The Warning Signs of Learning Disabilities (page 2)

By — Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), Division of Learning Disabilities (DLD)
Updated on Mar 8, 2010

Warning Signs in Elementary School Children

It is during the elementary school years that learning problems frequently become apparent as disabilities interfere with increasingly demanding and complex learning tasks. Difficulties in learning academic subjects and emotional and/or social skills may become a problem. Warning signs for this age group may include any of those listed above for preschool children in addition to the following.


  • Slow learning of the correspondence of sound to letter.
  • Consistent errors in reading or spelling
  • Difficulty remembering basic sight words
  • Inability to retell a story in sequence
  • Trouble learning to tell time or count money
  • Confusion of math signs (+, -, x, /, =)
  • Transposition of number sequences
  • Trouble memorizing math facts
  • Trouble with place value
  • Difficulty remembering the steps of mathematic operations such as long division Motor Skills
  • Poor coordination, or awkwardness
  • Difficulty copying from chalkboard
  • Difficulty aligning columns (math)
  • Poor handwriting Attention/Organization
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on a task
  • Difficulty finishing work on time
  • Inability to follow multiple directions
  • Unusual sloppiness, carelessness
  • Poor concept of direction (left, right)
  • Rejection of new concepts, or changes in routine

Social Behavior

  • Difficulty understanding facial expressions or gestures
  • Difficulty understanding social situations
  • Tendency to misinterpret behavior of peers and/or adults
  • Apparent lack of "common sense"

If teachers have not discussed the possibility of an evaluation already, the parents may request that the child's school conduct a formal evaluation. A request submitted to the school principal must be honored by the school system in a timely manner.

Warning Signs in Secondary School Children

Some learning disabilities go undetected until secondary school. Physical changes occurring during adolescence and the increased demands of middle and senior high school may bring the disabilities to light. Previously satisfactory performance declines. Inappropriate social skills may lead to changes in peer relationships and discipline problems. Increased frustration and poor self-concepts can lead to depression and/or angry outbursts. Warning signs of learning disabilities in secondary school students include the following, which again, should occur as a pattern of behaviors, to a significant degree, and over time.

Language/Mathematics/Social Studies

  • Avoidance of reading and writing
  • Tendency to misread information
  • Difficulty summarizing
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Difficulty understanding subject area textbooks
  • Trouble with open-ended questions
  • Continued poor spelling
  • Poor grasp of abstract concepts
  • Poor skills in writing essays
  • Difficulty in learning foreign language
  • Poor ability to apply math skills  


  • Difficulty staying organized
  • Trouble with test formats such as multiple choice
  • Slow work pace in class and in testing situations
  • Poor note taking skills
  • Poor ability to proofread or double check work  

Social Behavior

  • Difficulty accepting criticism
  • Difficulty seeking or giving feedback
  • Problems negotiating or advocating for oneself
  • Difficulty resisting peer pressure
  • Difficulty understanding another person's perspectives

Again, parents have the right to request an evaluation by the public schools to determine if the student has learning disabilities.


Research has shown that the sooner LD is detected and intervention is begun, the better the chance to avoid school failure and to improve chances for success in life. When parents or teachers suspect a child has learning disabilities, they should seek evaluation.


Colarusso, R.P., O'Rourke, C.M. (1999) Special education for all teachers (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Lerner, J.W., Lowenthal, B., & Egan, R.W. (1998). Preschool children with special needs: children at risk: children with disabilities. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 800-666-9433.

Mercer, C.D, (1997). Students with learning disabilities (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 800-282-0693.

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2000) Early warning signs. [online]. Available:

O'Shea, L.J., O'Shea, D.J. & Algozzine, R. (1998) Learning disabilities: From theory toward practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 800-282-0693.

Schumaker, J., Deshler, D., Alley, G., & Warner, M.M. (1983). Toward the development of an intervention model for learning disabled adolescents: The University of Kansas Institute. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 4 (1), 45-74.

Silver, L. B. (1998). The misunderstood child:Understanding and coping with your child's learning disability (3rd ed.). New York: Times Books, (a division of Random House). 800-733-3000.

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