Saturday, October 09, 1999

Listen to your child's learning clues

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        About this time of year — six weeks or so after school has started — a small voice starts asking us parents some troubling questions. It is a mother's voice, a father's voice, occasionally even a grandparent's voice. And it asks, “Is everything all right with my child?”

        A million small signs can trigger it. A child who seems unable to manage his assignments, or is constantly frustrated by his homework. Sometimes a younger child whose physical skills lag considerably behind those of his peers. An older child who just can't get his act together, who has trouble organizing his materials and time, and is driving his parents nuts.

        All children have these problems at some time. All parents worry. But when the tiny voice becomes persistent, when the child becomes increasingly unhappy, it is time to seek help.

        Don't be afraid of crying wolf. Educators say parents' instincts are often right on target. They are the real experts on their children, and pick up signs and signals long before the best-trained professionals. The key is trusting your gut. “When you get that funny feeling, check it out,” says Connie Lippowitsch, director of instructional services for Forest Hills Schools.

Seek help early
        Even if a problem does show up, you will find relief by facing your fears, and your child will, too. It will free you both from a vicious pattern of blame, excuses and self-loathing. Too many frustrated parents start labeling their children as lazy and irresponsible. Too many children feel they are failures because they learn differently, or have never learned strategies to counter their weaknesses. Pit you and your child against the problem, not against each other.

        With very young children, share your concerns with your pediatrician. He or she will observe your child, evaluate his well-being and development, and compare the latter to normal ranges.

        With school-age children, share your concerns with your child's teacher. Experienced teachers are often very good at spotting problems, and at putting them in perspective. If your child's teacher has observed his struggle, frustration or changes in behavior, he or she may recommend seeking further help from the school psychologist, guidance counselor or other experts. “If a parent suspects a disability, we're required by law to do an assessment,” says Forest Hills special education coordinator Jamie Hopkins. So when and how do problems typically show up? Motor development and communication skills often come first. In first grade, your child may have trouble understanding directions or expressing himself. As more fine motor work is asked of him, he may have trouble writing, coloring or cutting.

Watch organization
        Learning problems may show up a little later, particularly as workloads and cognitive demands increase. “You'll see problems with organizational skills,” says Mrs. Hopkins. “Kids start having trouble with homework, and take hours to complete it. They can't keep up with their reading.”

        Often by the intermediate grades, — 4 through 6 — “the bottom falls out,” Mrs. Lippowitsch says. Children are expected to work more independently and complete work more quickly, and they fall behind.

        Whatever the child's problem — from hearing to speech to movement to learning — parents often suspect the worst. That's often unnecessary. “Sometimes it's just a combination of a couple of little things that makes the problem hard to identify, but not a worst-case scenario,” says Mrs. Lippowitsch.

        However severe or temporary the problem, your child will benefit greatly from early intervention. Extra support or therapy may erase a delay before your child realizes he has one. Sometimes a learning issue may kick up a vision, language or hearing problem that can be treated. Learning disabilities may require longer-term work, but learning to cope with them may teach your child strategies that will benefit him for a lifetime.

        Still, small voices speak to us for a reason. The best thing to do is listen.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail her at