Learning Disabilities: Over/Under Diagnosed?

jill carstens

Fresh out of college, my first teaching experience was with the Colorado Preschool Program, established to provide affordable preschool for underserved populations, encouraging school success and, in part, identifying red flags that indicate possible learning challenges before children enter kindergarten.  My two years working in this program provided me with training to gauge when children need extra support.

As my tenure progressed, I became fairly astute at catching signs of learning challenges. Back then, school districts were becoming more aware of the positive impact of early learning. Later, we experienced swinging pendulums in which some believe that we over-diagnose or that disorders such as ADHD are not genuine. We have to be careful about diagnosing, and not all disorders have obvious methods of detection, but it is important that children who do need support indeed get it and the earlier the better.

Developmental psychologist Jane M. Healy Ph.D cautions in her book “Different Learners” that the use of electronic screens provided at progressively earlier ages “poses a big part of the problem,” impeding young brains from developing properly through concrete activities and socializing rather than the passivity of button-pushing. She also notes that “there is often no obvious reason for some learning difficulties…they are an incredibly complex interweaving of genes, environment and brain development, with each of us possessing a one-of-a-kind combination.”

There were times when I was 98% sure that a child needed help but often my superiors did not approve of my recommendations, hinting that bringing up such issues was too upsetting to parents or indicative that the school was not equipped to do the job. Some years, 4 children out of a classroom of sixteen 3-5 year olds exhibited traits of spectrum disorders. I tried many methods to support these children on my own, but, without professional support, the situation could present as stressful and exhaustive.

During a parent-teacher conference I took a chance and expressed that I thought a student might benefit from outside help. The parents did not respond much at the time, but several months later the mom walked in and announced, “We are getting therapy for our child now and we can already see improvements.” I literally fell to my knees in front of this mom and said, “Yay!!!”  It had taken almost 2 school years of effort, but it was such a relief to hear that this child would get the support he needed before entering kindergarten.

In a less obvious scenario, a soft-spoken and academically advanced preschooler would occasionally, at pick-up time, exhibit a radical change in behavior. She became short and extremely irritable and rude with her mother, falling into a rage-filled tantrum. Her mother would calmly steer her towards the car to leave. I witnessed this behavior rarely in a three year period.  I later learned that although she was consistently well-behaved and focused at preschool, the rare tantrums I witnessed had been the norm in the home and continued after the child left preschool. I am guessing she is a high energy child who is able to focus intently when she is doing activities she likes, but is prone to breakdowns during off-times. In learning about the mother’s struggle I felt deep regret at not having discussed the random tantrums further in order to offer her resources and save some difficult times for her and the child.

Overall, I would always rather “over-diagnose” and at least steer families towards help. When you observe more than one red flag consistently, it is time to at least consult your pediatrician.  I wonder if this mom decided that maybe parenting was just hard. The expectations for parent-perfection have become so high that indicating a child needs therapy becomes an assumption of bad parenting. Sometimes we need help. 

I dwell more in the adult world now and notice when a person shows signs of a spectrum disorder.  Because we did not have the tools to identify these learning challenges in the past, potentially LOTS of adults are walking around with dyslexia, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, etc. These adults develop their own coping mechanisms, but in discussions with frustrated spouses living with these disorders, it would be helpful for these adults to seek support too! This example begs us to think about our children as they grow up – if we have an instinct time and again that something is off, we are investing in their adult-future by getting them the support they need.

You can find advice on how to identify learning challenges and ways to support your child at home with nutrition, exercise, positive socialization methods, and sleep via books or on the internet. I am listing some starter resources below.

Book: Jane Healy, Different Learners

Local resources:

Child Find – https://www.cde.state.co.us/early/childfinddirectoryinfo

Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing this column, connecting with North Denver merchants for ad sales for The Denver North Star, and organizing neighborhood events supporting the local arts, community, and sustainable ideas.

You can see some of what she is organizing at CurateLocally.com or email her with comments or story ideas at jill@denvernorthstar.com.


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