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Family Almanac

How to Dance Around Early Learning Problems

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C08

Q. My 5-year-old grandson recently brought home warnings for running and dancing in the hall at school.

He was a good kid in pre-K, but his kindergarten teacher says he doesn't use his scissors well, doesn't color within the lines, doesn't follow directions and writes his name upside down and backward.

When my daughter had him write his name on paper from school, he again wrote it upside down and backward but when she gave him plain paper, he wrote his name properly.

This set off warning signals for me, so I got on the Internet and found out that these were two signs of a learning disability.

What should we make of this? Are these issues correctable at 5 or is he set for a special program for LD kids? And how can his parents help him?

A.Many kindergartners want to dance in the hall, especially if a class meeting lasts more than 15 minutes, and many more write their names backward and upside down, because writing is an abstract concept.

Moreover, they can write in only one direction, which is another new concept.

Your daughter -- or any parent whose child gets one or two warnings -- should ask the teacher to let her sit quietly in the back of her classroom for a morning to see if she can spot the problem.

She may find that the teacher is rigid or stuffy or boring or simply inexperienced, particularly if she is trying to teach 20 or more children at once. Even with an assistant, it takes a few years to be a good teacher, just as it takes a few years for a child to cut and color really well.

There are other, more significant signs of a disability than the ones you're worried about. A child may have one if he can't rhyme words well or hear sounds easily or if he can't stick with an activity for long, either because he's too young or because he just can't pay attention.

Some parents and teachers try to identify learning disabilities in kindergarten, but most children read fairly well by the end of first grade and overcome other problems in the following year. For that reason, most teachers think they shouldn't be tested until the end of second grade.

In the meantime, help your grandson reach the milestones that matter.

Most schools expect students to read 25 to 50 words by sight at the end of kindergarten and to write most of their letters, although some may write them backward or use only the first and last sound of a word. That's okay.

The child who turns "was" into "wz" or "ws" is trying to get his thoughts in order and to write down what he hears, although the spelling may be so garbled that he has to read the words aloud before they make sense. And that's okay, too.

Your daughter -- and you -- can help your grandson achieve in school, not by helping him practice his letters like a robot but by emphasizing the sounds in each word and by reading poetry aloud and singing silly songs and rhyming words with him. Dog, fog and hog will be much easier for him to spell later, if he knows that these words sound alike.

Use new words when you talk with him, so he can stretch his vocabulary, and read stories to him daily, so he can learn to use language well. Reading is more than the decoding of letters.

Count objects with him, too, which is better than answering a math worksheet, because children understand abstract problems better if they master concrete problems first.

Your grandson's fine motor skills will also improve if your daughter gives him three baskets. Load one with clay or Play-Doh so he can roll out lines and balls of it, and another basket with white paper, construction paper, clear tape and a pair of scissors so he can create constructions and collages.

The third basket is for pens, pencils, crayons, chalk and washable markers and should sit near an easel, a chalkboard or even a small wall with the bottom part of it covered with blackboard paint. Or give him a dry-erase board with low-odor markers. Drawing, especially on a large surface, helps a kindergartner paint the images in his head and figure out how tightly he should hold his marker or pencil.

Don't correct his creative efforts, however. You want your grandson to be a risk-taker, not a perfectionist, because reading and writing require great daring.

All of this will help him enjoy school more and leave him dancing in the hall -- preferably at home.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C/ 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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