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November 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 3

Mindsets Matter for Early Identification

Educators must move beyond the "wait-and-see" approach to help young children with learning disabilities get the services they need.

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In my second year of teaching, I had a student in my kindergarten class whom I'll call Morgan. Coming into school, Morgan's reading-readiness skills and concepts of print scores were a little lower than typical, and she had particular difficulty with rhyming and letter-sound recognition. But what I saw was still within developmental norms, so I chalked it up to her not having any preschool experience and decided to keep an eye on her progress.
As the rest of the class began to recognize sight words, decode unfamiliar words, and read some basic text, Morgan continued to struggle with the same skills as before. She was quiet, almost daydreamy, and it was hard to catch or hold her attention. I was concerned about her lack of progress but deferred to the more experienced teachers when I brought it up at a student-assistance team meeting.
"We don't refer for special education evaluation until at least 1st grade," one teacher said, summing up the consensus. "She's just not trying hard enough. Let's wait and see."
Morgan must be in her twenties by now. I lost track of her, as teachers often do with students as they move through school, and I don't know if she ever got the extra support I now know that she needed. She probably doesn't remember me, her kindergarten teacher, but I remember her. I remember her face, her frustration, and how I failed her by not trusting my instincts.
It took more years of classroom experience and training around learning disabilities for me to truly understand that some young students may be trying as hard as they can and yet still struggle with certain basic skills. Now I know that in both Morgan and some other struggling students, I'd missed the early signs of what may have been a specific learning disability in reading. With early intervention, accommodations, and the use of best practices like explicit instruction (Greene, 2020) to support all learners, Morgan could have thrived.
Giving young students like Morgan a fair chance requires a willingness to set aside the "wait-and-see" mindset, a better understanding of the early signs of learning disabilities, and a dedication to using best practices.

Learning Disabilities in Early Childhood

Specific learning disability (or "SLD") is by far the largest disability category under which students are served for special education. In fact, 38 percent of all students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are classified as having an SLD (NCLD, 2017). That's 2.3 million public school students who have been identified as having challenges in reading, writing, and math that adversely impact their learning.
Research has shown a biological basis for learning disabilities. Students who have learning disabilities have differences in their brain structure and function from those who don't. Research also shows that a measurable achievement gap between typical readers and those who have dyslexia exists as early as 1st grade (Ferrer et al., 2015). Yet the common misconception that learning disabilities don't appear until 3rd grade persists.
Consider these sobering statistics: Only 6.6 percent of students who receive special education services were identified under the SLD category by age 6. By age 10, or about when students reach 3rd grade, that percentage had increased to 40.8 percent (NCLD, 2017). To some degree, this discrepancy may reflect educators' caution around giving students a "label" that will follow them throughout their educational career, another common misconception. As research has shown, the earlier students are identified as being at-risk for learning disabilities in reading or math and receive support, the less likely they are to need specialized instruction as they get older (Pesova, Sivevska, & Runceva, 2014).
A lack of awareness of the early signs of learning disabilities persists as well. Signs of learning disabilities in reading and math (see sidebar) can be present in preschool or sometimes even earlier, but few general education teachers are trained to recognize them as such.
It's these types of misconceptions and lack of awareness that help lead to unofficial policies about not referring for evaluation before a certain age and the "wait-and-see" approach that leaves students like Morgan to struggle for years before they are identified. In the context of the current pandemic, we run the risk of setting these students back even further: Teachers may be more cautious about referring young kids in a virtual or hybrid learning environment. It can also be more difficult to discern in such environments if the signs are in response to the mode of learning or related to a learning disability.
Because learning disabilities are not covered beyond one or two courses in general education teacher-preparation programs, many teachers do as I did with Morgan—attribute early signs of learning disabilities to typical variations in development or lack of exposure to high-quality preschool experiences. Because there is such a wide range of developmental ability in the early grades, that's a reasonable assumption. But the mindset that leads us to think students just aren't trying hard enough is not.

Mindsets Matter

So how do we avoid making the same mistake over and over again? In part, it relies on "pressure testing" our assumption that lack of exposure to high-quality preschool instruction is why some students are coming into our classrooms with weaker skills than their peers. Whether or not this is true, we have to make sure all students are exposed to inclusive mindsets and evidence-based teaching practices in our classrooms.
There was another element to my desire to have Morgan evaluated for special education services, one that makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed to admit: When it was clear to me she was struggling to learn, I wanted it to be someone else's job to teach her. I didn't believe in my own ability to do it. That low sense of self-efficacy made me less inclined to create an inclusive classroom environment early on in my career, not because I didn't think all students belonged in my classroom, but because I didn't think I was capable of teaching all students.
Clearly, mindsets matter. They influence our expectations of ourselves and our students, as well as our actions and reactions, which ultimately affect student outcomes. One body of research found there are three mindsets teachers can hold that are key to supporting students with learning disabilities (NCLD, 2019). They are:
  • A strong sense of self-efficacy. Teachers who believe in their own ability to meet the needs of all the students in their classroom are more likely to seek out the support and resources they need to provide instruction to increase student success. They tend to spend more time with struggling students and to model what success looks like.
  • A positive orientation toward inclusion. Teachers who have a strong belief in inclusion are more likely to believe all students can thrive in their classrooms. They build a classroom culture in which difference is a given, not an exception. Inclusion-minded teachers also tend to use effective teaching practices to differentiate instruction for all learners, not just those with disabilities.
  • A growth mindset and dedication to personal development. Teachers who believe that their ability to teach all learners can improve over time also believe that students' skills can improve. They recognize that learning disabilities are lifelong, but also know that with persistence and appropriate support, students can meet grade-level expectations.
The good news is that mindsets are malleable—but only if we're willing to do the hard work to change them. This requires self-reflection, an examination of our beliefs, and seeking out information that challenges our current belief systems. It also means asking uncomfortable questions about our current practices and which new ones we need to incorporate to better support and identify struggling students. Here are three tough questions to begin examining how inclusive your mindsets and practices are:

1. Do I believe that behavior is a form of communication?

It's natural to react to a student's outward negative behaviors and to bemoan the time spent addressing those behaviors—and the distracting effect that acting out has on the rest of your class. Consider this scenario:
During 1st grade literacy time, Ava refuses to participate. She won't follow directions, refuses to open the book, and picks on other students. Her behavior often escalates to a level of such disruption that she needs to leave the classroom.
On the surface, it looks like Ava is simply being defiant and not trying hard enough, but the real question is what is happening below the surface? In believing that behavior is communication, you're acknowledging that knowing the reason behind the behavior is the key to finding an appropriate response and identifying ways to prevent such behavior. This mindset asks you to reframe your response from "What's wrong with this student that they're acting like this?" to "What does this student need to meet the behavioral expectations?" and "What skill can I help this student develop?"
In this scenario, a functional behavior assessment might be performed, and that could lead to further evaluation. It is possible that Ava has a language-based learning disability and this particular behavior is a way for her to avoid literacy instruction because it's too challenging for her.

2. Am I making use of positive behavior strategies?

Positive behavior strategies (PBS) are evidence-based approaches that help teachers to be proactive instead of reactive to challenging student behavior. They teach and reinforce new skills. These strategies are implemented in collaboration with students so they can understand their own behavior more clearly. It requires a mindset shift from "fixing" students to understanding them. Practices that support PBS include:
  • Creating an inclusive classroom layout (such as arranging furniture to make transitions easier, having flexible learning spaces).
  • Making sure your classroom expectations are worded positively and are observable, measurable, and nonsubjective.
  • Sticking to three to five classroom expectations and posting them in both written and picture form.
  • Teaching, practicing, and reteaching expected behaviors and routines.
  • Acknowledging positive behavior when you see it.

3. Am I providing explicit instruction for all students?

Explicit instruction is one practice that research shows is highly effective for all students. But it's particularly helpful to students with learning disabilities. It relies on direct and structured instruction to teach skills or concepts. There are four parts to explicit instruction:
  • Modeling: Use clear, consistent language as you explain and demonstrate a skill. It's important to show students how to do it in the same way they will practice it.
  • Verbalizing the process: Narrate as you demonstrate ("think aloud") the skill so that students know what you're thinking.
  • Providing guided practice: Walk through the skill as a class as a way to both ensure all students have grasped it and also to correct errors as they come up.
  • Giving feedback: Provide immediate feedback during guided and independent practice time.
Explicit instruction benefits students with learning disabilities by making it clear what they need to do, allowing for much-needed practice time, and showing them what success looks like. In breaking a lesson into parts, it also lightens the cognitive load for students who may struggle with working memory or attention.

Early Intervention Is Essential

Teachers can't do it on their own. Changing outcomes for students with potential learning disabilities relies on many factors at the school and district level, including early evaluation and intervention. Some students continue to struggle even in the most inclusive of classrooms and need specialized instruction.
But mindsets are again the place to begin. Here's how you (teachers and school leaders) can begin to change ways of thinking in your school:
  • Invite special educators and other service providers into general education classrooms to begin to break down the barriers that perpetuate the "their students" and "my students" mindset.
  • Expect to have—and help to create—a safe school environment that allows teachers to feel comfortable taking risks and advocating for the support students need.
  • Share resources and materials with your grade-level team to help increase knowledge and create a shared understanding of learning disabilities.
  • Be clear in letting others know that you believe all students are capable of meeting high expectations and that you consider it a shared responsibility to make that happen.
  • Challenge "wait-and-see" policies by providing research and data to back up the benefits of early identification and intervention.
  • Seek out, provide, and facilitate professional development opportunities that challenge exclusionary mindsets, and share evidence-based practices.
Evaluating your mindsets and incorporating new practices into your classroom can go a long way in making sure young students with learning disabilities, like Morgan, have an equal opportunity for success.

Know the Signs

Not all students with a specific learning disability have difficulty with the same skills, but there are some common signs of which to be aware in preschool and 1st grade. When a student fails to make progress developing two or more of these skills, especially when receiving direct instruction to address them, it's time to advocate for evaluation.

  • Difficulty executing multiple-step directions.

  • Trouble with letter-sound recognition.

  • Mispronouncing familiar words.

  • Struggling to name everyday objects.

  • Use of vague terms and general words like "thing" or "stuff".

  • Hard time with rhyming.

  • Trouble with sequencing, such as reciting the letters of the alphabet or telling a story in a logical sequence.

  • Confusion of letters that look similar (b, d, p, q) and letters with similar sounds (d/t, b/p, f/v).

  • Failure to recognize common sight words.

  • Difficulty hearing the individual sounds in words and blending sounds to read a word.

  • Trouble learning to count.

  • Skips numbers when counting (past when same-age peers can recite them in order).

  • Difficulty understanding the concept of counting each item in a group.

  • Trouble recognizing patterns.

  • Struggles with connecting number symbols to number words ("7" is "seven").

  • Doesn't grasp that the same number can apply to groups of different items ("3" applies to three cookies, three cats, and three books).

  • Trouble learning and recalling basic math facts, like 2 + 3 = 5.

  • Relies solely on finger counting instead of mental math.

  • Difficulty identifying math symbols like + and x and using them correctly.

  • Trouble understanding math concepts like "greater than" and "less than".

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What is the current policy for early identification and intervention in your school or district? How could you advocate for changes?

➛ How might you adopt the three mindsets Morin mentions as key to supporting students with learning disabilities?

➛ How could special education and general education teachers work together to better address early reading and math issues?


Ferrer, E., Shaywitz, B., Holahan, J., Marchione, K., Michaels, R., & Shaywitz, S. (2015). Achievement gap in reading is present as early as first grade and persists through adolescence. The Journal of Pediatrics, 167(5).

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). (February 1, 2017). The state of LD: Introduction. Retrieved from https://www.ncld.org/research/state-of-learning-disabilities/

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). (May 22, 2019). Forward together: Helping educators unlock the power of students who learn differently. Retrieved from https://www.ncld.org/research/forward-together/

Pesova, B., Sivevska, D., & Runceva, J. (2014). Early intervention and prevention of students with specific learning disabilities. Procedia–Social and Behavioral Sciences, 149(5), 701–708.

Amanda Morin is a writer and senior expert in family advocacy and education at Understood, a nonprofit focused on disability and inclusion. A former early childhood educator and special education advocate, she is the author of four books, including The Everything Parents' Guide to Special Education (Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc., 2014).

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