Your child is bright and loves school. Yet when you watch him play with other kids his age, his vocabulary isn’t as rich and his pronunciation isn’t as clear. Or maybe when you see your daughter’s friends’ artwork posted on the fridge at their houses, you can’t help but notice it’s more sophisticated than your child’s.

These can be phases your child will quickly outgrow, or they can be early warning signs of learning challenges. The best time to figure out whether your child needs help is before she falls behind in school, says Melissa Lang, a school psychologist in private practice in Atlanta. “You want to get intervention sooner rather than later,” she says.

Here are some signs to look for in your younger elementary-age child:

  • Confuses basic words, such as see, eat, and walk.
  • Reverses letters such as b and d, m and w. Transposes letters in words such as felt and left. Substitutes one word for another such as house and home.
  • Transposes numbers such as 16 and 61.
  • Delayed in effort to remember facts.
  • Reluctant to read out loud.
  • Awkward pencil grip.
  • Frequent hesitation, mutters “um,” when trying to read aloud.
  • Works hard but gets mostly B’s and C’s, very few A’s.

If you suspect your child needs extra help, the first step is talk to his teacher. Explain your concerns. Your teacher may be reluctant or unable to start the testing process if your child is keeping his grades up, says Lang, who has worked in school settings as well as private practice.

In many districts, the assessment process can’t start until a student is already behind. “In the school system, you have to be well below grade level to get testing,” she says. “Many parents don’t want to let it get to that point.”

The Assessment

If you think your child has learning issues and your child’s teacher can’t make a referral for testing, you might want to consider a private assessment. Though you probably will have to pay out of pocket, a thorough assessment will include specific suggestions for helping your child at school and at home, such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, and occupational therapy.

The psychologist you hire should spend significant time with your child and seek input from your child’s teacher. Lang asks teachers to fill out a behavior checklist. “Sometimes I like to request the parent allow me to observe the child in class,” she says. “Then I can see, is this a social issue or a sensory issue?”

The most common problems diagnosed in young school-age children are problems interpreting sound, differences in how the nervous system turns messages from the five senses into behavior, difficulty decoding words, and a hard time paying attention for long periods of time. Also common are socializing difficulties and speech delays. For some children, something simple like helping your child make a daily schedule can make a big difference, Lang says.

In about half the cases she sees, parents have noticed symptoms of a potential learning challenge. In the other half, a teacher has raised the concern, Lang says. Parents may be tempted to defend their child or insist their child does not need testing, for fear their child will be labeled.

Yet testing is what leads to a diagnosis and an individualized education program, the roadmap teachers in public schools follow with children who have learning disabilities. (Gifted students often have IEPs, as well.) An independent psychologist can accompany parents to their child’s IEP meeting, which can be intimidating.

Once the IEP has been set, your child with have access to the school district’s resources for help with speech, picking up social cues, managing her time, dealing with excessive noise, blocking out distractions, and improving her concentration.

You may also find resources in the community that can help. In some cases, children who are struggling academically require more in-depth instruction and additional time with a teacher. In such cases, a tutor at school or in the community may be able to help your child. Parents are often able to fill this role, with guidance from a teacher or school psychologist.

Children who struggle early on in school are not likely to become better students without intervention, Lang says. Instead, their problems and frustration may compound as they move into 4th and 5th grades and the workload increases dramatically.

There was a time when being labeled as a “special ed” or “slow” student could haunt a child into adulthood, keeping her from reaching her full potential. But times have changed. Today, special education services are geared toward equipping children with the best strategies to overcome their difficulties and succeed in school.