In this Vital Mercy series, Dr. Brenda Murphy shares letters to help calm the fears, answer the questions and steer parents on a path to successful teaching and learning with struggling learners at home.

Every parent worries. Does my child have special needs? A rather flippant answer is, “Yes, every child has special needs.” In truth, they do. Every child has special needs in some area of development, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, because no one is perfect. But the universal human need for special attention is not what most parents mean when they fearfully, hesitatingly ask, “Does my child have special needs?” That question is voiced only after dozens of observations when their child does not do what other children his age do: sit up, crawl, talk, learn colors, recite the alphabet, and recognize shapes and colors, count and compute, read and write, and hear or see and remember. 

How does a parent know whether these glitches signal a true special need or just a kid who’s a little behind? Profound special needs are easily observable; these children do not move, talk, behave, remember, think, respond, act, hear, or function like other children. Children with severe special needs are usually, but not always, identified by pediatricians during the first twelve to twenty-four months of life, and are referred to specialists trained in early intervention of speech, motor, and other specific developmental delays and disabilities. Early intervention is critical. The directed therapies stimulate inactive regions of the brain to function and often lessen, and sometimes reverse, the severity and impact of the disability.

However, a special need is not always evident until academics begin. The happy, content four-year old becomes a sullen, frustrated five-year old when she’s asked to write her name or combine letters to read words, and stares blankly at 1 + 1= 2. The compliant child becomes obstinate and stubborn when the school bell rings. The little boy who plays with Legos and trains for hours cannot focus for more than two minutes on his phonics lesson. The eight-year old who loves cuddling to read with mom and dad cannot read himself or remember math facts or the details of a story. The once-willing and enthusiastic adolescent cannot understand fractions and balks at writing assignments. So, are these situations cause to sound the alarm and go into panic mode?  Is this a child with special needs or is this a struggling learner? Perhaps this is a struggling learner if one or more of the following situations apply:

  • The child has missed a significant amount of academic instruction.
  •  Curriculum choices and/or methods of instruction change frequently.
  • The child has frequent illnesses or chronic problems such as severe allergies.
  • The child experiences a life crisis, like the death or serious illness of a family member or important person in her life.
  • There is poor or inadequate instruction.

If none of these scenarios sounds familiar, the likelihood the child is laboring under some form of learning challenge is highly probable. However, that is not a “death sentence”; rather, it should be a wake up call. Scores of reliable, well-researched interventions can reprogram the child’s ability to learn and achieve. Many children with so-called “learning disabilities” beat their learning problems, become enthusiastic learners, and excel in college and beyond. The secret to that outcome is two-fold:

  1. Accurately identify the nature of the learning discrepancy, whether it is strictly an instructional deficit or a fundamental issue with the way the child learns and processes information. 
  2.  Use the most reliable instructional methods and materials for your child.

The ability to identify accurately the nature of the learning discrepancy requires an assessment of the child’s cognitive abilities as well as their level of academic achievement. A skilled educational/school psychologist is able to pinpoint the child’s area(s) of weakness and strength. Armed with that information, she works with parents and teachers to formulate an action plan to reverse and remediate the learning problem.

Most importantly, children don’t just outgrow their problems as a rule without some form of intervention. Delays and wait-and-see attitudes waste precious time. Early intervention is key to optimal results.

In the next letter we’ll “Call in the Troops”.


Read the next letter, Calling in the Troops