Research from the past 10 years clearly shows that educators and medical professionals can spot the signs of learning difficulties earlier than previously thought possible. Professionals can use a variety of easy and quick screeners in math and reading and provide helpful strategies and interventions to support struggling learners. For many years, advocates—particularly parents—have pushed for up-to-date information about children’s progress, feedback about how well they’re performing across subject areas, and insight as to whether they’re mastering skills needed for continued progress. Early screening offers answers to these questions, as well as pointing to characteristics that might identify risk for underlying disorders of learning and attention.
Academic: Early screening can lead to timely recognition of learning difficulties and characteristics that might signal a risk for disorder of learning and/or attention. Neuroplasticity in young children offers windows of opportunity in virtually every aspect of learning because of the extent to which their brains are malleable (changeable and developing). In young children, brain networks for information processing are still being formed, which means that early experiences, and interventions, can have a greater impact on students when they are young. Early screening can result in children receiving extra help sooner and prevent them from falling behind.
Social and emotional: Early screening may prevent children from being inappropriately identified as having a learning disability or incorrectly being classified as needing special education services and supports. Children whose needs are identified and addressed early might make sufficient progress to mitigate the need for special education services. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma associated with being identified as having a learning disability, which can lead to higher rates of bullying, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The identification rate of students with specific learning disabilities is trending downward. Some speculate that this is because of an increased investment in Head Start and high-quality preschool programs, which often provide evidence-based interventions early in a child’s academic career.
Economic: The cost of screening young children for learning disabilities has been estimated to range from $3–$20 per pupil. However, the benefits of early screening far outweigh its costs. Effective early screening can lead to large economic benefits, given the high costs associated with remediation and the treatment of psychological or medical and psychiatric problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic conditions related to academic stress) that can result from failing to address students’ needs early. In addition, students who struggle academically or behaviorally have higher rates of unemployment and are at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system later on in life. Negative outcomes like these are costly for society. One study found that early interventions can lead to as much as a $31 return on investment for every $1 spent. If screening allows educators to address students’ needs earlier, students can remain on a trajectory toward successful grade promotion, high school graduation, college attendance, and gainful employment.