“Students count on their teachers to respond to red flags for learning abilities.”



Be prepared to recognize the red flags of a potential learning disability. General education teachers need preparation to be first responders. While actual identification and diagnosis requires a team of specialists, usually the classroom teacher often recognizes there may be a problem before anyone else.

How many students are at risk for having a learning disability?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports an estimated 4.5% of public school students in the US qualify under IDEA for Specific Learning Disability (SLD).1  That number reflects students actually identified and offered special education services.  However, if we consider the number of students showing signs of learning problems in school but not yet identified under the learning disabilities umbrella, the number would grow much higher.

First, let’s define the term learning disability. Then we can examine how to be an effective first responder. According to IDEA, a Specific Learning Disability is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written,which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfectability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”2


Next, the term “learning disability” covers skills that fall across all curriculum areas. Because of this, all teachers need to have at least a basic understanding of what to look for in their students. Four warning signs or red flags include:

-Difficulty in literacy-based lessons and assignments. In grades K through 4, you may notice difficulty with letter to sound connections. For example, students may show poor reading and spelling skills, and weak comprehension or recall of stories. In grades 5 through 8, for instance, you may notice that a student refuses to read out loud. Not only do they avoid writing assignments, they need extra time to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies. Similarly, in the high school grades, students with unidentified learning disabilities avoid written assignments and may show weak comprehension of material. Usually this is shown on tests and on homework assignments.

-Difficulty with math. We often hear our friends and family say things like, “I am not a math person.” Conversely, a true math learning disability is exhibited by extreme math challenges. Students may struggle to memorize math facts, despite constant practice. Particularly, challenges with time or money concepts, and/or finding word problems extremely difficult, may indicate a learning disorder.

-Extreme behaviors. Extremely challenging learning may show itself with behaviors secondary to the actual disability. Common behaviors include distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity.  Do you have a class clown? Obviously this may just be that student’s personality. But align the silliness with difficulty around assignments and you may need to look deeper for a learning challenge.

-Social Issues. Many students with learning disabilities struggle to make and keep friends. It often stems from the fact that students with language-based learning disabilities struggle with reading social cues from their peers. It might be especially difficult for them to interpret jokes, leaving them either on the sidelines or as the center of the joke itself.

In general, there may not see just a single warning sign of a learning disability.  You may notice several red flags, making you wonder what lies beneath. While most schools improved their identification process since the inception of RtI, students still slip through the cracks. The warning signs of a learning disability must be understood by teachers in all grades. Know the best steps to take once you see those flags.

What First Responders Can Do

In light of your first responder role, take the following steps if you suspect that your student may have a learning disability:

-Know the school protocol for flagging a student. Mandated protocols exist in every school district. Make sure that you know yours. The process was crafted to align with ESSA and IDEA. If you are unfamiliar with district protocol, speak with your school leaders and special education team.

-Act swiftly! Don’t wait to flag a student. Certainly spend some time working closely with a student before you talk with specialists. But don’t wait, as your students need to be equipped to access the curriculum, just like their peers. Also, the sooner you problem-solve with your team how to give this student access, the more likely this school year will be a successful one.

-Communicate with all parties. Visit your school’s protocol for this step.  Think about who needs to know that there is a chance this student has a significant learning challenge. Caregivers, faculty team members and specialists all need to be in the know. Work together to help this student achieve and be a confident learner.

Again, you may be the first person to witness something that needs to be addressed. Addressing the issue will be a team effort. Being prepared coupled with acting quickly, will make a difference for this vulnerable group of students.


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