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Signs of Possible Learning Disorders in Teens

Signs of Possible Learning Disorders in Teens


Roughly three million college or university students have some type of learning disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What is remarkable about this statistic is that many of these students go to school without even knowing they have a learning disability. But failing to diagnose a teen’s learning disability can make succeeding in school hard.

“When their academic workload increases and the work becomes harder, sometimes their learning impairment becomes crippling and they reach a breaking point,” said Joy App, a consultant in Houston, who works with students with learning differences.

Fortunately, there are many ways to compensate for learning challenges. Here are 11 signs that a teenager needs a professional evaluation:

1. Being disorganized. It can be puzzling why otherwise smart students seem incapable of keeping themselves on track even when they want to be. For instance, they might do homework but don’t turn it in. There can be so much going on in their head that they can’t differentiate things that truly matter from those that don’t.

2. Devoting too much time to school work. To compensate for a diagnosed or undiagnosed disability, teenagers can spend many hours a day on homework. The effort they are devoting to homework might be out of whack with the time it takes their friends and peers.

3. Fruitless studying. Teenagers might study and seemingly know the information for an exam and the next day they don't perform ideally on the test.

4. Poor handwriting. Teenagers’ writing can be so poor that they can’t read their notes. They also can seem clumsy or out of sync with their environment. Some teenagers can have dyspraxia, which is a brain-based condition that can affect their gross and fine motor skills.

5. Bad spelling. This might be overlooked or dismissed because of the ubiquitous spell checker, but it could be a sign of a language disorder.

6. Hates reading. They avoid reading whenever possible. It can be agonizing getting them to do their reading assignments. They might suffer from a reading disorder.

7. Open-ended questions are difficult. While they might be able to handle multiple choice questions, abstract concepts are challenging.

8. Short-term memory can be an issue.  While their long-term memory might be fine, they might not remember what you said 10 minutes ago. You shouldn’t necessarily dismiss this behavior as a child not paying attention.

9. Taking notes. Some students have issues with auditory processing, which makes it difficult to take notes.

10. Poor social skills. Teenagers with ADHD can make poor friend choices and have trouble keeping them.

11. Poor standardized test scores. A big tip that something is amiss can happen when teenagers take the PSAT, which is the precursor to the SAT, or ACT Aspire, the precursor to the ACT.

What To Do Next

1. Get tested. If you recognize any warning signs, it’s imperative that your child undergoes diagnostic testing, which commonly starts with the Wechsler Adult intelligence Scale (WAIS) test. The test is designed for individuals who are at least 16 years of age. After the testing, you’ll identify the child’s weaknesses and strengths.

2. Request testing accommodations. Testing has an extra benefit; once the results confirm a disability, it’s now much easier to receive testing accommodations for the PSAT, ACT and SAT subject tests.

The College Board, which was previously criticized for being stingy with testing accommodation approval, started automatically approving requests in 2017 if the student has a special education plan (IEP or 504) at their high school. The same policy applies to students at private schools who have a formal school-based plan. It’s unclear whether the ACT will adopt the same policy, but it will certainly be under pressure to do so.

3. Don’t get discouraged. Students react differently if they do receive a learning disability diagnosis. While some are upset, others are relieved because they finally have an explanation for their troubles.

Teenagers need to understand that coping with learning disabilities in a college or university can be easier than in high school because the social pressure largely doesn’t exist. Plenty of high school students with learning disabilities don’t want to use accommodation because of fear of what their peers might think or say. In a college or university, no one is going to call these students out.

Undergraduate students are generally more mature than high schoolers and they also are so focused on trying to keep their own head above water that they don’t have the energy to be worried about others. Nonetheless, research has suggested that only 17% or so of undergraduate students with disabilities actually take advantage of services.

4. Don’t share results until after acceptance. There is no reason to submit any diagnostic testing results to a school until a teenager has been accepted to the institution. After the student decides to enroll, you can tell the school about the disability and ask for reasonable accommodations.

5. Don’t make assumptions. You should not assume that children will grow out of their learning difference once they get to a college or university. Actually, the difference can become more challenging once they change their environment and move away from their support system.

“We are not going to change the way they learn, all we can do is support the way they learn," said Rachel Sobel, a consultant, who works exclusively with students with academic, social and emotional difficulties. “All we can do is accommodate them to their strength.” The goal is to provide the support they need to succeed despite their disability.

6. Motivation is hugely important. “The key I have seen over the years of working with learning disabled students is if they are motivated,” Sobel said. “If they want to be in school, they don’t have to be an A student. 99% of the time they aren’t failing kids. If a kid wants to go to school, there is a school for absolutely everyone.”

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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