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Teens and Learning: The Truth About Learning Disabilities

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What do Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Spielberg, and Justin Timberlake have in common? They all had a learning disability diagnosis.

Learning disabilities are not rare. On the contrary, one in five American children has learning or attention difficulties, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.  

Clearly, learning disorders have nothing to do with a person’s intelligence, IQ, or creativity. In fact, some people say that those with learning disabilities have a unique way of looking at the world that can help them achieve success.  

However, a learning disability (LD) can be hard on teen self-esteem—and there are already plenty of challenges for teens. Therefore, having to deal with a learning disorder can affect teen mood and behavior, as well as student motivation. 

“The biggest names you can think of when you think of any particular area in terms of discovery and changing the world … they all had a mental health diagnosis or a learning disability or sometimes both. However, there are very particular strengths that come along with these diagnoses, and knowing what they are allows you to look for and nurture that in your child.” 

—Gail Saltz, MD, author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius 

What Are Learning Disabilities? 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a learning disability in this way:

 A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.  

Risk factors for learning disabilities include: 

  • Genetics—genes that affect brain structure and chemistry can be inherited 
  • Toxin exposure—exposure to lead and other hazardous environmental substances
  • Trauma—childhood abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences increase the likelihood of an LD. 

Boys receive diagnoses for learning difficulties far more frequently than girls—at least four times as often. In addition, some experts theorize that boys with learning difficulties tend to exhibit more disruptive behavior than girls. Therefore, they often receive more frequent assessments and diagnoses.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Learning Disabilities

Types of Learning Disabilities 

Here are the main types of learning disorders. 

  • Dyslexia: trouble with reading and comprehension (the most common learning disability) 
  • Dysgraphia: Difficulty writing down thoughts, trouble with grammar 
  • Dyscalculia: problems with numbers and math skills, including making change and telling time 
  • Dyspraxia: Challenges with motor tasks, including hand-eye coordination and balance 
  • Auditory Processing Disorder: Difficulty translating sounds into coherent thoughts 
  • Visual Processing Disorder: Difficulty translating images into meaningful information. 

Moreover, the IDEA also classifies attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD), autism, and Asperger’s syndrome as learning disabilities.

 Signs of a Teen Learning Disability 

Here are a few signs that parents and teachers might notice if a teen is dealing with an LD.  

  • Extreme difficulty, dislike, or delay in writing and/or reading  
  • Withdrawal or aggressive behavior 
  • Having a hard time comprehending and organizing information  
  • Frustration or apathy toward school and classes 
  • Sloppy, disorganized schoolwork, and disorganization in general 
  • Problems with math skills 
  • Issues with remembering 
  • Trouble paying attention and following directions 
  • Poor coordination 
  • Difficulty with concepts related to time 
  • Unable to express themselves easily. 

However, a teen with some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily have a learning disability. Therefore, it can be very difficult to correctly diagnose a teen learning disorder, so an expert assessment is required.   

Dyslexia: The Most Common Learning Disability 

The most frequent learning disability diagnosis is for dyslexia. In fact, about 80 percent of learning disorders are diagnosed as dyslexia. The International Dyslexia Association classifies dyslexia as a neurological condition caused by the natural wiring of the brain.

Dyslexic people have difficulty with spelling, reading, recognizing words, and learning new vocabulary.

Other dyslexia symptoms include: 

  • Having a hard time understanding what people are saying 
  • Challenges in expressing themselves 
  • Difficulty understanding questions and following directions 
  • Trouble distinguishing left from right.  
Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities and Mental Health 

Researchers have found that children and adolescents with learning disabilities have high rates of mental health and behavioral problems. Because, learning difficulties often result in low self-esteem, which is a root cause of depression, substance abuse, and other mental health issues.  

Here are some of the main reasons why learning disabilities can lead to low self-esteem and other teenage challenges. 

Lack of a learning disability diagnosis

Unfortunately, if a doctor does not recognize an LD in a child or teen, they fail to receive the support they need to succeed. Consequently, they will continue to fail at school. Additionally, teachers and parents may scold or punish them for their behavior because they don’t understand what’s causing it. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities.   

Bullying or other social stressors

Because LDs are often associated with poor social skills, children and teens are more frequently bullied or teased by their peers. Or, they may have a hard time fitting in and feeling accepted. Moreover, a national survey on school discipline conducted by Children and Adults with ADHD showed that about 32 percent of kids with ADHD are encouraged by their peers to act out and get into trouble.  

Dropping out of school

 Teens with learning disabilities are more likely to drop out of school. In fact, the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report found that students with disabilities graduate from high school at a rate of 61.9 percent, nearly 20 points behind the national average. Unfortunately, once teenagers drop out of school, the risks of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and illegal activity all increase. In fact, one study found that half of young adults with learning disabilities had been involved at some point with the justice system. Furthermore, experts believe that low self-esteem and stigma help explain why young adults with learning disabilities—who are as smart as their peers—enroll in four-year colleges at half the rate of all young adults.  

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Learning Disabilities

Learning Alternatives for Teens 

Fortunately, IDEA guarantees free special education in public schools for all children with an LD who are between the ages of three and 21. However, a public school environment is not always the right approach for a teen with a learning disability or ADHD disability.  

Not all public schools are able to provide the kind of support a child or teen with learning difficulties needs. While one in five children in the US have learning and attention issues, only one in 16 public school students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for specific learning disabilities, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. 

However, there are many alternative education options for teens with LDs. And, alternative public schools and private schools designed for students with learning disabilities exist around the country. Other than an alternative school, a tutor can be helpful for a teen with an LD. In addition, homeschooling works well for some families, if parents are committed to educating themselves about what their child or teen needs in order to learn better.  

School alternatives often inspire unmotivated to learn. Student discipline is improved when teens care about what they’re learning and teachers recognize their gifts.  

Ways to Support a Teen with Learning Disabilities 

Many teen challenges can be allayed with the help of sensitive and compassionate parents and teachers. 

Focus on strengths.

Every teen has something they’re good at, whether it’s art, writing, sports, or being a good friend to others. Help teens recognize and appreciate their strengths. Therefore, they will build self-confidence and self-esteem.   

Create routines and structure.

Children and teens with LDs often experience severe disorganization. Often, they need ways to structure both time and space. Create clear routines and schedules for what needs to be done when, and set up easy-to-use storage and work spaces to promote clarity and organization.  

Empower them to make choices about their learning.

Because they find learning difficult, teens with LDs may have a hard time making decisions about what they want to do. Put the power in their hands by encouraging them to do things they love and that make them feel empowered—such as cooking, building something, or making their own movie. 

Seek expert guidance.

Most importantly, reach out to professionals in the fields of education, behavior, and mental health. There is help and information available to support teens in doing what they love and becoming their best selves.   

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: Learning Disabilities


Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Feb 2006, 12 (2) 130-138. 

J Learn Disabil. 2003 Jul-Aug;36(4):336-47. 

National Center for Learning Disabilities  

National Center for Special Education Research 

Learning Disabilities Association of America 

National Institutes of Health  

Children and Adults with ADHD 

2015 Building a Grad Nation Report