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I’m Concerned My Preschooler Might Have Learning and Attention Issues. Now What?

By Amanda Morin

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Are you wondering if your preschooler’s challenges at home or at school might be signs of a learning and attention issue? Are you worried she might be too young for you to know for sure? If so, you wouldn’t be alone—1 in 5 kids have learning and attention issues. But it can be hard to know if what you’re seeing is developmentally appropriate for your child’s age or cause for concern.

Here are steps you can take to determine if your child has a learning or attention issue, and where to go from there.

1

Know the difference between a developmental delay and learning and attention issues.

In older kids, learning and attention issues can cause trouble in school. But because younger kids may not be in school yet, it can be more difficult to know if what you’re seeing is a developmental delay or a learning issue. A developmental delay is when your child is behind in developing skills (like speech and coordination). With early intervention, most kids “catch up.”

Learning and attention issues are lifelong, brain-based difficulties that can cause ongoing trouble with reading, writing, math, organization, concentration, listening comprehension, social skills or motor skills. With the proper support, kids with learning and attention issues can succeed in school and beyond.

2

Get to know typical preschool milestones.

Learn what to expect developmentally from preschoolers and if your child has the “PIECES” of preschool readiness in place. This can help you get a better sense of where your child’s skills fall. If you’re concerned your child might have ADHD, explore what being overly impulsive or overly distractible may look like at this age.

3

Learn about the difference between early intervention and special education.

There are two main parts to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—Part C and Part B. Under Part C, infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families can receive early intervention services. This goes from birth to a child’s third birthday. Under Part B, kids ages 3–21 can receive special education and related services.

Early intervention services are for both your family and your child. Special education services are to help your child benefit from the general education curriculum.

4

Find out what’s been happening at school.

If your child attends preschool or daycare, speak with your child’s teachers to see what they have noticed. Ask if what they see is typical for children that age. Is your child having trouble with rhyming? Is she more distractible or less focused than other kids her age? Does she have trouble making friends?

If your child is younger than the other kids in class, keep that in mind as you talk with the teachers. What could look like a delay compared with other students may still be typical development for your child’s age. Read what experts say about whether to delay kindergarten if your child is young for her grade.

5

Share your concerns with your child’s doctor.

Your child’s pediatrician is an important partner when it comes to your concerns. Observe your child and take notes about the things that make you wonder if your child has a learning or attention issue. Keep in mind that even if others tell you to “wait and see,” it’s OK to trust your instincts. Set up an appointment to discuss your worries and your notes. (Read a pediatrician’s tips about how to have that discussion.)

6

Discuss a free evaluation through early intervention or Child Find processes.

Depending on your child’s age, different kinds of help are available. You, your child’s daycare provider or her doctor can refer her for a free early intervention evaluation for very young kids.

For kids ages 3–5, a free diagnostic screening is available through a process called Child Find. You’ll need to get in touch with your local school system’s director of special education programs to request one.

In some cases, kids may be eligible for an IDEA preschool program providing a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). This is known as Section 619 preschool.

7

Meet with the school or early intervention agency.

Schedule a meeting with the local school district or early intervention team to discuss the results of the evaluation. You may want to ask your child’s caregiver or preschool teacher to attend as well. Together, you will determine if your child is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

Learn more about getting an IEP for young children. Or see what an IFSP looks like, and explore tips for creating an IFSP for your child.

8

Continue to observe your child, and follow up if necessary.

After following these steps, you may have a better idea of what’s going on with your child—or you may not. If your child isn’t found eligible for services, keep tracking your concerns and follow up in six months. Young children’s skills develop rapidly. So if your child is still showing delays in six months, that may be of greater concern then.

9

Explore next steps based on your child’s specific learning issue.

Learn the next steps you can take if your child was diagnosed with a specific learning or attention issue. Read personal stories from parents of kids with learning and attention issues. Find out what they wish they’d known sooner. Their experiences and stories—along with tips from parents in our online community—can help you along your journey.

About the Author

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Virginia Gryta

Virginia Gryta, M.S., teaches and mentors students working toward master’s degrees and certification in special education at Hunter College.

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