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National Study Follows Youth With Learning Disabilities from High School to Adult Life

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By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Parents' Expectations

The aspirations and expectations parents hold for their adolescent children with LD is a powerful factor, since research has shown that high expectations are associated with positive student achievement and post-school outcomes. Parent expectations were measured across a variety of attainment goals, such as graduation with a regular diploma, postsecondary education, and independent living.

In both 1987 and 2001, a majority of parents - 59 percent - expected their students with LD to graduate from high school with a regular diploma. However, expectations for postsecondary education have shown dramatic improvement. In 1987 just over 3 percent of parents expected their student with LD to graduate from a two-year college. In 2001 that percentage had increased to almost 14 percent. Equally impressive, just 5 percent of parents expected graduation from a four-year college in 1987, and in 2001 that percentage had increased to almost 10 percent. While a doubling of the percentage of parents expecting this level of postsecondary achievement is important, in 2001 a majority of parents - 64 percent - reported that they expected their student with LD definitely or probably wouldn't graduate from a four-year college.

Given that by the year 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999) projects that 18 of the top 25 occupations with the largest and fastest employment growth, high pay, and low unemployment will require at least a bachelor's degree, parental expectations for youth with LD need to increase dramatically if we are to help this population achieve a high level of employment and independent living.


Work was a much bigger part of the lives of 15- to 17-year-olds with LD in 2001 than was the case in 1987. In fact, 67 percent of youth with LD reported having a paid job outside the home in 2001 (versus 57 percent in 1987), a rate that exceeds that of the general population of youth (63 percent). However, the percentage of students with LD working more than 16 hours per week declined from 61 percent in 1987 to 43 percent in 2001. While youth employment has become a norm in American society, the potential negative consequences of students working long hours was highlighted in a 1998 report from the National Research Council. This reduction in work hours could benefit students with LD and contribute to better attainment of education related goals.

Problem Behavior

The NLTS2 studied the issue of problem behavior among students with disabilities resulting in negative consequences, by assessing the extent to which youth had ever been suspended or expelled from school, fired from a job, or arrested. For youth with LD, those experiencing any of these negative consequences increased from 13 percent in 1987 to 19 percent in 2001. This finding would indicate that services designed to address behavioral issues need improvement.

These findings, and those still to come out of the NLTS2, can and should help guide research, policy-making, educational programming, and parent expectations for youths with LD. By using this information wisely, students, parents, educators, and others can continue to improve post-secondary education, employment, and independent living outcomes for students with LD.


  • Protecting Youth at Work: Health, Safety, and Development of Working Children and Adolescents in the United States. Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor, et al. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1998.

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.