Recognizing Learning Disabilities in Teens

Admitting a learning challenge can be difficult for anyone, but for teens, who are already struggling with issues of identity and self-worth, asking for help can be even harder. As parents, there are steps we can take to help teens admit difficulties they may be facing and provide resources to help them succeed. This week’s article provides parents with an overview of the issue and information to help spot and support teens with learning disabilities.


What is a learning disability? 

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Learning disabilities are a type of neurological disorder often described as a difference in the way someone’s brain is “wired.” Learning disabilities do not affect a person’s intelligence, but can make the use of traditional learning techniques for reading, writing, information recall and organization more challenging. While these disabilities cannot be cured, there are many techniques and resources available that can allow people with these struggles to excel in school and career.

Learning disabilities come in many forms and can vary greatly in their severity. Youth who make it to their teen years without a previous diagnosis often suffer from higher-functioning forms of learning disabilities. This can make these disabilities harder to spot and can make success in school very difficult and frustrating for teens.   

Does your teen need help?

Just as it can be difficult for your teen to admit that they may need help, it can be quite difficult as parents to determine what challenges your teen may be facing. Many people with an undiagnosed learning condition have created elaborate means of masking their disability. Instead of asking for help, teens often find ways to avoid tasks that are more difficult because of their learning disability. For example, a student with dyslexia may exhibit lack of interest or disruptive behavior in class in order to avoid embarrassment from reading out loud. This tendency to mask challenges means that it can be especially difficult to tell that your teen may be struggling. There are, however, a variety of resources available to help determine if your teen might have a learning disability.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers a checklist that parents might find helpful in evaluating if their teen could have a learning disability and in starting a conversation with them. It is important to note that most teens will exhibit some of the symptoms connected with learning disabilities. For example, some types of learning disabilities are associated with disorganization, lack of planning, and distraction. These qualities describe many teens both with and without learning disabilities. What parents should look for instead is a consistent appearance of these symptoms in a certain area. For example, if your teen is struggling with a similar skill across subject areas or is having trouble despite interest in a topic, the symptoms could be considered more consistent and outside of normal teenage development. Parents should note if their teen is struggling with skills that most of their peers have mastered, or if their challenges are causing issues in their social or academic achievement.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 5.18.01 PMThe use of a check list or other personal research, however, should only be a first step in identifying your teen’s learning struggles. Learning disabilities are incredibly nuanced and difficult to assess, and parents should not rely solely on their own intuition in diagnosing their teens. An important next step for any parent who thinks their teen might have a learning disability is to seek professional guidance. This can be in the form of a school counselor or medical professional such as your child’s pediatrician. These trained professionals will be able to complete a thorough assessment and offer treatment steps to help your teen succeed and cope with their learning challenges.

Helping your teen understand a learning disability

Talking with your teen in general might be a challenge given that teens are often private and not forthcoming about their lives – especially with parents. The teen years are a time of self-discovery and the assertion of independence. For many teens, the challenges of a learning disability can make it more difficult to assert and gain independence. There are some techniques you can use, however, to make sure your teen understands their learning disability and feels comfortable communicating their needs.

  • Help demystify the subject. Many people’s first reaction to the term “learning disability”
    is to focus on the term disability. It is important to make sure your teen knows that a learning disability does not mean they will be unsuccessful in life. Many people with
    learning disabilities have successful career and personal lives, and some even achieve great success due, in part, to the coping strategies they develop from their disability. It is important to make sure your teen knows that having a learning disability does not mean they will be hindered from success and happiness in life.
  • Help your teen recognize their strengths. Some people with learning disabilities have a difficult time assessing and understanding their own strengths. It important to help your teen build self confidence and focus on their skills — both in school and outside of their classes. Often people with learning disabilities excel at art, sports, music or other activities. Find ways to emphasis your teen’s skills and help them appreciate these abilities.
  • Take into account your teen’s level of maturity. How a parent talks about learning disabilities with a child should vary greatly based on age and maturity level. By the time teens enter high school, parents should push them to be self-advocates and vocalize their own needs. Pushing teens in this direction can help them analyze their personal abilities and find ways to develop skills to advocate on their own behalf.

Prepare your teen to succeed

Diagnosing and accepting a learning disability with your teen is an important step in helping them succeed in school. As parents, we want to make sure our children are able to succeed in life as well. While having a learning disability can make it more difficult for students to achieve in a traditional school setting, there are several factors you can put in place that will help them graduate and succeed as young adults.

Research shows that young adults with learning disabilities who are most successful after high school have three main characteristics in common.

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As parents, these are elements we can help cultivate and instill in our children.

Make sure your teen feels heard at home and that their challenges are recognized and their strengths appreciated. A supportive home environment can help teens believe they will succeed and help provide resources for them to understand and cope with their learning issues in a safe environment.

Encourage your teen to take an active role in planning their academic and post-high school transition paths. Helping your teen develop a strong sense of self confidence will allow them to be more comfortable in new environments and in making professional and personal connections after high school. Involving teens in developing their own learning plan will help build confidence and a sense of ownership over their success.

Encourage your teen to join clubs and activities that can foster this sense of belonging. Fostering a sense of friendship and community will help your teen with social issues and develop a sense of security and belonging with their peers. Help them see where their interests might line up with group activities, whether it’s in sports, choir, 4-H or volunteer activities. Helping your teen get involved in group and community activities will give them a chance to develop a sense of friendship and belonging.

It is important to remember that diagnosing a learning disability in your teen can be a great opportunity rather than a barrier. Discovering what challenges your teen faces will allow you to address those challenges directly. There are many resources available in the school system and community that can help both you and your teen develop effective strategies for overcoming these learning challenges. While it will not always be easy, helping your teen recognize both their weaknesses and strengths will help them succeed not only in school but throughout life as well.

If you think your teen might be struggling with a learning disability, check out these helpful resources and talk with a professional in your community.


Article by Morgan Smallwood

Morgan is a graduate student in Civil Society and Community Research at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Morgan previously worked in the non-profit sector providing individuals with learning and developmental disabilities opportunities for social and professional development.


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