A-Z Teen Health Glossary

Teen Learning Differences & Academic Challenges

It’s extremely common for teens that are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse issues to be struggling academically, as well. However, sometimes, a teen’s struggles academically are not just a sign of stress, but a potential learning disability as a co-occurring disorder. Most of the time, however, the academic struggles are a result of the mental illness or substance abuse issues. Regardless of why your teen might be struggling in school, we strive to provide special support and assistance to students to help them recover academically, as an important aspect of their recovery.

What Do Teen Learning Differences Look Like?

  • For students with learning disabilities, school-related stress can start as early as pre-school and kindergarten.  Where other children will be experiencing success and accomplishments with reading, writing, drawing, and speaking, kids with a learning disability can be left behind with feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
  • Though many children learn ways of accommodating for the different ways in which their brains process information (by asking their neighbor, cheating, copying homework, relying on rote memorization, talking rather than writing, etc.), these adaptations easily can be overwhelmed by the increasing demands of the classroom or can be seen as behavioral problems.
  • As the child becomes a teen, the learning disability, particularly undiagnosed, and the related or adaptive behaviors become increasingly difficult to catch, and what started as a learning disability can turn into anxiety or depression, as well.
  • Learning disabilities are not a measure of intelligence nor are they intellectual disabilities. Children with learning disabilities have just as much of a chance to be smart as other kids but struggle to process information in the right way. Their intellect may be superior to most, but the ways in which the teen’s brain receives, interprets, stores, and responds to information may be very different, causing academic failure, frustration, and problems.

Signs of Teen Learning Differences

Problems with reading/writing

Struggles with basic math

Poor memory capacity

Easily distracted


Using short sentences, reading/speaking slowly

Using short sentences, reading/speaking slowly

Different Types of Teen Learning Differences

Learning disabilities manifest in many different ways, and they are each a unique problem in and of themselves. Some children can make up for their learning disability in very unique and creative ways, masking their problems until the demands of school become too strong. Others struggle from a very early age and continue to have trouble with processing a very specific type of information, despite average or above-average intelligence in other subjects. A few types of teen learning differences include:

Information Processing Disorders (Auditory, Sensory, or Visual) – these disorders manifest in children very early on and altogether change or affect the way they process a certain type of information. To be a diagnosed with a processing disorder, a doctor first has to determine that a child isn’t struggling with a different learning disorder, intellectual disorder, attention disorder, or a form of impaired vision/hearing/feeling.

Dyslexia – dyslexia most often presents itself as a reading disorder, specifically in children who have trouble comprehending the difference between certain written words, as well as concepts and sentences.

Dysgraphia – this disorder affects the way children write, either simply through exceedingly poor penmanship, or through trouble with putting thoughts to paper. Dysgraphia is diagnosed through motor problems as well as information processing, such as having trouble with spatial planning of letters, inconsistent sizes in handwriting, poor spelling, and short, incomplete sentences or words.

Dyscalculia – children with dyscalculia have an especially hard time comprehending concepts related to numbers. Aside from just math, this also affects a child’s ability to understand time, budgeting, distance, sequences, scheduling, logistics, and other advanced concepts of math in everyday use. Tricks and teaching tips that might help some students better visualize or understand numbers will often fail in a student with dyscalculia.

Dyspraxia – dyspraxia, otherwise known as a developmental coordination disorder or DCD, is first characterized through extreme clumsiness, both physically and mentally. Children and adults with dyspraxia struggle with coherent thoughts, planning, and physical coordination including dancing, jumping, or precise tasks like cutting, tying shoelaces, etc.

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Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm Malibu

What Causes Teen Learning Differences?

Scientists currently believe that learning disabilities and differences are caused by very subtle disturbances during the brain’s developmental stages, causing problems in the way the brain is structured, and thus perceives information. Possible factors include:

Environmental factors – this is primarily malnutrition, environmental poisoning through pollution or radiation, and prenatal healthcare. Vaccines and TV haven’t shown to cause any learning disabilities. Adopted children may struggle in school if their mother was very sick or if they hadn’t received proper care and nutrition before being adopted.

Medical factors – drug use during pregnancy, diabetes and obesity in the mother/father, meningitis, or viral infection in the parent and/or offspring, as well as a premature birth can all affect a child’s development.

Genetic factors – some learning disabilities are potentially hereditary, increasing a child’s likelihood of struggling with learning disabilities the more often they occur within a family’s medical history.


of teens with LD dropped out of high school


of parents believe that proper teaching can help kids make up for LDs


of kids with LDs were suspended or expelled from school in 2011

How Can I Help My Teen with their Learning Differences?

Work with educators and the school – your teen can continue through school and get their degree but may require the help of his or her educators to do so. Schools have come a long way to recognize and work with parents and children with special needs, but some are too afraid to come forward due to concerns of bullying and discrimination. It may be hard to be a teen with a learning disability, but with the help of mental health professionals, a skilled counselor, and patient educators, your teen can make it through this part of their life and be ready to adjust to the workforce through rehab.

Help your teen seek vocational rehab – vocational rehabilitation can help countless young adults with learning differences take up their part in the workforce and contribute to society, while supporting themselves and whatever dreams they may have. While people have become generally accepting of dyslexia, there are other disabilities that continue to hold teens and adults back at the workforce, and most of them are worried to tell their employers about their difficulties. However, through vocational rehabilitation, they can explore ways to do their best and navigate around the issues presented by their condition.

Advocate for your teen – many children with learning differences are still thrown out of school or are at higher risk for disciplinary punishment despite doing their best to learn at the pace they’re capable of. The majority of the American public is aware of the fact that teens with learning disabilities have the potential to be just as smart as anyone else, but that they simply struggle to process information in the same way as most children. Despite that, teens with learning disabilities still do not face the same prospects as other teens. With the right help, however, they can live fulfilling and productive lives as part of society. But first, society needs to realize how to help in order to tap into the untapped potential of millions of American children incapable of fully utilizing their skills out in the workforce, and at schools across the country. You can do your part to advocate for these children and make a difference for your teen and their peers.

What Type of Help Is Available?

Learning disabilities are separate from academic troubles caused by other mental health conditions, but in both cases, help is available for teens who are struggling to find work or finish school due to their mental health.

When co-dependent conditions are addressed, and learning disabilities are properly identified and treated, your teen will begin to find ways to fit into society and generally feel better about themselves. Teens with LDs have typically endured years of ridicule and bullying, which can develop into a very low self-esteem. It takes a long time to grow out of that but taking the first step towards treatment is important.

Talk Therapy

Therapists work with teens to help them recognize what they have been and may be experiencing because of their learning disability, school work, responses to and ways of coping with stress, and their unmet needs. These are many things that have to be unpacked, but it’s all important for treatment. Many times, teens aren’t necessarily aware of the help they need until they receive it or until they’ve had a chance to explore their needs in an unthreatening, supportive setting.

In an effort to empower teens to better manage their LDs and school, therapists work with a teen to explore their experiences and feelings, identify destructive habits, and develop new, healthier coping behaviors.

Academic Support and Tutoring

It is important to work with teens within the scope of our academic support programs, and to strive to help teens gain confidence in who they are as students and what they’re capable of, as well as being comfortable with asking for and receiving the help that they need. That often involves helping teens through professional tutoring, in order to help them learn at their own pace in a way that simply isn’t possible within a conventional classroom setting.

Vocational Rehabilitation

For teens entering the workforce, vocational rehabilitation and employment can help them cope with their learning disabilities and find work that they can perform as good as anyone, or even better. Oftentimes, helping someone with a learning disability fit into society simply means helping them recognize, discover, and fill out a role they can perform without facing the same daily struggles they’ve had to face throughout the average schooling program. Through vocational training, regular counseling and help with skills development and job placement, teens can find work no matter what challenges they may be facing. There are several government-sponsored vocational rehabilitation programs across the country.

Helping Teens with Learning Differences at Paradigm Malibu

Paradigm Malibu is a dedicated treatment facility for teens struggling with a wide range of different healthcare challenges. Learning disabilities are a unique challenge for many teens because, like other mental health issues, they’re not something that can simply be removed from a teen’s identity or personality. Rather than “cure” the learning difference, it’s important to help a teen find ways to work through it, around it, or with it. Differences in learning are not indicative of a lack of intellect, wit, or capability, and many teens with LDs can be astoundingly capable of improvisation and quick thinking. Nonetheless, they need guidance, especially at this stage in their lives. That is what we provide at Paradigm Malibu.

The Right Help

For teenagers with learning disabilities and/or specific academic challenges, we at Paradigm Malibu provide one-on-one tutoring with university tutors, who can help students work through assignments in a focused setting, and at the student’s pace. For students with learning differences, we understand that the classroom can often be a stressful setting, where they feel intimidated, overwhelmed, anxious, or possibly even incapable. Though all students will engage in small classes in their time here, the tutoring sessions are made available to supplement these group lessons.

Regular Therapy

Along with assisting students in working through curriculum and helping them to understand the material, Paradigm Malibu also has teens work with therapists to help them recognize what sorts of stress they might experience because of school work, how they react to that stress, and what their needs are.

In an attempt to help empower students not only to succeed academically, but also better manage their stress at school, therapists work with teens to break old negative habits and develop new ones.

“ This is no ordinary rehab. The people who work at Paradigm are so compassionate, genuine and kind. So grateful for all the help they have given my family. “

– K G.

Frequently Asked Questions About Learning Differences & Academic Challenges

How can residential treatment help a teen with a learning disability?

Teens who have been assessed and have received an accurate diagnosis of a learning disability feel relief to have a name for what they experience; but it doesn’t really change the struggles they’re facing. Assessed or unassessed, by the time a child with LDs reaches adolescence, most teens will have faced a harrowing level of bullying and mistreatment, as well as a series of misunderstandings and embarrassments inside and outside of the classroom.

Residential treatment helps teens place themselves in a better environment to unpack what it means to be a young adult with a learning difference, and to find ways to cope with that in a way that lets them be a part of society in a way they never were, and to completely unveil their fullest potential both academically and in the workplace.

My younger child is struggling with speaking and isn’t learning how to talk as fast as other kids. Could they have a learning disability?

Sometimes, children with early language difficulties may be diagnosed with a learning disability, an intellectual disability, or a form of autism. And other times, they’re simply developing at a slower pace in this stage of their life but aren’t yet sure to experience any other difficulties growing up. It’s difficult to tell very early on what your child will and won’t struggle with, so some psychiatrists will advise parents to take up a wait-and-see approach. There are preschool programs, however, meant to help identify if children of just a few years of age have certain mental conditions.

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