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.

Finding the right job

Working with your child to identify his strengths and interests is an important first step in deciding where to apply. For teens who are athletic or enjoy the outdoors, recreation or community centers are a good place to start. If your teen is great with young kids, consider the YMCA or other community summer camp programs, which will often take volunteers the first summer and then hire them the next summer.

Of course you’ll want to watch the local newspaper and area websites for job listings, but remember that being proactive rather than waiting for a job to be advertised is likely to have better results. School counselors and teachers are another great resource and will often have suggestions of where to look and who hires younger teens.

When our son was looking for a job we got in the habit of asking about age limits and job availability everywhere we went. Alex got to the point where he asked the grocery clerk and the pizza delivery guy how old you had to be to work at their companies. Just learning how to ask that question was good practice in communication skills.

What to wear, what to say

It seems obvious to adults, but what to wear when you go to apply for a job, and what to say in the first encounter, does not come naturally to many kids. Talk about what the appropriate attire might be for different jobs, and if you or your child are unsure, take a field trip and look at what employees are wearing.

Jeans and a clean T-shirt may be fine at the day care center, but a restaurant or office will expect nicer pants and a collared shirt. A belt and tucked-in shirt may not be the style at school, but for the young job seeker, too-short skirts or giant baggy pants with boxers showing and baseball caps should stay home.

The job interview can be the most challenging — and scary — part of the job search. A little role playing can do a lot to help youngsters anticipate the questions they might be asked, and formulate answers ahead of time. For some kids writing down the answers and reviewing them is helpful.

Some common queries include “Why do you want this job?” and “What makes you the best candidate?” Many employers say the most important quality they look for is enthusiasm, which can be hard to display if you are extremely anxious. Remind your child to at least say, “I really want this job!”

Being too quiet, gazing at your shoes, muttering, or saying, “My dad told me to apply for this job,” are all roads to failure.

Review the paperwork

When it comes time to fill out an application, have your teen do it in pencil first, or do it with him. Misspelled words, illegible handwriting, and questions left unanswered give a bad impression.

Suggest your child bring the application home so you can review it together before handing it in to a potential employer.

If your child has never had a job before, it doesn’t mean he has no relevant experience. Watching the kids for a neighbor, even if it wasn’t for pay, is still babysitting. Awards, participation on teams, volunteer work, and sports, drama, or yearbook are all indicators of an applicant’s level of responsibility and are worth including on an application.

You’ll also need to have your child’s social security number and, most likely, a work permit. While some employers won’t ask for one, federal law states that anyone under 18 who has not graduated from high school must file a work permit. You can obtain one at your child’s school, and follow the simple directions to complete and submit it.

Persistence pays

Employers say they appreciate the persistent applicant who shows real interest in the company and the job. Encourage your child to drop by (looking clean and neat) to check on an application rather than just waiting to hear whether he got the job. The student who returns is the one who comes to mind when there is an opening, or when the decision of who to hire is made.

Jessica, a 15-year-old neighbor of ours who had no work experience, got hired at the local video store after dropping by weekly for four weeks. Her new boss told her he was impressed by her willingness to keep coming back.

Another of our son’s 15-year-old friends finally landed a job working in a fast food stand at an amusement park he frequented because he was such a regular customer, the manager came to know and like him.

Equally important to showing enthusiasm and persistence is following directions. Pay attention to application rules and deadlines. If a company says it does not want to receive calls, don’t call.

It is important to have the “what if you don’t get the job” talk before it’s too late. Remind your child that often people don’t get the first few jobs for which they apply. Then assist him in writing a thank you note after an interview, which is always good practice. If your child doesn’t get the job, he should consider asking what he could do better next time. Try to use a rejection as a learning experience, even though it may be painful.

Finding the best fit

After a summer of working indoors at the drug store, then quitting because he was bored, Alex decided he’d rather be outside and would like to work with children. We encouraged his interest because we’d watched him gravitate toward the young kids in a day program while we were on a family vacation. They liked him so much he ended up helping with activities almost every day.

On a whim, I called our local recreation department when we returned home, and found they had a counselor-in-training (CIT) program. Since Alex loves to chat with adults, his interview seemed to go well and he was offered a CIT position for three two-week sessions.

So last summer, Alex got up at 8 a.m. every morning to be a counselor-in-training at our city recreation department’s summer camp. On school days, it is as if we need a crane and explosives to get Alex out of bed, but he liked his camp job so much he got up on his own for the first time ever.

To his surprise, Alex found out his favorite camp session was the one for the youngest, preschool kids. He experienced the firing of a peer who got caught breaking the rules. He learned how to interact with parents who were worried about their children not making friends. And he sat through daily meetings before and after his official “work day.”

This year Alex has submitted his application to be a paid counselor, since he will be old enough to be on the payroll. We don’t know yet if he’ll get hired, but we’ve reminded him that many people don’t get the first job they apply for. And of course we have our fingers crossed.

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