Jason P. of Princeton, New Jersey, was a kid who didn’t have to study to make straight As, which he did through the eighth grade. But as the work became more difficult in high school, as he was expected to work more independently, things started to unravel. He got a few Cs in the ninth grade. His parents wondered if he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Drinking? Doing drugs? Just lazy?

“But it wasn’t like he was watching TV and playing video games,” according to his mom, Susan. “He was sitting in his room studying, but he couldn’t focus.”

Jason’s parents took him to a psychiatrist who, to their surprise, diagnosed their fifteen-year-old son with attention-deficit disorder, or ADD. Fifteen to 20 percent of the U.S. population has a learning difference such as ADD, dyslexia, or any number of processing difficulties. While most kids are diagnosed during the elementary years, some are so good at coping that the issues don’t become apparent until they’re teens.

Jason’s parents became detectives, trying to determine the best route through the educational, medical, and social system for their son. Because there are almost as many versions of learning differences as there are kids, parents play the most important role in solving this puzzle.

“I’ve come to believe you can have seven kids and each one of them learns differently,” Susan says.

True. Which is why all this is so tricky.

Clues to Look For

Dr. Jeffrey Green, a Princeton, New Jersey, psychiatrist, explains that a teen with a learning difference may characterize the teacher, the subject, or school in general as “boring” as a way of rationalizing why his performance is off. It can also mean that he isn’t getting the concepts.

Other clues your teen’s difficulties could stem from a learning difference:

  • The problems start when the content at school gets more complex.
  • The problems revolve around school, and everything else is going reasonably well.
  • Your teen finds herself in the middle of a situation—the teacher yelling at her, for example—and has no idea what she did to get in that situation.
  • It’s difficult for your child to keep a natural flow of conversation going, reflecting an inability to read a social scene.
  • You see a pattern—waiting until the last minute to do things, leaving books at school, can’t manage his time, etc.

“These kids have always thought of themselves as smart,” Green says. “They initially had success in school and it’s not happening anymore. They don’t really put a lot of energy into studying and get grades back that don’t fit their perception of their intelligence.”

Instead of making assumptions, Green suggests, “let your teen explain it to you. Since learning different children often have trouble with “why?” questions, you might phrase it, “Tell me what’s going on with you at school. I’m concerned.” Kids who have purely LD or attention problems may be able to tell you, ‘I’m just having a hard time. I’m getting to the bottom of the page, and I don’t know what I’ve read.’”

The Next Step: Treatment

Start with a professional you trust: a pediatrician, adolescent psychiatrist/psychologist, or school counselor. Then, try not to fixate on labels.

Dr. David Clark, a chiropractic neurologist in Dallas, feels that the labels usually placed on LD kids aren’t specific enough. There are many different types of reading issues, just as there are different types of ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. There is no one answer that works for every child. His exams and treatments involve different types of auditory and visual stimulation for the right and left-brain.

Some kids with LDs have visual processing problems. Dr. Harold Friedman, chief of Vision Therapy and Rehabilitation Services at SUNY College of Optometry in New York City, explains that children must be evaluated by an experienced optometrist using accepted standardized testing. If it is discovered that their learning difficulty relates to a visual processing dysfunction, an individual therapy program is designed to help the child compensate. Less mainstream options are also worth looking into: behavior modification therapy, chiropractic neurology, the interactive metronome, homeopathic remedies, nutritional changes, biofeedback, and neurofeedback.

With ADD or ADHD, there is always a question as to whether medication is advisable. This is a very controversial issue. While Green agrees that some kids are medicated who don’t need to be, he thinks there are others who would do much better if they were prescribed medications such as  Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, or Strattera. When LDs or attention disorders are not properly diagnosed and treated, says Green, it can begin to erode the teen’s self-esteem. Medication should never be the sole treatment. Other strategies at school and home must be put into play to help the teen make changes.

The Self-Esteem Battle

Determining exactly what is going on with your teen—and learning how to work with it—is key. If you think your teen is lazy, you will treat her a certain way. But if you think she has a visual processing impairment, your patience and understanding may be greatly extended, as will your child’s.

Margaret K. of Hopewell, N.J., knows these issues well. Her daughter, Rebecca, was classified as special-ed in elementary school. Rebecca had a decoding problem, meaning she couldn’t translate a word from print to speech, and she couldn’t read at grade level. Rebecca got a little quieter in the eighth grade, and started hanging out with different kids. In high school, she still hangs out with people who aren’t a challenge to her academically and isn’t too involved in extracurricular activities at school.

But she’s very involved in her church and baking is her forte. Even though she wrote “collage” in her notes the day she went to the college fair at her high school, she plans to go. She’s considering Johnson & Wales, a culinary university that offers a four-year degree and has classes for LD students.

Rebecca, who tests as highly intelligent, has always considered herself “different,” but over the years, she’s grown into her strengths and, with her parents’ help, tries not to emphasize her limitations.

A few decades ago, kids used the term “retard” to make fun of kids with learning differences. These days, it’s “sped,” which is short for special ed. Teachers and parents add to the problem with something called “spread:” assuming the child will be weak in all areas when he or she has one learning problem (spreading it out).

“It’s simply no fun to be different,” says Dr. Arlyn Roffman, professor of special education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. “Conformity is at its peak in early adolescence. It’s no fun to struggle to work at things others find relatively easy. I’m afraid too often school systems—and often parents—focus on what students cannot do rather than on what they can.”

“I have yet to find a child, in all my years of working with them, that can’t learn,” says Dr. Carole Lampert Barrish, a New York educational psychologist. “We haven’t always unlocked the materials that they have to learn with, but the challenge is really ours.”

Parents of LD teens have a lot of sleuth work to do. Your child’s strengths, weaknesses, struggles, successes, treatments, and labels are all pieces of the puzzle you and your teen are putting together. As more pieces come into place, the big picture becomes easier to see. But it’s those details and your advocacy that bring it all together.

Common Learning Differences

  • All these learning differences are neurologically based; meaning something in the brain isn’t functioning at its highest level. Treatments try to change that, whether through medication or other therapies.
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Inability to pay attention, focus. ADHD kids are often impulsive, hyperactive, and act inappropriately for their age.
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD): The lack of focus and attention without the hyperactivity.
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD): Inability to process and interpret spoken words because the ear and brain aren’t connecting properly.
  • Decoding: Taking the written word and translating it into speech.
  • Dysgraphia: A processing disorder involving the motor movements needed to write letters or numbers, making it difficult to read, write, and speak.
  • Dyslexia: A processing disorder making it difficult to read, write, and speak.

Source: LDonline.org

Strategies for LD Teens

  • Help them be independent. Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic offers textbooks that let kids read along while they listen to someone else reading through a CD or MP3 player. Hearing the words spoken aloud can make a big difference in comprehension.
  • Help set the course for organization. A big desk calendar can help your teen plot down on paper each step between the assignment of a research paper and its due date. Write in pencil and factor in a catch-up day.
  • Teach teens the details of their learning difference. Understanding and being able to explain it will teach them to ask for the help they need.
  • Encourage them to get a job or volunteer. This helps with strengths and weaknesses and shows a child how to interact with a community.
  • Let them be in charge of their homework. It’s their job, not yours.
  • Get them involved in what they’re good at. Often, sports are a good outlet for energy and kids who struggle in school. If being a quarterback requires processing too much at once, try rock climbing. Music is also a wonderful outlet. If reading notes is a problem, find a teacher who teaches by sound and repeating melodies and chords.

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