Early Intervention for Learning Problems: A Quick Guide

Larry Silver

The Power of Language

“Language underwrites all academic performance,” says educational psychologist Marie Wynne. “I wish I had a nickel for everyone who said, ‘Einstein didn’t speak until he was four,’ or ‘she’ll outgrow it.’” The truth is that early intervention makes a dramatic difference for children who learn differently, and parents should not wait until grade school to get support if they suspect problems early on. The challenge is often how to identify problems in the first place, and what to do about it.

Are Adopted Kids at Greater Risk?

While this is a challenge for all parents, it’s all the more important for parents of adopted children. Adopted children aren’t at a higher risk for language- or learning-related problems, but they may have a higher risk of going undiagnosed. This is the case for two key reasons.

  • Up to 20 percent of all children are affected by language- or learning-related problems. Half of all cases of language difficulties, learning disabilities (LD), motor skill problems, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are inherited. A biological parent’s genes wire the child’s brain in a certain way. A biological parent may recognize familiar symptoms if she were to raise the child. Parents who haven’t experienced such difficulties won’t necessarily know what patterns to watch for.
  • Many adoptive parents are first-time parents, who may not be quick to recognize learning delays because they do not have a basis for comparison. As a result, problems with language, learning, motor skills, and attention often go undiagnosed until children reach school age and begin to struggle academically.

Since developmental delays and disabilities have been linked to poor prenatal care (including drug and alcohol use during pregnancy) or early life deprivations, children adopted from so-called “high risk” backgrounds may have a higher incidence. Adoption-medicine specialist Deborah Borchers, M.D., advises parents whose children are “at risk” for developmental delays to look for opportunities for early evaluation and intervention, especially if they adopted from an institutional setting. “Research has shown that a routine office visit to a physician will identify less than 30 percent of the children who have developmental problems,” she adds.

The trick is to pick up on language- or learning-related problems early, which can be difficult since no one’s quite sure what causes LD or ADHD when there is not a genetic basis. Here’s what to look for and where to turn for help to ensure your child’s success.

What Clues to Look For

Since each area of the brain is wired differently, children may display problems with each phase of maturational growth. It’s possible that some skills will lag and then suddenly “catch up,” indicating that certain developmental tasks were delayed, but not impaired. It’s also possible that problems will persist, indicating a disability.

Not sure what’s “normal” and what’s problematic? That’s where a solid education in developmental stages becomes critical, says Stephanie Mullins, a mother of 10 children. “Read books or online articles about child development—or simply talk to lots of other parents. Yes, we all love our kids and think we should accept them ‘as is,’ but comparison is the best way of detecting possible differences,” she explains. “A child doing anything too much—spinning, pushing, giggling for no apparent reason, crying—is a sign that something needs to be assessed.”

Often an observant teacher will be the first one to mention a problem to a child’s parent. If this is the case, try to keep an open mind and not go on the defensive. “A very wise pediatrician I’ve worked with says she ‘relies heavily on therapists, family members, and teachers to be her eyes and ears,’” says Amy Woolridge, a pediatric occupational therapist and adoptive mom.

Parental intuition is also a powerful indicator. While well-meaning relatives may try to reassure you, or your child’s doctor might even trivialize what you’re saying, trust your instincts. Children do develop at different rates, but you, as a parent, may sense or observe that your child’s development is off-track.

“Remember, you are looking out for your child’s best interests by being vigilant,” Woolridge says. “Always trust that quiet, nagging voice in the back of your head.” Hopefully, your child will grow up with no delays or disabilities, but be on the alert. If you see any signs of difficulties, seek help. If problems are found, get whatever help is needed to set your child up for success.

Early detection

The sooner you can spot difficulties, the better. Finding help early on can minimize more complex problems and lessen future difficulties. Early intervention can ensure that the child who’s simply delayed will “catch up” as quickly and completely as possible. For some, this help will be needed for a short period of time. For others, it will be necessary for many years.

Until children turn three, parents may use a wonderful program known as Early Intervention (EI). This federal program is administered on a state level, so available services may vary. (Learn how to access services in your state at parentcenterhub.com or search “early intervention YOUR STATE.”)

Good news: EI services are free. When Vince Stelluto noticed that his one-and-a-half-year-old son “just wasn’t saying as many words as other kids his age,” he had him evaluated through the New York State EI Program. For a year now, Stelluto’s son has been receiving in-home speech therapy twice a week. The boy has made great strides, yet Stelluto has “never paid one penny for this service.”

Other ways to seek help

If you suspect a problem, discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor. If he wants to “give it time,” be persistent. Request a referral to a developmental pediatrician or the appropriate specialist, such as a psychologist, educational diagnostician, speech-language therapist, occupational therapist, or a pediatric neurologist.

Alternatively, all public school systems in the United States have “Child Find” programs that screen for possible learning, language, motor, attention, or social difficulties. Even if your child hasn’t started school yet or attends a private program, you are entitled to this service as a taxpayer. Speak with the principal of your neighborhood elementary school about the screening. If the school can’t provide the proper screenings, they may be required to pay for a private evaluation.

If any problems are found through Child Find, professionals will follow your child through preschool into kindergarten, and guide you through each step of therapy or special-education.

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