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Talking with your teenager about learning difficulties

An expert offers advice on fostering ongoing, positive dialogue with your teenager about her learning problems and how they impact her life.

By Brian Inglesby, M.A., L.E.P.

Adolescence can be a trying time for you and your teenager, especially if she has learning problems. At an age when kids are often least willing to talk with their parents, it's probably most important to keep the lines of communication open and operating. Conversing with your teenager about her learning difficulties can be particularly challenging - and valuable.

In her drive to forge a distinct identity, your teenager may spend a lot of time asserting her independence in the face of adult authority, staunchly defending her peer group, and challenging your opinions and values. Teens are also faced with greatly increased school demands. All of this can make it tricky to talk with her about her learning problems.

Open, straightforward, and persistent communication with your adolescent about her learning struggles helps her build skills of self-awareness and self-advocacy that will serve her through middle school and high school, and into adulthood. This article presents some practical approaches for keeping your child engaged in a conversation with you and other adults about her learning struggles, so that she can rise to the challenge of doing her best at school.

Listen for signs of frustration

With the increased academic demands of middle school and high school, your teen may experience new or more severe problems with learning or social demands. If you notice a change in attitude when your teenager talks about school, pay attention to the signs. You know her better than anyone else, so be sensitive to any clues she may be giving you. Adolescents who are struggling may describe school as "stupid" or "boring," or refer to themselves as "retarded."

There are also some nonverbal behaviors that may be an expression of frustration with school. Adolescents may tear up their homework, refuse to talk about their day, or overreact to questions about school with outbursts of anger. Or, they may seem unusually quiet or withdrawn. How should you respond? Ask yourself if your child has been acting this way for several weeks. Are there other possible causes of her behavior, such as family upheaval or a move to a new school? If not, it may be time to talk with her to get an update about current problems with school work.

Gather some facts

Gather information about the nature of your child's learning struggles from as many sources as possible. These may include current books and articles, as well as detailed information on learning strengths and weaknesses from each of her teachers, across all subject areas. Press for details so that you understand very concretely how her problems are affecting academic performance, especially in reading, writing, speaking, and math. A few examples of weaknesses that a parent or teacher might easily overlook are:

  • In the upper grades the organizational demands of keeping track of homework and class work across multiple subject areas is demanding for even the most capable student. Disorganization may be "invisible" until it causes serious problems with getting work completed and to the teacher on time;
  • A student in middle school may be perceived as having adequate reading skills and good vocabulary, but actually possess poor comprehension and memory skills;
  • A high school student may have strong oral language skills, but continued weaknesses in written language.

As you gather information about your child's learning problems, identify her areas of strength, too. These strengths will likely be the compensatory tools that help her overcome or bypass areas of weakness.

Sort through your feelings

By middle school, if your child has experienced years of academic struggles, she may have become very discouraged about school and have low self-esteem. When these feelings result in her losing motivation, becoming depressed, or acting out, it can be a challenge for you to remain hopeful and optimistic about her achievement at school.

When you watch your child struggle in school, it can bring back painful memories of your own negative school experiences. Or, if you were a confident, successful student, it may be hard to empathize with your child's learning challenges. You may also feel angry toward the school or individual teachers. Whatever difficult feelings you may experience, it's a good idea to get some support from other sympathetic adults - friends and family, a support group of parents of kids with learning problems, or a counselor - so that you can bring a positive outlook to the task of supporting your child.

Choose your words

By middle school and high school, your child will have been exposed to a variety of terms for her learning struggles - some of which are very negative and disrespectful. Continue to talk openly and honestly with your adolescent about her learning difficulties to counter the myths and misinformation she may hear at school, in the media, or elsewhere. Use facts about learning disabilities and the achievements of people with these disabilities, as evidence to counter her negative and self-defeating beliefs about her intelligence or ability. Many teenagers express a sense of relief and can cope better when parents and teachers offer them accurate information about their learning problems and realistic, step-by-step strategies for addressing them.

Use correct terms for support services

If your child receives special education assistance or has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 plan, you and your teenager's teachers should use appropriate terms to describe the type of support she receives. In many schools, the special education classroom is routinely called a resource room, and the special education teacher is called a resource teacher. It may help break down the stigma of the "special education" label that some kids experience if you use the term interchangeably with "resource room" or "resource teacher." Likewise, a 504 plan may legitimately be called a "support plan." If you don't use the correct terms and your child hears them from other sources, you may unintentionally increase the stigma and shame she attaches to the labels.

Take age and maturity into account

Middle school

Parents of sixth- through eighth-grade kids often feel the need for a well-stocked "bag of tricks" to overcome the sometimes defensive attitude of adolescents. By this age, kids should be participating actively with their parents and teachers in personal goal-setting discussions, such as thinking about things they excel in or careers they might enjoy. Students this age often participate in a portion of the parent-teacher conference. Provide your child honest feedback about her performance in school and together try to identify natural affinities that she could later cultivate into powerful assets.

By seventh or eighth grade, kids should be introduced to the concept "self-advocate" or the role of "manager" of their own educational needs. Teach your child to speak up for herself, as this practice will be essential as she gets older. Rehearse how to talk to teachers and others about her specific learning needs. She'll want to use this skill as she gets older and will need to use it in high school, post-secondary education or training, and employment.

Kids in middle school want desperately to conform in order to fit in with their peers. For this reason, your middle school-age child may strongly prefer to be enrolled exclusively in general education classes. Even though she's probably more similar to other kids than she is different from them, her learning struggles may cause her to feel not only different, but inferior. So, rather than emphasizing her problems and needs for special help, keep her focused on specific learning goals, the steps you've outlined to reach them, her progress to date, and the support you and her teachers can provide her.

Middle school kids want some degree of influence and control over many aspects of school. Your seventh grader may set a goal to participate in all general education classes by high school, that is, to discontinue special education classes or tutoring. You and her teachers should help her evaluate this proposal realistically. If you support the idea, let her know what the steps are and how you'll work with her to reach her goal. You may also need to model an adaptable and flexible outlook for your child, to think out loud with her about adjusting her goals to better suit her capabilities. In this and other ways, you continue to offer a "safety net" of support that she can rely on as necessary.

High school

High school-age kids often ignore or even deny the fact they have learning difficulties. This stage of rebelliousness can be the perfect opportunity for your child to build her self-advocacy skills and assert greater control over her life. Possessing knowledge about oneself and the skills to express that knowledge to others is a real asset. Help her understand that she can influence how others treat her when she presents her educational strengths and needs in a respectful and knowledgeable manner. She should also be aware that, if she has an IEP or specific accommodations for learning, federal disability law is also on her side-and will be throughout her life.

Most teachers are open to accommodating the various learning needs of their students if they only know what will help. For example, if her teacher assigns 40 pages of reading along with 20 comprehension questions to be turned in the next day, your teenager has a couple of choices. She can become overwhelmed or angry, or simply ignore the homework assignment and receive a failing grade. Or she can (take three deep breaths and) think of how best to explain her learning difficulty to her teacher, then ask for either a reduction in the amount of homework, or extended time to complete the assignment. She should talk with her teacher either before or after class so that the teacher can focus on what she's saying. With practice, such self-advocacy skills will become more routine. It may never be "easy" for some kids, but it's important to have a goal of becoming vocal and vigilant about their learning needs.

Keep up the good work

By her second or third year of high school, your child should have some understanding of how her strengths, talents, and learning or attention problems may affect her education or career goals. If you've been able to help her develop a realistic picture of her strengths and weaknesses; to use problem-solving approaches that make use of her strengths to overcome weaknesses; to identify and use resources and help; and to approach big goals as a series of small steps; she'll be able to help chart her course into young adulthood.

To a great extent, development of all of these skills relies on ongoing communication between your teenager and the various helpful adults in her life. It's a lot of work, and you may not get much thanks along the way. But, in the end, your child may show her gratitude when you least expect it. She may credit you as the reason for her graduation from high school or tell you what a great role model you were for raising her own kids. Accolades or not, you'll be helping her do her best.

Brian Inglesby, M.A., is a licensed educational psychologist who enjoys the challenges of working with students with a broad spectrum of learning issues. Of special interest to him is the opportunity to provide teachers, parents, and students with the ability to better understand and manage a student's unique learning profile.


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