In her new book, Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities: Navigating the Transition from High School to Adulthood, Arlyn Roffman, Ph.D., offers parents practical advice for helping teens with learning disabilities (LD) prepare for adulthood and achieve a satisfying quality of life. The scope of her book encompasses post-secondary education, career/vocational planning, daily living skills, and community life. The book was developed in collaboration with Schwab Learning (a former program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation) and The Princeton Review.

In chapter 1, Roffman details the steps teens with LD need to take to cultivate the self-determination that is fundamental to successful adjustment to adulthood. In this excerpt, she offers parents advice for helping their teens develop self-efficacy, self-acceptance, and choice-making skills — all of which are necessary components of self-determination.

Developing self-efficacy and self-acceptance

Reassure your child that people with learning disabilities (LD) are not the only ones who experience failure — that, in fact, we all fall short and face disappointment at times. She needs to know that the key is to keep trying — that there is tremendous power in effort. Hard work does pay off, and through diligence and persistence, your child will be able to achieve many of her goals. Too many individuals with LD attribute their successes to luck — so it is up to parents and teachers to help them develop self-efficacy, the expectation that they will be able to achieve their goals and the understanding that their successes are, in fact, a direct result of their determined efforts.

It is normal for adolescents to be dissatisfied with themselves. One hates her nose; another is embarrassed by her acne; a third bemoans her shyness. In addition to these typical adolescent concerns, teens with LD often despair over their learning problems. Paul Gerber and his colleagues (1992, 481) report that it is very important for people with LD to reframe how they think about their disability, to think about it less negatively and even, if possible, to accept it as a positive element in their lives. Eighteen-year-old Jack is reframing when he declares, “I wouldn’t give up my LD even if I had the power to get rid of it. It’s part of who I am and makes me strong. Because of my LD, I understand people who struggle in all kinds of ways, and because of my LD, I have learned how to work around all sorts of problems. I consider those bonuses!”

Those who are able to perceive their LD as only a piece of who they are, who are able to compartmentalize their LD will be more self-accepting and better situated to succeed in the adult world (Raskind et al. 2003, 226).

Parent tips for promoting self-efficacy and self-acceptance

  • Giving your child responsibility from an early age (e.g., having her put her games away after playing with them) fosters self-efficacy. As she grows older and increasingly capable, add to her chores and responsibilities.
  • Teach your teen to not be afraid of failure, either in or out of school. Help her see there is much to be learned from her mistakes.
  • Model positive thinking about the mistakes you make by speaking your thoughts aloud in “thinkalouds” (e.g., “Okay, so I burnt the cake. That happens sometimes. Next time, I’ll be sure to set the timer, double check the oven temperature, and keep a closer eye on what I’m baking.”)
  • Talk with your teen about trying to minimize academic competitiveness whenever possible. Encourage her to “run her own race,” and help her understand the concept of going for her “personal best.” Reinforce those values by refraining from comparing her to other kids and by reminding her of how far she’s come.

By late high school your teen should be self-aware enough to explain her strengths, challenges, and what helps her in various settings. Have her complete the chart Strengths, Challenges, And Coping in Various Settings. You and she should copy the chart, fill it in independently, then discuss what you’ve each written. Keep your charts for reference at discussions with her special education teacher or at her IEP meetings.

Fostering choice-making skills

A major task of parents of adolescents — any adolescent — is to begin letting go. This is particularly difficult for parents of children with disabilities, who see their children struggling with an array of academic and social challenges and sometimes failing to develop skills needed for a successful launch into adult life.

Some parents underestimate the ability of their teenaged children with LD to make their own decisions. As a consequence, they continue to control their adolescents’ lives, a practice that limits the development of self-determination, problem-solving, and self-confidence — all of which are so essential to successful adjustment to adulthood. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to know where to draw the line on control when raising teens, but parents who do too much for their children and excessively restrict their opportunities to make decisions foster what is known as “learned helplessness” (Seligman 1972, 407), a passivity that significantly compromises the growth of skills essential for adult functioning. As a parent, you can help your child develop confidence and a sense of efficacy by starting to offer her opportunities from an early age to voice her opinions and participate in decision-making. This must not be an empty gesture, however — it is important that you be ready to listen and convey that her input will be valued. Let her know that, although you will not always agree with her or decide as she suggests, you will compromise if she makes a sound suggestion and will support the goals she sets.

Self-determination entails planning for one’s own future by making choices, setting personal goals and striving to meet them, evaluating outcomes, and adjusting knowledge, goals, or plans accordingly. Your teen should be encouraged to voice her preferences about many aspects of her daily life, with the proviso that her safety and personal well-being cannot be compromised, and with the promise that her opinions will be discussed and respected while final decisions are made. When she enters into the transition-planning phase of her IEP meetings, it is particularly important that your teen be able to convey her own vision of how independently and with whom she would eventually like to live, the type of job she would like to seek, and the ways she would like to spend her leisure time.

Parent tips for fostering choice-making skills

Experiencing the freedom to face challenges and make decisions helps build self-efficacy and ultimately, self-determination.

  • By the end of middle school, your child should have considerable experience with open-ended choice-making (e.g., deciding what to make herself for lunch). She should regularly participate in planning her days under your guidance: determining when she should get up, listing the activities in which she will participate, and planning for meals and breaks.
  • By late middle school, she should be able to assume responsibility for practical decisions (e.g., thinking through which books she needs to carry around in her backpack before lunch, which she’ll need after lunch, and which ones she’ll need to take home to do her homework).
  • By the end of high school, she should have developed confidence in her choice-making ability and feel capable of making a variety of independent decisions.
  • Discuss adult life with your child. Listen carefully as she expresses interests and dreams about her future. Assure her you’ll support her interests and that you’ll help her take the necessary steps to achieve her goals.
  • Work together with your teen to set specific rules and limits, and clearly establish the consequences of falling out of line. Write down the rules, and be consistent about the consequences you set (e.g., “If you forget your lunch, you will have to buy one or go hungry that day; I will not deliver it to school for you.”). If your child will benefit from repetition in order to internalize the rules, review them regularly.
  • Help your teen establish and maintain her own study habits and schedule (even if her study style involves multitasking, which makes no sense to you!), with the proviso that she is expected to complete and turn in all work and earn acceptable grades.
  • Involve your teen in decision-making related to her disability, specifically regarding her IEP, therapy, and accommodations at home and school.


Gerber, P., Ginsberg, R. et al. “Identifying Alterable Patterns in Employment Success for Highly Successful Adults with Learning Disabilities.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 25, no. 8.
Raskind, M. , Goldberg, R, et al. “Predictors of Success in Individuals with Learning Disabilities: A Qualitative Analysis of a 20-Year Longitudinal Study.” Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 18 no. 4.
Seligman, M.E.P. “Learned helplessness.” Annual Review of Medicine, 23.