magazine: Welcome to the Piedmont Parent and Noble Academy LIVE Chat: “Learning Challenges — How to Identify and Address Red Flags.” Today, Aimee Picon and Julie Bean will be answering your questions about academic red flags and signs for learning challenges. They will also share how challenges are addressed through programming curriculum. Let's jump right in with this question:

If my child's teacher hasn't said anything about learning problems after the first grading period, can I assume all is well?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Great question! Typically teachers in both public and private schools do pre-assessments early on in the school year and also offer conferences some time in the fall. If there is a concern it is usually voiced in the fall conference. If you have not had the opportunity to meet with your child’s teacher, it would benefit you to do so even if things seem to be going well. It is always good to hear about the expected growth for the remainder of the year so that you know where your child needs to be and can gauge whether adequate progress is being achieved.

Another parent submitted this question: In what grade do learning issues typically become obvious?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: This is truly student specific. The range of development is pretty broad in children and you may see a preschool child who reads, and another who has difficulty recognizing letters. Both of these can fall in the typical developmental range. However, by the time the student is at an expected reading age (between Kindergarten and 2nd grade), if you are not seeing progress there may be cause for concern. Very often students are identified in 2nd or 3rd grade as it becomes more clear that the student is at risk for not passing End of Grade (EOG) tests in 3rd grade. Students with learning disabilities who get good grades and tend to score well on tests are often under-identified or late identified. These students may have heavy parent assistance and re-teaching at home or spend excessive amounts of time on homework.

So, mandated testing can play a role in identifying red flags?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean:  Yes. These assessments are designed to determine understanding of grade level material. If a student is struggling with these concepts it could be a red flag.

What can I look for at home in regards to behavior and study habits that might be cause for concern?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Here are few things to be on the lookout for:

  • Excessive amounts of time on homework
  • Resistance to homework and studying
  • Poor grades
  • Heavy studying that does not translate to better grades
  • Slow or labored reading
  • Lack of understanding of written text
  • Difficulty or resistance to written output

In younger children you may want to look for difficulty with rhyming words, poor motor control, and difficulty with shape, color, number and letter recognition in the preschool years.

Why are aptitude tests such as the CogAt given around third grade? Is this a "magic" age for determining IQ or academic potential? Also, do these kinds of tests help identify learning-challenged students that maybe haven't been previously identified?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Generally, IQ and academic potential is not solidified until around age 8. The CogAt is used in Guilford County Schools to assess the cognitive development of students and is used as an initial screening pool for students who may benefit from gifted services.

While we're discussing tests, are there other tests (outside of EOGs) that are used to ID learning disabilities? Are there tests parents can use at home?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Many types of tests are used to evaluate children for learning and attention issues. The areas where your child is having trouble will help determine which particular tests are given. Typically, a psychologist administers a comprehensive battery of tests which when combined give you a complete picture of the student as a learner. These tests usually involve both psychological and educational assessments, including intelligence and achievement testing.
An intelligence test measures a child’s intellectual potential and an achievement test measures what a child knows and can do. Some examples are the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Differential Ability Scales, Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, and Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement. In most cases, it is required that a professional in the field administer these tests in order for the results to be considered valid and to be used for official diagnosis of a learning disability. The assessments themselves are expensive to purchase and it is very difficult for parents to test their own child in an unbiased manner.
Keep in mind that the EOG is an academic test and while it may provide information that would lead to further testing it is not a measure used to determine a learning disability.

Sounds costly. Are these tests free to parents with children who need to be evaluated?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: It depends on how and where you have the testing done. If you feel that your child needs testing, start at the school level. If the public school agrees that testing is warranted they will administer the tests at no cost to you. You can also have an independent evaluation by a professional of your choice. This is sometimes covered by insurance.

How does class size affect learning? Are smaller class sizes really better?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Some students have no difficulty at all thriving in a larger class, however for some children, it makes a crucial difference in whether they can take in and process information. Some students have an extremely hard time drowning out background noise or are hypersensitive to it. The hum and glare of fluorescent lights, papers shuffling and constant bustle of the classroom can be very impactful on learning. Other students are very quietly and passively not paying attention. These students are not being disruptive or drawing attention to themselves, but are less likely to be noticed in a classroom of 25-30 children than they are in classroom of 8 or 9.
In a class of 25-30 students there are 25-30 different learners. All of these students take in, retain, and produce information in their own unique way. Think about how you learn best. Is it through visual or auditory input? Perhaps you need a combination of both. Maybe you need to be taking notes or making note cards while reading in order to retain what you’ve read. Everyone needs to develop strategies that help him or her learn best. It is much more attainable for a teacher to pinpoint the needs of each student and to work in the learning strategies that those students need with a smaller class size.

What are some things I can look for at home that may tell me if my child is struggling in the classroom? Is it better to have a meeting with the teacher?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: It is always important to communicate with the teacher if you have concerns. They may see something different in the classroom than you are seeing at home and you can compare notes. Check your child’s grades regularly and observe whether or not homework seems to be a struggle. When reviewing your child’s work are the mistakes careless, or does it appear that he or she didn’t understand the questions or how to answer them. Kids who are struggling often do not tell their parents that they are having difficulty in school.

What is the benefit of enrolling in preschool? Will it help alleviate any potential learning issues?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: There is a certain trickle down effect from the college level that pushes the need to produce strong readers into earlier ages. This creates the need to cover some of the basics during the preschool years. There are many benefits of preschool, which are both academic and social. While a parent may be able to teach a preschool child letters, sounds, beginning reading and beginning math concepts such as 1 to 1 correspondence, counting and number and quantity identification, there truly is not a better place to learn how to function in a group than in preschool.
Some preschool aged children have active social lives and plenty of play dates, but very few of those children have a structured circle time, calendar time, and craft time/activity time mixed in with their free play. It is in preschool that children start learning how the world outside of their own world works, how to get along with others even if they don’t like them, to take turns, to have to wait to speak, to answer questions in a group, to walk in a line, and to be required to perform non preferred tasks without protest.
It is a time when children learn to spread their wings and spend time away from the watchful eyes of their parents as they learn how to negotiate the world and gain some level of independence. It will most likely not alleviate a potential learning difference. Children who are at risk for developing learning disabilities may still develop them, and students who are not at risk for learning disabilities will most likely thrive in grade school without the academic component of preschool. Regardless, the benefits of attending preschool are certainly great and are recommended to any family.

How common are learning disabilities? It seems like all I hear about anymore are disabilities and accommodations. Are they being over diagnosed like ADHD seemed to be a few years ago?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: That may seem the case, but almost two-thirds of people know someone with a learning disability. According to the National Institute of Health, eight to ten percent of American children younger than 18 years of age have some type of learning disability.
Some students receive special education services in school while some do not. The National Center for Children with Learning Disabilities reports that forty-two percent of the 5.7 million school-age children with all kinds of disabilities who receive special education services have learning disabilities.
The number of students identified with learning disabilities has actually declined by 18 percent between 2002 and 2011, while total special education has declined by just 3 percent due to earlier intervention, improvements in reading instruction, and changes in the way states identify learning disabilities.

Are there any online resources/learning academies you'd recommend for parents to use?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: There are many online resources and apps for learning. There is a lot to weed through and explore. Your school may be a good place to start. Websites like understood.org, ncld.org and chadd.org are good overall resources.

What is the difference between Pre-K and TK?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Generally, Pre-K is for children up through age 5 who are planning to attend Kindergarten the following year. Transitional Kindergarten (TK) is sometimes referred to as a gap year. It is a time when preschool children who are not quite ready for a full day of school or who need another year of development to obtain the kindergarten readiness skills they need to be successful spend another year in a preschool setting. Sometimes students transfer directly to first grade from a TK program.

And which will better prepare my child for school if she is facing some learning challenges?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: It depends on the program that you are being offered. Sometimes a different learning environment may be what a child who is struggling needs, rather than another year of the same approach.
Additionally, if your child is at risk for developing a learning disability, he or she will have more opportunity to receive services for it once in Kindergarten in a public setting. Transitional K may not be the right fit if you are already aware that there is a risk.

Can learning challenges be addressed in a regular classroom or, if my child is diagnosed with a disability, does that mean she needs to be enrolled in a special class or school?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: It depends on the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Even with an IEP in hand, a classroom teacher may not have the expertise, specific learning materials, and time necessary to help a student who needs a more specialized approach be successful. Whenever you are thinking about student progress, we recommend the following things:

  • Have realistic expectations
  • Monitor growth
  • Maintain effective communication with the teacher

If your student is making gains, albeit behind the mean, a year’s worth of growth is what is expected within a school year. Closing the gap is more challenging and may require a more intensive approach, but that is not always the case.

My 18-month-old son has a three-word vocabulary. But none of the "words" are the real words for the item. He has just assigned it a sound. Is this normal? How can I help him with his language development?

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Typically babies begin to develop language around the 6-month mark with babbling. By the time the child reaches the 12-18-month mark you should expect some full words. If your child has not hit these milestones it is recommended that he or she receive a speech evaluation. Your pediatrician should also be tracking this development at each well visit.
You can help with language development by constantly identifying items, drawing your child’s attention to things in his or her environment and labeling them. You can use flash cards with pictures and ask your child to identify things among a group to see if your child has strong receptive language skills and is simply struggling with the output piece.

Piedmont Parent Magazine: It looks like we're out of time for today’s LIVE Chat. A big thanks to Aimee and Julie for providing excellent information about educational challenges, today. Thank you also to all those who participated with questions and comments. For more information about Noble Academy, visit nobleknights.org.

Noble Academy’s Aimee Picon & Julie Bean: Thank you everyone. If you have further questions, please contact us at Noble Academy.

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