Teen with a Learning Issue? Navigate Next Steps Together

parent tip self-reflection Jun 02, 2021

Getting through the rigors of high school is no cakewalk. And it’s especially challenging for teens with a diagnosed learning disability—or for kids who simply struggle to learn in a traditional school system.

Lots of teens have impressive natural talents, and yet they aren’t able to translate all that intelligence into their classroom work. Learning disabilities actually have nothing to do with how smart someone is, but instead result from inefficient ways that information is processed in the brain.

Here’s an example: my friend’s son was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age and always struggled to do well in school. His brain’s inability to filter out distractions made it hard for him to concentrate on stuff that wasn’t engaging—schoolwork was number one on that list! But…this kid had an amazing mind for technology. He would spend hours and hours learning all he could about computer programming, because that’s what really fascinated him. And so while he wasn’t a great student, he was an exceptional computer programmer, doing work many adults would find challenging.   

The lesson here? School is not always a benchmark for later success. Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Justin Timberlake, and Michael Phelps are just a few incredibly successful people with learning disabilities.

Kids who struggle in school need our guidance and support in finding their natural talents and then applying that into a career they’ll love. If your teen struggles to learn and is worried about his or her future career possibilities, here are a few things you can encourage him or her to do:

Accept themselves.

Most teens with a learning issue aren’t keen to announce it to the world. My friend’s son Ben never wanted to admit, let alone talk about the fact that he had ADHD, despite all the tests that confirmed it was a pretty severe issue for him. Kids—and especially teens—want to feel “normal” and not singled out for having a learning issue. But learning challenges continue after graduation, so it’s important for your teen to accept that his or her brain works a little differently…and that it always will. How they work with and around this challenge is the key. Remind your child that learning issues are not connected with intelligence, that MANY successful people in the world have struggled with the same thing, and that overcoming these challenges can be a gift too.

Self-reflect on strengths.

Kids with learning issues often struggle with low self-confidence. They’re frustrated in trying to learn things that come easy to their peers, they’ve been called “lazy” and “stupid,” and they’ve been given a lot more negative than positive feedback in their young lives. Help your teen reflect about those things that make them feel good about themselves – and then talk about how those natural talents might translate into a career.

For example, your daughter may have dyslexia but really loves to draw, and so while she struggles with words, her true “language” might be in something like graphic design. If your kid with a learning issue really loves all-things-science but can’t pass Spanish, encourage them to think about a career in scientific research, which has built-in support with apprentices, the help of documentation, and other executive functioning help. Your teen with a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD) may not be great at reading body language or other social cues, but he’s a whiz with numbers—a perfect future statistician! The bottom line here? Emphasize your child’s strengths often…and do the planning needed to connect those strengths to a career that will accommodate their challenges.  

Turn a challenge into an advantage.

Did you know people with ADHD are 300 percent more likely than others to start their own companies? That’s because the non-stop engine and risk-taking nature associated with ADHD are often the traits needed to become a killer entrepreneur. Also remind your teen that his or her learning issue can always serve as a motivator to continue striving. Charles Schwab built one of the largest brokerages in the U.S. while struggling with lifelong dyslexia. Your encouragement can be the difference between your teen allowing his or her disability to hold them back…or propelling them to do amazing things!

Types of learning disabilities are diverse, ranging from difficulty with memory and time management, to problems processing numbers and words, to challenges with thinking, speaking, or listening. But often, when students have a challenge in one area, they have developed a strength in another area, like resilience, empathy, and creativity.

Build some work skills

Sometimes parents give teens with learning issues a “pass” on volunteering or getting a part-time job because they have enough on their plate. But as your teen transitions out of high school, it’s important for them to understand the rewards and challenges of work—and to build key life skills in this area. If they’ve never worked before, give them a regular chore around the house that they must treat like a job. Once he or she has done that job well, assess whether they’re ready to get a part-time job. The responsibility of a volunteer position or part-time job will teach your teen how to arrive on time, complete tasks, solve problems, and work with others…all key skills to help them transition from school to their next phase.

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