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Teens with LD: Finding a summer job

Having a summer job can help a teenager who struggles in school experience new success. One mother shares strategies that worked for her son.

By Melinda Sacks

When our 14-year-old son, Alex, came home from school and announced he was going to get a job, we were both pleased and worried. It was gratifying to hear that he wanted to take that big step toward independence, and even earn some money to help pay for his own pricey video games and basketball shoes. But how would he navigate the application and interview process, given his very weak math and reading skills?

Since that afternoon more than a year ago, Alex has surprised and delighted us by holding not one, but several jobs. He has learned, sometimes the hard way, what it means to be on time for work, to smile at customers even when you feel grumpy, and to show up when the sun is out and your friends are going swimming, and you really don't want to work.

For kids who grow up struggling in school, a job can be a new way to feel successful, and to receive tangible rewards for effort. There is nothing like the smile that first paycheck brings.

But in this tight economy, where finding a job is harder than ever, wading through the application and interview process can be daunting even for the most confident adolescent. While helping without taking over can be a challenge, there is much parents can do to aid in making job hunting a successful experience for a teenager with a learning disability.

Start small and start early

When teens think about getting a job, they are sometimes inclined to think of a dream job, rather than an entry level job. Of course it's much more exciting to imagine training show horses than mucking out stalls, or running the sporting goods store over stocking the shelves.

Parents can help gently set expectations by sharing their own first job stories. If your teenager doesn't want to hear about mom's or dad's experiences, enlist an older sibling or trusted friend to offer a reality check without being discouraging. The message should be that everyone starts out small and moves up the ladder.

Getting a jump on the hordes of college students who return home to hit the summer job market is imperative. April is a great time to start the job search, because most college kids won't return home until May. Spring break, when most teens have a week off without homework, is the ideal window to start looking around in your community.

Volunteer to gain work experience

In many instances, volunteering is the best way for kids to enter the work force for the first time and gain work experience. Most cities have summer programs such as day camps that use counselors-in-training. Hospitals, animal shelters, and other community agencies usually welcome volunteers, although each will have its own age limits.

It is often easier to become a volunteer than it is to get a paying job, and the experience looks good on a job application. Once your teen has held a volunteer job for a while, assuming things went well, it is a great opportunity to ask for a letter of recommendation. And the self confidence that comes from succeeding in the workplace and being praised for your efforts is invaluable.

Who and what do you know?

When your child is looking for that first job, it's a great time to call in favors. Do you know the manager of the local hardware store or pharmacy? Does someone in your family have connections at the coffee shop or ice cream parlor? If you are a regular customer at a local business and the staff knows you, consider going in with your teen to provide an introduction.

Alex got his first job at the local drug store thanks to a friend who knew the manager and provided a recommendation. Then he filled out the application with our help and more than a little Wite-out® (his handwriting is terrible). Because he was so young, I went back with Alex to turn in his application and meet the hiring manager. I don't think it hurt for that manager to see a responsible parent behind the nervous job applicant. When Alex brought home more paperwork and a "rules and guidelines" pamphlet, we all read it together.

For the first week of his new job, Alex was thrilled to be trained on the cash register, even though the thought of it made us shudder. Math is definitely a weakness for our son, who still counts on his fingers if he doesn't have a calculator. Fortunately, today's cash registers are virtually foolproof.

At first, the initial excitement and newness of the job was enough motivation for Alex to change into his nicer work clothes and be ready to go to work with time to spare. But when older employees took over the more interesting post, Alex was relegated to stocking shelves. After a month, putting returned items back in their appropriate sections got boring, and twice he called in sick. When school started up and finals came around, the boss said Alex couldn't miss any more days, and he decided to quit.

The opportunity to work for a few months had still provided valuable experience, and had definitely given Alex his first dose of reality that work isn't always fun. It also gave him a taste for the satisfaction of having a pay check. But we all agreed retail wasn't the best fit.

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