Skip to main content

Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Can Early Academic Pressure Cause Learning Disabilities?

When children face pressure to learn to read early in kindergarten and run into trouble, will they be diagnosed with learning disabilities when they only need more time?  Creating one-size-fits-all, high-stakes standardized tests demanding children read by first grade creates pressure on the child, parent, and teacher.

Higher-than-usual expectations have existed since 2001, and NCLB even before then. Few have questioned whether reading expectations are developmentally appropriate, and some may profit from the claim that children have reading problems when it could be that, with time, they read well.

Today, we’re told children struggle to read because teachers haven’t taught correctly or public education fails. However, examining this further, throughout the years, parents and educators have increasingly fallen in line with the outside school reforms to demand that kindergartners read with the same high-stakes standards by first grade.

Raising expectations so high that many children won’t grasp the instruction and fail the tests, claiming public schools and teachers fail, is a way to erode teacher trust and drive parents out of their public schools. This is out of the privatization playbook.

Who’s talking about the fact that, in 2014, the University of Virginia researchers concluded that kindergarten is the new first grade, and expectations have changed? Instead of further questioning this or backing off and returning kindergarten to its past glory, school reformers doubled down.

Some children read well early, and others learn quickly, which might make it seem that all children should be on the same page and reading equally by first grade. But some children will need more time. They may develop reading skills a bit more slowly, but if forced to read early with high-stakes standards, making reading problematic, they could shut down and hate reading!

If a child isn’t reading by kindergarten, is that the point at which they’re considered to have a learning disability? Or will school officials make that claim in third grade? Third grade reading laws are another pressure point that could destroy a child’s desire to read. While many children do learn to read by third grade, third-grade retention is another unnecessary adult-created roadblock.

Academic Preschool and Kindergarten

Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College and writer for Psychology Today, in 2022, discusses concerns about academic preschool and kindergarten in Early academic training produces long-term harm.

Gray says:

Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.

Instead of academic pressure, one must wonder why few are looking to implement the success of the Perry High Scope preschool studies and the structure and activities that benefited preschoolers (Weikart & Barnes, 1993).

Providing preschoolers and kindergartners with rich language environments in early childhood is crucial. We understand how children develop language and have loads of information from childhood developmental experts like Piaget, Vygotsky, and more.

However, few policymakers have criticized high-stakes standards or questioned the requirement that children read early; in fact, they’ve justified it with harsh expectations in the name of science.

Stress Factors and Inferiority Complex

In Stress in the onset and aggravation of learning disabilities, Burenkova and others note that:

Stress plays a role in the onset and aggravation of learning disabilities (LDs). The relevant possible mechanisms involve hormonal, (epi)genetic, and neurobiological pathways. Stress-reducing interventions could improve academic performance in children with LDs.

Poverty and Stress

In Stresses of poverty may impair learning ability in young children the National Institutes of Health suggested as far back as 2012:

The stresses of poverty — such as crowded conditions, financial worry, and lack of adequate child care — lead to impaired learning ability in children from impoverished backgrounds. The theory is based on several years of studies matching stress hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness test results in young children from impoverished backgrounds.

Yet schools have created more anxiety through high-stakes standardized tests. Poor children in poor schools deserve access to resources, good teachers, and age-appropriate activities that help them develop a love for reading, not more stress.

Teach Children to Love to Read!

In 2014, I wrote a post called Setting Children Up to Hate Reading, which was viewed by 141,865 and had about 91K Likes at the time, which Facebook reduced to about 5K. The post was popular then, but less so now if it’s reposted. Why? School reformers have succeeded in making children pawns of school privatization and marketing programs.

Many children will fail when parents and educators insist early learners become good readers by first grade. The fear of retention looms in third grade. Attempts to help students learn to read as they get older could fail because reading is now seen as remediation. Children could be deemed to have a learning disability when they are too stressed and need more time and practice to be good readers.

This becomes a continuous loop of failure where a child will likely never enjoy reading or be able to read well.

I’m not saying that children who have legitimate difficulties learning to read shouldn’t get help with well-constructed reading programs and well-qualified teachers who have studied corrective reading.

However, more attention should be paid to what is asked of children, at what age, and whether the pressure to learn to read by first grade should be reconsidered. Third-grade retention should also end since there are many kinder alternatives to assist children with reading difficulties. Many children can become better readers in fourth grade or beyond without the stigma of failure.

If you’re the parent or teacher of a child learning to read, ensure reading instruction has not become a chore or that children are not feeling pressured to read.

We should all be questioning why children’s early reading demands have risen in the past and continue to rise and how this affects our youngest students.


Schweinhart, L. J. (Lawrence J.), Barnes, H. V., & Weikart, D. P. (1993). Significant benefits: the High-Scope Perry preschool study through age 27. High/Scope Press.

Owens, J. (2021). Parental intervention in school, academic pressure, and childhood diagnoses of ADHD. Social Science & Medicine (1982)272, 113746–113746.


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...