Nine-Year-Old Retained Twice

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Our expert suspects a learning disability in a nine-year-old, and advises the mother to seek an evaluation by the school.
Q
My nine-year-old has been held back twice. She writes most of her letters and numbers backwards and tries to read backwards. She also has a lot of problems with vowel sounds. She gets the answer right in single-digit math problems, but the numbers are usually marked wrong because she writes them backwards. When I talked with the teacher, he told me to have her eyes checked, but after she got glasses there was no improvement. After being held back twice, the school put her in a catch-up class. She was in this class for half the school year, and now they say she is ready for regular class this year, but nothing has changed. I have asked for her to be tested but can't get it done. What should I do?
A
While I can't diagnose your daughter over the Internet, the problems you describe are very likely caused by a learning disability. Reversing letters and numbers is very common and normal in kindergarten and first grade. By third grade, however, children should be able to write all of their numbers and letters correctly. Your description suggests that your daughter has some confusion about spatial orientation and left-right distinction, a problem that is commonly seen in children with dyslexia. The only way to determine if she has this problem is for her to have specific testing done. Once diagnosed, dyslexia and many other learning disabilities can be managed and overcome with appropriate help.

Presuming that your child is in a public school, the school is required by law to evaluate her if she has possible special needs such as a learning disability. If she is in a private school, then the town or city that you live in is still obliged to do the evaluation through their school department. Once she is evaluated the school department is then obligated to provide the appropriate special educational services that she needs. You must go to them and demand that she be evaluated. I would go directly to the principal of your daughter's school. If you do not get an appropriate response, then you should contact the school department. Most school departments have parent advocates or a parent resource office, and they should be able to help you navigate the system so that your daughter receives the educational services that she needs.

Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.

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