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Troubled Teens or Learning Different?

Troubled Teens or Learning Different?

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Updated on Mar 5, 2009

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.’”

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