Subtle Learning Disabilities More Visible At Certain Grade Levels

As a child progresses from one grade level to the next, there are certain behaviors parents and teachers can watch for to help recognize and rehabilitate subtle learning disabilities that could hinder the child’s long-term academic career, said a developmental pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine (

“When a child enters kindergarten, third grade, junior high and high school, the new learning environments add more stressors than the levels before,” said Dr. Sherry Vinson, an assistant professor of pediatrics – developmental pediatrics at BCM and chief of the developmental pediatrics service and clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital ( “Because of these new stressors, a subtle learning disability may be easier for the teacher and/or parent to identify.”

Vinson outlined behaviors in each grade level that may indicate the child is in need of extra help to keep up with the rest of his or her class.


Lack of attention in circle or story time may indicate a mild language delay, Vinson said.

“If the child is losing attention and wanting to get up and walk around while the rest of the group is intently listening to a story, he or she may not be able to connect with the story,” said Vinson. “This directly impacts his or her ability to listen, learn and follow rules.”

Another important kindergarten requirement ““ learning letters and numbers ““ can also bring out warning signs of a fine motor delay.

“If the child wants to run around and play when the rest of the children are making their letters and numbers, he or she may be visually unable to comprehend the lesson.”

Conduct grades in kindergarten should also be watched.

“Anytime the child receives a “Ëœneeds improvement’ grade in kindergarten, it may be a sign of a learning disability,” said Vinson.


Third grade is the first grade that independence is expected in the child’s learning, said Vinson. “They go from learning to read, to reading to learn.”

Trouble focusing and/or completing worksheets and assigned readings is a classic example of a learning delay.  

Watch to see if the child is just sitting, looking around or out the window, Vinson said.

“They could have a mild reading delay and may not be able to recognize letters and smoothly decode the words,” said Vinson. “Longer reading passages are required in third grade, so a struggle may be more obvious.”  

If the child consistently makes Cs in the first and second grade, a learning disability is probable and may become more evident in third grade when more is expected of the child.


In junior high or middle school, the child’s attention faces a classic test by having to physically switch classes, go back to his or her locker and grab a book, Vinson said.

“If the child gets lost going down the hallway, gets to class without his homework, although he or she has completed it ““ these are signs of true inattentive disorganized ADHD,” said Vinson.

Consistent Cs and Ds on report cards should also be watched, especially in reading and math.

“We also see a lot of mild receptive language delay at this level,” said Vinson. “The child may be able to decode and recognize the site word, but has a reading fluency problem.”  


By the time a child gets to high school, undiagnosed and unrecognized learning disabilities may be most obvious.

“A C in high school is not going to necessarily mean the child has a learning disability,” said Vinson. “There are completely new lifestyle interests and extracurricular activities. It’s going to be a challenge for the child to juggle everything.”

Vinson said consistent failing grades can mean the child has been struggling with a subtle, undiagnosed problem that needs to be addressed.


For children in public school, federal law requires that the school provide appropriate education to all children, including those with disabilities.

If a parent or teacher suspects a learning disability, the child can receive a variety of tests to confirm he or she may need extra support in reading, language and motor therapy.  

For more information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act visit

“If these subtle signs go untreated or overlooked, they could pose a much larger problem for the child later in life,” said Vinson. “Parents can watch for these signs early in life to help their child achieve long-term academic success.”


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