Learning and Language Difficulties

Adopted children may be at greater risk for language difficulties, but parents may not know what to look out for. Here's what you need to know.

A young girl with language difficulties

Up to 20 percent of all children are affected by language– or learning-related problems. Children adopted as infants (before age two) in the U.S. have very slightly higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and emotional problems, like oppositional defiant disorder and anxiety, according to 2008 data from the Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS).

Half of all cases of language difficulties, learning disabilities (LD), motor skill problems, and ADHD are inherited — the biological parents’ genes wired the child’s brain in a certain way. If a biological parent were to raise the child, she may recognize her own symptoms in his behavior. Parents who haven’t experienced such difficulties won’t necessarily know which patterns to watch for — especially if they are first-time parents, as many adoptive parents are. In other words, adopted children may be at slightly higher risk for these problems, and they may have a significantly higher risk of going undiagnosed.

No one’s quite sure what causes LD or ADHD in the other half of all the cases. Both have been linked to poor prenatal care (including drug and alcohol use during pregnancy) or early life deprivations, which means that children adopted from so-called “high risk” backgrounds may have a higher incidence.

If problems with language, learning, motor skills, and attention go undiagnosed until children enter school and begin to struggle academically, they can be more difficult to remediate. The trick is to pick up on them much earlier. Here’s what to look for and where to turn for help.

What to Look For

At birth, the brain has almost all of the nerve cells it will ever have. Cell groups are activated at set intervals, with each maturational “burst” resulting in new abilities. For example, a newborn has little or no muscle control, but can usually raise his head by about one month of age, can roll over by four or five months, and can sit by six months. Some children display new problems with each maturational phase. Sometimes skills will lag and then suddenly “catch up,” indicating a delay rather than an impairment. But it’s best to seek an assessment as soon as you suspect a language or learning disability.

In preschool, look for:

  • Slow language development, difficulty with speech, problems expressing thoughts or understanding what is being said.
  • Poor motor coordination and uneven motor development, such as delays in learning to walk, color, and/or use scissors.
  • Problems with memory, routine, and multiple instructions.
  • Delays in socialization, including interacting with other children.

In early elementary, look for:

  • Problems with rapid letter recognition and with recognizing familiar words by sight. Difficulties learning phonemes (units of sound) and sounding out words.
  • Problems forming letters and numbers. Later, problems with basic spelling and grammar.
  • Difficulties learning math skills and doing math calculations.
  • Difficulty remembering facts.
  • Difficulty organizing papers and materials, information, and/or concepts. Losing material, or doing work and forgetting to turn it in.
  • Difficulty understanding oral instructions.
  • Difficulty expressing oneself.

In later elementary, look for:

  • Difficulty with independent reading and retaining what was read.
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts for written work.
  • Difficulty learning and applying new math concepts.
  • Increased difficulty organizing school and personal materials.

In middle school, look for:

  • Increased difficulty retaining what was read, organizing and writing papers, planning, developing learning strategies, and mastery of more advanced math concepts.

In high school, look for:

  • Increased difficulty with reading assignments, papers and/or math, and organization, as more independent work is expected.

Another common disorder that affects learning is ADHD. Kids with ADHD are capable of learning, but their behavior won’t let them. Some seem to operate in overdrive — constantly talking or fidgeting. Others are overly impulsive — grabbing, interrupting, and acting without thinking. And some display no hyperactivity, but are easily distracted.

Securing Services

Children with learning problems can’t improve merely by trying harder. They need new approaches to acquiring skills. Children with ADHD often do well on medication. Finding help early on can minimize more complex problems (thus lessening future difficulties) and ensure that the child who’s simply delayed will “catch up” as quickly and completely as possible. For some, this help will be needed for a short period of time. For others, it will be necessary for many years.

If your child is younger than three, you may be able to access free services through your state’s Early Intervention (EI) program. If your child is three or older, services should be available through your school system under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

Getting the right intervention for your child may take tenacity, year after year. But the payoff can be tremendous. Given the right help, these kids can excel.

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