Does My Teen Have a Learning Disability?



“Am I a terrible mom?” Carson’s mother wondered, watching her son struggle through another chapter of his tenth grade literature book. None of the half-dozen homeschool curriculums she’d tried through the years seemed to work. Getting Carson to study was still like pulling teeth.

His intelligence definitely wasn’t the problem: Carson’s IQ was 110, on the higher side of normal. “Maybe his dad can talk to him about work ethic,” she mused. “Then again, Carson studies for hours, and it doesn’t seem to help.” She sighed, sinking into a chair. “I’m just trying to give my son a good education. What am I missing?”

Is your teen getting more and more lost in high school? Have you wondered if there’s more behind their frustration than difficult coursework and too many late nights?

Believe it or not, a learning disorder could be the culprit.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability occurs when a person’s brain manages information in a different way than other people do, complicating and slowing down their learning. About 4 million American school children have diagnosed learning disabilities, varying from mild to severe.

The most common kinds of learning disorders are:

  • Dyslexia, trouble with reading and comprehension. (Dyslexia encompasses 80% of diagnosed learning disabilities.)

  • Dysgraphia, difficulty with forming and recording written thoughts.

  • Dyscalculia, a challenge with numbers and math skills.

  • Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that makes it hard for children to translate sounds into coherent thoughts.

  • Visual Processing Disorder, difficulty translating images into meaningful information.

How could I miss my teen’s learning disability for so long?

If they have an undiagnosed learning disorder, your student has probably been using their scholastic strengths to compensate. Students often compensate by:

  • writing sloppily to cover up spelling problems

  • adopting a lazy demeanor to cover up lack of skill

  • making you believe he can do a task when he really can’t

  • memorizing information to make up for not being able to calculate or read it

  • recognizing context and patterns to get right answers

  • picking up knowledge from TV, social interaction, or other sources outside school

What are signs of a learning disability in my high school student?

Some symptoms of learning disabilities are:

  • Exaggerated difficulty, dislike, or delay in writing, reading or computing (think back to early education as well)

  • Withdrawal or “acting out"

  • Inconsistent learning

  • Disconnect between reading and comprehension OR comprehension and expression

  • Difficulty with mental fact organization (i.e., can’t remember facts or connections between facts)

  • Frustration or apathy toward school

  • Extreme disorganization or sloppy work

Of course, just because a student may be frustrated with a class or have poor handwriting, doesn’t mean they have a learning disability. But, especially if several signs are present at once, this list can help you uncover the truth.

Do I need to get my student tested and into a therapy program?

Ultimately, the only way to know for sure that your teen has a learning disorder is to get them tested. Specialists use an array of tests to pinpoint the kind of learning disorder that your student has, enabling you to focus on the best education and therapy options for their unique needs.

Many parents are reluctant to have their student “labeled” or prefer not to involve doctors, but that is not always the best thing for either you or your teen. Especially if your student has severe learning problems, it may be wise to seek outside help.

One significant reason to seek help sooner rather than later is that in K-12, the educational system generally takes more responsibility to diagnose and help a student with a learning disability. In college however, the burden increasingly falls on the student to document their learning disability and request an "accommodation."

An accommodation is a term used to describe the exceptions a school may make on behalf of a student with a documented learning disability. These accommodations can include things like more time to take an exam, an alternate assignment, or someone to read questions to them. Getting tested and helped early not only maximizes the help available, but it also means your child enjoys more years of success in their learning.

You have two testing options, public testing or private testing.

Public Testing:

Public testing is free to public school students. If your teen is in a public school, you can simply contact the school and request testing under the IDEA legislation.

Note: While free public testing is legally available to all qualifying taxpayers (including those who choose homeschool or private school), disputes and attendance requirements can make it a big hassle for homeschool families. Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) recommends that homeschoolers should not seek public testing for their students.

Private Testing:

Private testing is available through specialists such as clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. (Medical insurance does usually not cover testing for learning disabilities, so this option can be quite expensive.)

To find a private specialist, ask for a recommendation from your family doctor, call a medical clinic, or search online for a local specialist to set up an initial visit.

If my child does have a learning challenge, what’s next?

If you chose public testing, you can also get free therapy through the public school system. If you went the private route, private therapists are also available to work with your teen. Usually, they will help with what they call "interventions" as part of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

If, after weighing all your options, you don’t want or can’t afford professional testing, you still have diagnosis and treatment options:

  • Books and websites offer a world of diagnosis and educational resources, including quizzes to pinpoint a learning disability. The Complete Learning Disabilities Handbook is another helpful tool.

  • Experiment with different teaching methods to find what works well for your student. For example, some families have found great success with reading, writing, and grammar struggles using the Stevenson Program. The program uses mnemonics, rhymes, and other techniques to help students get around a "mental roadblock."

  • If finances allow, private academic therapists provide intensive, informed learning therapy.

  • If you don’t feel able to teach your student yourself, but can’t afford a therapist, you may be able to hire a tutor familiar with learning disabilities. Teachers willing to put in after-school hours, local reading classes, or homeschool co-ops may be good places to start.

Experts acknowledge that even very involved parents can miss a student’s learning problems. Don’t feel bad if you are only beginning to suspect a learning disability in your teen.

As you and your student discover the best way to face their challenges, be encouraged! Scholars believe many famous people, including General George Patton, inventor Thomas Edison, and renowned writer Agatha Christie, struggled with learning disorders. Through their brilliance and hard work, they overcame their difficulties and each made an unforgettable impression on the world.

With determination, your student can do the same.

Special thanks to private academic therapist Marlee Joynes, whose gracious answers helped me fill this post with practical guidance and so many invaluable details.


If Shelbie has a cup of tea, a good book, or a deep conversation, she is a happy camper. With a background in accounting, classical music, and blogging, she believes learning is one of life's greatest adventures.