Concerned About Third-Grade Niece

A third-grader is unable to read, can't do her homework without a great deal of assistance, and doesn't understand much of any subject.
I watch my niece before and after school. She's in third grade, an only child, and was born when her mother was only 16 years old. She seems to always need to be the center of attention and acts very immature for her age (i.e., temper tantrums). My concern is that she's unable to read any book that third-graders should be able to read (per the teacher's recommendations). She's unable to do any of her nightly homework without a lot of assistance (I need to read most of the words to her), and she doesn't understand much of any subject. She gets very frustrated and whiny. She does have a very good memory and uses that to get her through -- for example, even though she can't read that well, she remembers a great deal when something is read to her. Is this common for her age and how do we go about helping her to succeed?
Since your niece's mother was only 16 when she gave birth, the little girl was more at risk for developing learning disabilities than children born to older mothers. It may be that her mom was in great health and had wonderful prenatal care, but that would be an exception in the case of a teen pregnancy. Often, teen moms hide the fact that they are pregnant out of fear or shame, and as a result, the developing fetus does not get the proper nutrition or general care that it needs. In addition, drug or alcohol use are more common in teen pregnancies, since this is often a time of exploration and experimentation with illegal substances and cigarettes, all of which can be potentially harmful to the developing baby. Also, teenage mothers have a higher incidence of premature birth, most likely as a consequence of all these factors.

Another problem is how hard it is for a 16-year-old to be a mom to a little baby; adjustments to motherhood, and pressures from school or family can make it very hard to provide an infant with an environment that is stimulating and enriching. While none of these factors may have played a role in your niece's early development, it's important for people to understand that such conditions are associated with a higher incidence of learning disabilities in children.

The difficulty that your niece has in reading is not typical. At the very least she needs to have some intensive instruction in reading that will help her get over this hurdle. It is quite likely that she has a learning disability that is having a negative impact on her learning and (as you have noted) on her self-concept. It's very important to have her evaluated to determine whether LD (or some other challenge) is responsible for her difficulties with schoolwork. Without some help now, this little girl is likely to fall farther and farther behind, and she may feel defeated and hopeless as a result.

It's very good news that she remembers what people tell her or read to her. This is evidence that she has the understanding that's required for reading to make sense; she needs someone to help her "break the code," so all those little letters start meaning something to her. Her immaturity could be related to her frustration and her need for help; it could also be related to the relationship she has had with her mom and other caregivers. A consultation with a family therapist might prove helpful.

Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.

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