EdNewsParent Expert expert Ann Morrison responds:

Q: I think my 10-year-old son may have a learning disability. Who do I approach at school to get help?

A: Many parents wonder if their child has a learning disability at some point or another. There are times when our children struggle with a various content area or certain types of tasks, but it can be difficult to objectively evaluate our children’s abilities.  After 20 years in education, I still have a hard time seeing my sons’ strengths and needs clearly.

There are a couple things to look for if you think your child might have a disability.  First, look for patterns in the tasks or content he does well and that he struggles with.  You may notice that he is happy to sit down to work on math computation homework but suddenly has to use the bathroom, get a snack, and clean his room when it is time to read.

Second, make note of the things that are difficult for him that one would anticipate would be easy.  For example, he may be highly verbally articulate and can talk your ear off about pitchers in major league baseball, their stats, injuries, and histories.  It would make sense that the same child could write quite a bit on the same topic.  If, however, he struggles to get even a few sentences on paper, that is information that could be helpful to the people at your child’s school.

The first person to approach when your think your child may have a learning difficulty is his classroom teacher.  Although you can wait until parent/teacher conferences to bring these types of concerns up, it may be better to request a meeting with your son’s teacher apart from conferences.  A separate meeting will generally allow you more time and the teacher may feel it would be helpful to invite other school personnel, such as the special education teacher or speech-language pathologist.

Before your meeting with the teacher, make a list of the reasons you think your child may have a learning difficulty.  If you include things that can be measured, such as time spent on homework, be sure to spend a week recording the amount of time spent on homework.  Telling the teacher that your son spent 1 hour and 15 minutes on a particular assignment is more helpful than saying that homework takes your son “forever”.

Before the meeting, also educate yourself on how learning disabilities are identified in the school system.  The identification of learning disabilities is dictated by federal legislation called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  For more information on how learning disabilities are identified in Colorado, click here.

If your child is performing below his grade level, he should be receiving supplemental instruction through an approach called Response to Intervention (RtI).  Under RtI, schools screen every student’s reading, writing, and mathematics ability and then provide targeted, supplemental instruction to students who are not working at grade level.  While receiving supplemental, targeted instruction, students’ growth is continually measured and students whose skills do not improve are moved into more frequent and intensive subject-specific instruction.  If your child is not achieving at his grade level, ask what supplemental instruction he is receiving and how he has responded. Since August of 2009, the Response to Intervention process is the sole mechanism for identifying learning disabilities in the state of Colorado. For more information on RtI, visit this site .

It is reasonable to ask your child’s teacher to see the documentation the school has gathered about his reading, writing, and math grade levels.  If he is achieving below grade level, it is OK to inquire about his supplemental instruction and to be kept informed about the ongoing testing that measures his response to the supplemental instruction being provided.  If he is performing below grade level but he is not in any supplemental instruction, it is appropriate to ask what opportunities for supplemental instruction are available to him.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.