Learning Difficulties in Preschool Children – The First Steps to Early Intervention

In my first years as an early childhood teacher in a small private preschool, if one of the children in my care was not following the ‘norms’ of development, it was not clear to me what I should do. As we all know, the early childhood field can have a fast turn over of staff in child care centres, and often the Directors or Authorised Supervisors have just as little or less field experience as other staff.

My confidence as a teacher was the key…”was I right in suspecting a learning difficulty?” With little experience and only 3 years of theoretical knowledge at University dotted with intervals of practical teaching, I wasn’t always confident in my “gut feelings” or suspicions of a learning difficulty.

With years of teaching experience now behind me, including in early intervention support, coupled with the understanding from a parent’s perspective, I would like to offer some suggestions of what to do when we, as early childhood teachers, suspect that a child in our care has a learning difficulty. The important thing to remember is that it’s not up to us to make a decision that a child has or doesn’t have a learning difficulty. Our responsibilities lie with gathering developmental information, knowing what professionals to refer a family to, and supporting parents through the process


The question I asked myself as a young teacher “was I right in suspecting a learning difficulty”? was more about me and my confidence in my ability. Really, we should be asking the question “is there a possibility that this child has a learning difficulty”? The answer comes from our knowledge of child development norms, and our observations which will tell us if a child is moving outside those norms. It is very important to remember that ‘norms’ have a very wide range. Developmental ‘norms’ take away the comparison between children in our care and allow us to see where we would expect children of certain ages to be sitting in their development.

It is also important to remember that a child sitting outside ‘norms’ of development may not necessarily have a learning difficulty. However, this decision can be left in the hands of those in professions specific to particular developmental areas, such as speech and occupational therapists.

If a child is moving outside ‘norms’ of development in one or more developmental areas, then we should make our formal observations into a developmental report. This report should not make suggestions as to what we suspect might be the concern. For example, we should not include that a child is displaying “autistic behaviours”, as we are not qualified to make that judgment. Instead, we should be objective and report on the specific behaviours we observe (eg the child maintains little or no eye contact). As an early childhood teacher you might say “but this is not written in positive language”. I understand that we look at the positive aspects of a child’s development in our observations. However, I feel that therapists need concise and specific information when reading reports, and while our language should not be negative, it should be specific.

Professional Advice

We need to seek the advice of other professionals in our child care centre, ensuring we maintain professionalism and confidentiality. Often the best way this can be done is by asking another team member (possibly the Director or Authorised Supervisor) to also make specific observations and to give their opinion on whether a child is moving within developmental norms for their age.

Partnering With Parents

I think this was the part of the process I dreaded the most….discussing my concerns with the child’s family. This fear was not helpful to the family because I would stumble around trying to express my concerns, which often confused them more. My time in early intervention support helped me to clarify 3 key points:

The family knows the child best

We see the child for part of their day and the family (in many forms) knows the child for hours and years that we don’t. We see the child in one environment, the family sees them in many. We need to offer our perspective from the setting that we see the child in. We need to be clear and concise about our concerns, allow the family time to absorb what we are saying, and to ask questions.

The family has the ultimate decision as to what to do with the information

We cannot make a family seek further support for their child’s development. Families have the right to disagree with our observations. They also have a right to disagree with us initially while they process the information, and to come back at a later time to discuss things further. I remember working with one mother for 12 months, offering my professional opinion gently over time and waiting. In time, the mother sought the advice of her pediatrician and the child began early intervention support.

The family may go through phases of denial, grief

This is where my perspective as a parent really helps me to understand the emotions of families who are coming to realize that their child may struggle in certain areas of their development…for a time or for life. I cannot imagine coming to realize that my child would have to face battles of learning through the eyes of autism or global delay. We need to be sensitive in our approach and offer a listening ear or shoulder to cry.

We also need to offer families hope that early intervention can really help a child, and that difficulties of learning may be for a season. My husband’s speech couldn’t be understood even by his mother at age 3, and he was identified as being at a yr 2 reading level in year 6. As an adult, his job now requires him to speak publicly on a weekly basis and he has completed 2 degrees and is studying at a doctorate level.

Avenues Of Referral

As early childhood services, we need to be informed about the referral agencies available to our families. As a new graduate, I had no idea where to begin. Let me offer a few broad suggestions, after which each child care service needs to research their own community networks:

The child’s G.P.
The child’s paediatrician
The Local Community Health Centre – which should include speech therapists, occupational therapists, hearing testing, physiotherapists and social workers. These services include diagnostic assessments and ongoing therapy in particular developmental area and are usually available free of charge
Diagnostic Service
Private Therapists – waiting lists for community health centres can be very long, but may be a family’s only option. Other families may have the financial resources for private therapy. One compromise may be to see if the family has the financial resources for an initial private assessment, which can allow the family and centre staff to work on some areas of development while on the waiting list for ongoing therapy at a community health centre.

If or when the family choose to seek further advice on their child’s development, any developmental reports you have completed should be offered to the family to take with them.

Supporting the Child’s Development

Whether a family seek further clarification from professionals about their child’s development or not, whether we are waiting for assessments and reports, or a child is receiving early intervention therapy, we need to continue supporting all areas of their development. We need to continue to view them as a child in our care first and foremost, see the whole picture, encourage their strengths and then help their specific areas of need.

Cassandra Eccleston is a dedicated and experienced childcare professional and writes for Onsite Early Childhood Training who produce cutting edge Child Care Staff Training by DVD. You can visit our website for more free resources, downloads, forums and information on preschool early intervention and the latest childcare staff training available.