When Teens Struggle to Learn: Bright Tips for Parents

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Middle school and high school years are tough for all teens, but for any who struggle to learn, these school years can be a nightmare both academically and socially. By the time these downtrodden young people hit middle school and high school, they’ve already had several years of learning struggles.

They’ve also had a number of years experiencing frustration, embarrassment, academic defeat and disappointment related to their learning struggles. And if that wasn’t enough, they often have low self-esteem, low or no motivation for learning and feelings of despair. They’ve had too many years of defeat with little or no success.

Students who struggle in school typically have a learning difference. A learning difference doesn’t mean a learning disorder or a learning disability. It simply means that they have a different way of learning academic subjects. Unfairly, many educators and parents have interpreted “different” to be negative or somehow wrong, rather than what it is: different!

Students with learning differences are typically bright and can excel in other academic areas, but struggle or fail with foreign languages, reading, writing and math. The problem most of the time is that schools’ teaching methods and st‌yles aren’t modified to mesh with a teen’s specific learning st‌yle. That’s when they end up struggling so hard to learn.

The stakes are even higher for middle and high school students because of academic and social pressures. After years of academic struggle, teens with learning differences may appear to parents and educators to have a bad attitude or lack motivation. This often isn’t the case.

These are students who haven’t experienced enough academic success to have confidence in learning. They’re unable to experience the joy of learning that their non-struggling peers experience. Homework hassles, negative self-talk, low motivation, withdrawal, back talking, irritability, non-compliance or disobedience are all reflections of years of ongoing struggle and a lack of success. After years of not grasping lessons and content—although they’ve tried their hardest—leaves them feeling defeated. They’ve had too many years of struggle and failure and not enough success and joy to balance it out. Oftentimes, they just give up.

Confidence and joy are to a young person’s positive development as air is to life. This is particularly true for teens with learning differences. The adults in their lives must figure out how teens with learning differences can learn—because they want to learn! They’re just afraid of more struggle, failure or despair.

When the teaching methods used for struggling learners aren’t working for these bright teens, it’s time to change the strategy and figure out how to help them to learn and be successful! Parents of teens with learning differences can help them realize success the BRIGHT™ way:

Build confidence and joy by recognizing that a learning difference is not a disability or a disorder. It’s not the teen’s fault that he or she has a learning difference. As a parent, assure your teen that you know he or she is smart, respected and valued.

Recognize that your teen has a learning difference and let your teen know that you’re okay with it. Recognize your teen’s natural gifts and talents and how to best use them to build learning successes. Together with your teen, recognize learning st‌yles that work best and result in success—and make for a confident and happy learner.

Identify key professionals and educators who can work with you and your teen to build academic, social and emotional success. You may want to seek professional counseling with experts in the area of learning differences. Form a “success team” for your teen that may include parents, teachers, counselors, tutors, therapists and employers who all collaborate together for your teen’s success.

Get your teen involved in activities that allows him or her to explore new learning that feels “safe” and successful. Seek out fun, stimulating and engaging learning opportunities that can tap into your teen’s natural talents and strengths so that he or she can “shine” and experience confidence and joy.

Honor, respect, celebrate and share your teen’s natural gifts and talents so that others can also value and appreciate his or her contributions to activities they’re involved in. Participate in inclusive communities or groups where all teens are encouraged to use their natural gifts for the good of others and who can experience success, confidence and joy.

Teach others about learning differences—what they are and what they’re not. Help others to understand that these young people are bright and talented, but have a different way of learning. Let others know these teens can achieve lifelong success given the right teaching methods and learning opportunities.

All teens with learning differences want the same outcomes as their peers: success, confidence and happiness. Helping them get there leads to confident and happy adults.

Dr. Deborah Ross-Swain & Dr. Elaine Fogel Schneider
Tinybeans Voices Contributor

Dr. Deborah Ross-Swain is a licensed speech-language pathologist and CEO of the Swain Center for Listening, Communicating and Learning. Dr. Elaine Fogel Schneider is CEO of TouchTime International. Drs. Swain and Schneider’s new book, Confidence & Joy, provides parents with tools to help children with learning differences realize lifelong success.

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