The transition to high school from elementary school can be stressful for any youngster, but it's even more so for the young teen who's coping with a learning disability (LD). It's difficult for his parents, too. If your child's disability was diagnosed early and is being dealt with at his public school, you both might fear the effects of his entering the unfamiliar environment of high school with new teachers and different expectations. Discuss your concerns and questions with the professional staff at the current school or at the school board during his final year. Go with him to the orientation evening for new students at the local high school and check out the resources available. Find out how classes are adapted to respond to the needs of students with particular learning disabilities and what resources will be available for your teen.
A child's learning disability is usually identified in kindergarten and the primary grades, but some disabilities become more obvious in junior high and high school -- particularly in mathematics and problem solving which require the ability to remember and apply the memorized material. In high school, teens face an increased amount of written work, and the demand on their capacity to remember or memorize in several different subjects increases. Although problems may have first appeared when your child was in grades five and six, they might not have been as severe. Students with this disability have a history of poor handwriting, some difficulty learning to spell, and messy or incomplete notebooks. Or they may find science classes fascinating and have no trouble understanding scientific concepts, but they falter when faced with memorizing the vocabulary of biology or the formulas in chemistry. Difficulty learning a second language can also be an indication of a learning disability.
Look for help
If you are concerned that your teen may have a learning disability, check with your family doctor to rule out any physical health problems. She may also be familiar with the assessment process used within the local school boards. The assessment usually involves educators in the student's school, a counsellor from the school, and an educational psychologist with the board. If the school board has a waiting list of two or three months, your doctor might know whether the child development clinic at a nearby hospital or university conducts these assessments. Weigh the costs and time involved against time lost until your child's turn on the school board's waiting list.
The advantage of the formal assessment through the school or school board is that the identification of a learning disability usually entitles the student to special education help. Your teen's teachers and guidance counsellor and others in the school or board can provide the remedial and tutoring options needed. They can also suggest what coping and learning strategies might benefit your child. Some high schools accommodate learning disabled students by allowing students to tape-record classes, by offering extended time for completing tests or exams, and by providing different, less-crowded rooms for writing them.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
Kids with learning disabilities need not have lower expectations than their peers. They can still achieve their academic goals, although they may require a longer time; for example, taking a smaller class load each year and spending an extra year to get their high-school diploma. In some provinces, colleges and universities also offer special services and resources to these students. A learning disability doesn't fade with time, but a person who develops strategies for offsetting the disability will improve his learning abilities as he matures.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the expanded term that encompasses what was once called attention deficit disorder (ADD), one of whose characteristics was hyperactivity. It is rare for it to be diagnosed as late as adolescence, but it's fairly common for the disorder to continue throughout adolescence and into adulthood. How it manifests itself may change during adolescence -- what once appeared as hyperactivity may evolve into a constant need to be busy and a feeling of restlessness. In about 60 per cent of cases, the original characteristics of the disorder continue, causing difficulty both for the teens and for those around them. But a child who responded well to Ritalin, the most common medication, may continue with this medication as a high school student.
Whether your child has been dealing with a learning disability for several years or the diagnosis is new, as a teen he must learn gradually to shoulder responsibility for requesting help when needed, for recognizing his personal responsibility for learning and implementing the life skills and learning strategies that will carry him into adulthood. It's still important for you to develop and support your teen's strengths. If he has an aptitude for sports or music or art, the pleasure he gains from successes in these fields will boost his self-esteem and give him added strength to surmount other obstacles.
Students with learning disabilities will find that these tips help them cope. All students who are in transition from integrated studies in one classroom with one or few teachers to distinct subject classes with several teachers will find these suggestions helpful. Use an agenda book or a small lined calendar book to organize your time and list your homework and assignments.
• Sit near the front, close to the teacher and away from the distractions out the windows.
• Use an expanding file folder or one large binder with dividers and a three-hole punch to organize handouts and homework papers in subject categories.
• Enrol in classes to acquire skills in computer use, particularly keyboarding and word processing. Computer programs offer real help for students with learning disabilities in writing and mathematics.
• Consider acquiring a home computer and word processing software for use in writing and research. A laptop computer would allow a teen with a learning disability to take notes during classes or at the library.
• Learn to use the spell checker in the word-processing program on the computer; if you don't have a computer, check out the usefulness of a hand-held spell checker or dictionary.
• If handwriting is a problem and you don't have a computer, ask a friend who takes good notes if you can photocopy them.
• Use a highlighting pen to emphasize the main ideas in photocopies of materials or in the textbooks that you own.
• Tape-record classes or dictate your notes about the research you've been doing so that you can input them later.
• Try to enrol in classes with teachers who adapt their instructional style to the needs of their students.
• Focus on developing skills in self-evaluation and self-editing.
• Write information in notebooks in a way that reflects your personal learning style. Arrange material in hierarchical format with headings and subheadings, using ruled note paper; use blank note paper to sketch out some kinds of information graphically.
• Colour-code your notebooks to help you organize them and to find them quickly in your locker.
• Keep a vocabulary notebook to list the words you most often misuse or misspell (for example, who's, whose) and note details or examples of their proper use.
• Learn the techniques of brainstorming and outlining plans for a project before beginning your first draft of a writing assignment. Be prepared to edit, get a peer review, and revise what you write through two to six more drafts before printing out the final version.
• Use stick-on notes or tabs to mark book pages temporarily during research; use them to write brief notes to be consolidated later.
• When studying a textbook or reference book, read a section of text at least three times.
1. Get an overview of the topic by reading the headings, skimming the body of text, looking at the graphics and captions, reading any summaries, and noting your questions.
2. Read the text a second time, concentrating fully and keeping in mind your initial questions and any study guide questions already provided for you.
3. With the third reading, try to answer all your own questions during homework.
• Take 5- to 10-minute breaks every 45 minutes or hour to stretch your whole body.
• Ask your teachers for help when you need it.
Developing social skills
Some kids with learning disabilities need specific instruction in socially acceptable behaviour. The adults in their lives can help by describing social behaviours, modelling those behaviours, and role-playing with them to provide practice. Some schools may offer classes, or the guidance counsellors may have information about such classes in the community. There are summer day-camp programs that are designed for kids with learning disabilities and that teach social skills in an engaging setting. Your local Y or Boys and Girls Club of Canada is likely to offer something similar.
Kids who fear failure are reluctant to join group activities. Parents can help by asking the coach or instructor if their teen can attend a couple of sessions or practices as an observer or helper to give him a chance to overcome his reluctance. Encouraging your teen to sign up for a sports team or another group activity gives him the chance to interact casually with peers. Alternatively, your teen might offer her own skills to coach or tutor a younger child.
Excerpted from Understanding Your Teen: Ages 13 to 19 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.