Having a student with learning differences (LD) is both a wonderful gift and a challenging responsibility that can leave many parents feeling isolated. With dropout rates being nearly three times higher for LD students than the rest of their peers, it is only natural for parents to worry about how they can help their student(s) make it through to graduation.
So, what do parents need to know about helping LD students succeed in high school?
Believe it or not, success in high school doesn’t actually have a whole lot to do with a student’s LD. It really comes down to how well a student knows themselves and how they work with others to advocate for their needs.
The Two Paths To Navigating High School With Learning Differences
To illustrate the importance of advocacy and understanding for LD students, let’s talk about the two paths to navigating high school with learning differences.
Path #1: Blaming Failures on Learning Differences
One path is where a student’s academic failures are blamed on their learning differences.
It’s unfortunate when this happens. Navigating high school should not involve shaming or blaming failure on a student’s learning differences.
The reality is having different needs does not make students fail.
What blocks success is not getting those needs met.
For example, some students with ADHD might sit in the back of the classroom and end up not really paying attention to the classroom lesson. Then when they fail a big test, they think it is because of their learning difference.
But the student’s LD isn’t the real reason they had trouble with the course. It could be because they:
- Feel embarrassed about approaching their teacher to request the accommodations they need
- Don’t know what accommodations they need
- Might be taking classes that they should not be taking yet
Path #2: Advocating for LD Students’ Needs
We encourage LD students and families to take a different path when navigating high school that involves advocating for LD student’s needs.
According to the NCLD, students with LD are at risk for not persisting to graduation, because their learning environment is often lacking in some way.
However, a teacher can’t accommodate a student if they don’t know what they need.
Anyone with learning differences can succeed if they know what they need and ask for it.
These high schoolers want to learn and graduate from high school. They have the motivation, but they need support and a different learning plan from other students. They often thrive by individualizing their curriculum.
That’s why helping LD students succeed in high school starts with understanding them and their needs.
2 Steps to Start Understanding Your LD Teenager
Here 2 steps to start understanding your LD teenager and what they need to be successful.
Get the Diagnosis
The first step should be getting a definitive diagnosis, if they don’t have one already. This helps families:
- Understand the therapies or medications that are right for their teen
- Pinpoint what’s different about their teen so they can manage their differences throughout high school (and college!)
Students need to understand themselves in order to advocate for themselves. They often have so much potential to succeed beyond your expectations if they can understand their brain, what it needs, and how to ask for support.
Learn About Your Teenager’s Brain Chemistry
After you have a diagnosis, you can start to understand what is going on inside your teenager’s head. This can go a long way for helping LD students succeed in high school.
For example, learning differences and behaviors of students with ADHD are a lot about their brain chemistry and their dopamine in particular. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical in the brain. It is released when we feel rewarded by something. It plays an important role in:
- Boosting our mood
- Keeping us motivated
- Sustaining attention
- Regulating learning
But people with ADHD naturally have less dopamine in their brain. So they need to try harder than most of us to generate enough of it. This might be why so many teens with ADHD are drawn to video games. It helps their brain stimulate the release of dopamine.
Without understanding this brain chemistry, it is easy to see students who are drawn to video games over homework as defiant. But in reality, they are just seeking comfort and balancing their brain chemistry.
Try searching for information about your student’s particular learning differences, and the brain chemistry behind it. This can help:
- Your teenager feel more validated
- You understand the reasons behind your teen’s behavior
- Families avoid tumultuous arguments leading to negative relationships
Anticipate a Different Timeline
Another reason why we recommend parents understand their teen’s brain is because science suggests many LD students mature at a different pace than their peers.
Students with LD may be slower to develop frontal systems of the brain that help us plan our behavior.
For this reason, it might take some students longer than expected to complete their schooling. Never stop believing in your LD student! They will reach maturity and will succeed with the proper time and resources.
Tips for Helping LD Students Succeed In High School & Beyond
After getting a diagnosis and doing a little research, it’s time to start using that information to support your student and encourage them to start advocating for themselves too. Here are some tips for helping LD students succeed in high school and beyond!
Provide Nurture and Room for Failure
LD teens who are nurtured will find an environment they’ll thrive in. But in order for there to be nurturing, there has to be a good parent-child dynamic where you both try to understand each other in the best way possible.
Expect Some Resistance
Nurturing your teen can get a little more challenging as they approach the psycho-social period of late adolescence.
The steady developmental march toward adulthood may look like resistance to asking for and receiving help from adults. This is because this period of late adolescence is when teens focus on developing a separate identity from parents.
Parents need to teach their children who struggle with LD to manage their own learning before they hit the teen years. Otherwise, fights and disagreements can rev up and result in destructive, counterproductive behaviors for the student.
Room For Failure Means Room to Grow
It can be hard to let go and let your teen start advocating for themselves. Afterall, they might fail at first.
As a society and culture, we are all so afraid of failure. But failure is important to build resilience. Failing does not make your student a failure!
Students need to be allowed to fail early, so they can learn how to overcome situations in the future. They can take that resilience into adulthood!
Encourage LD Students to Work a Job Through School
Another tip for helping students with LD succeed in high school is to encourage them to work a job. The power of the workplace is huge.
Suggest your student intern at a local supermarket or a retail store. They can even have an unofficial job in middle school, such as bringing in the neighbor’s trash cans after trash pick-up day.
Having a job gives students a profound realization that they can create their own life after high school. It gives them something to look forward to!
Plus, many people with LDs function better in realistic situations rather than inside a classroom. At a job, they:
- Must punch in on time
- Receive training that makes realistic sense
- Get quick performance feedback
- Receive a paycheck (always a good thing)
This can all boost their self-esteem.
And if your teen decides they don’t like the specific job they are doing, it still tells them something important about themselves. No learning is ever lost!
Ensure LD Students Take Advantage of Their 504 Plan
In high school, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to students with LD. This allows them to receive:
- Supplementary aids
- Other services
This ensures their individual educational needs are met as adequately as those of students without LD.
Some students might shy away from their accommodations once they enter their teen years. Once again, this kind of push-back is a natural part of late adolescence. The desire to have control over their education is understandable. Give them some room for self-advocacy. Let them try to attempt their learning without accommodations if they request it.
If it doesn’t work out as planned, they can always re-establish those supports.
Build Some Scaffolding
Remember, you are not alone. Families have many supports available to them for helping their LD students succeed in high school, including:
- Learning Specialists
- School Psychologists
You can also reach out to our experts at Bright Futures Consulting who have experience mentoring LD students through high school into college.
These are all supports that help families build a scaffolding for their student. By combining several different kinds of support, if one falls off, they still have others holding them up.
With a solid scaffolding, your student will have the support they need to succeed.