Teen Learning Differences & Academic Challenges

Mental health and substance abuse issues are a common cause of academic struggles in teens. Some teens struggle academically as a result of coexisting disorders, like learning disabilities. In most cases, trouble at school is a result of a mental health struggle or a substance abuse disorder. No matter why your teen is struggling, our goal is to help not only with their physical and mental recovery, but with getting academics back on track as well.

What Do Teen Learning Differences Look Like?

  • Learning disabilities can start at a very young age, even during pre-K and kindergarten levels. Young students can easily become frustrated when they see their peers advancing but feel they themselves are left behind.
  • Younger children find ways to adapt. They will frequently copy work, memorize information, talk, or even cheat. These techniques become more difficult to keep up with as they age and classroom demands change. They can also be construed as behavior issues.
  • Learning disabilities become more difficult to catch as a child grows older. They also create increased feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Learning disabilities do not impact intellect. Children with learning disabilities simply have trouble processing information, but can still be incredibly smart; they may even be intellectually superior. They simply have problems processing information, whether it’s in the way it is received, interpreted, stored, or responded to on their part.

Signs of Teen Learning Differences

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Reading and writing delays

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Difficulty with math

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Short-term memory issues

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Issues with distractibility

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Clumsiness or accidents

Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

Slow, labored speech

Different Types of Teen Learning Differences

Every learning disability is unique and each manifests differently. Children are incredibly good at adapting, often finding very creative ways to mask the troubles they are having in the classroom. These techniques tend to work when they are younger, but become more difficult to maintain as they get older and school becomes more difficult. Many children excel in most subjects and find they have trouble with a specific type of information. Some of the ways learning disabilities manifest include:

Information Processing Disorders (Auditory, Sensory, or Visual) – These disorders are often seen early in life and include issues with one type of information. A doctor will need to rule out physical impairments with hearing, feeling, or vision. They’ll also need to rule out intellectual difficulties, ADD/ADHD, or other learning disorders.

Dyslexia – Most children with dyslexia appear to have a reading disorder. Children will have trouble telling the difference between specific words and may have difficulty processing phrases and written concepts.

Dysgraphia – Children with dysgraphia have trouble writing. A child may have trouble physical writing, resulting in difficult-to-read penmanship, or they may have trouble moving concepts from thought to paper. You’ll also notice spatial issues, including incomplete sentences, inconsistent letter sizing, and problems with spelling.

Dyscalculia – Children with this disorder have a tough time with numbers, but their problems aren’t limited to math class. They will have issues with logistics, finances, and even telling time, as well as any daily concept that involves math or numbers. Traditional math “tricks” won’t help students with dyscalculia.

Dyspraxia – Also known as DCD, this is a developmental disorder that impacts coordination. Children are physically and mentally clumsy and have trouble forming coherent thoughts or doing physical activities that involve coordinated or precise movements.

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Teen Learning Differences | Paradigm San Francisco

What Causes Teen Learning Differences?

While not 100 percent certain, scientists believe learning disabilities are a result of disruptions that occur while the brain is developing. These disturbances alter the structure of the brain, therefore impacting the way it is able to receive and process information. Other factors may include:

Environmental Factors – These include things like environmental toxins (radiation, pollution), prenatal health, and malnutrition. There is no relationship between teen learning differences and television exposure or vaccines. Children who are adopted may have been neglected before adoption, leading to learning disabilities.

Medical Factors –  The mother’s health and lifestyle during pregnancy, including drug abuse, obesity, and uncontrolled diabetes may impact the way a child’s brain develops. Meningitis, viral infections, and premature birth are also factors to consider.

Genetics - It is possible that some learning disorders are hereditary. Children are more likely to have a learning disability if a parent has one as well.


of teens with learning disabilities end up dropping out


of parents think they can out-teach learning disabilities


of children with learning disabilities were expelled or suspended in 2011

How Can I Help With Teen Learning Differences?

Work With the School – Teens and parents are often afraid to tell the school about their struggles because they fear bullying. Schools have made major progress in the way they work with children with learning disabilities and most teachers are more than happy to work with their students. It’s not easy to live with a learning disability, but a strong support network made up of a good mental health team, excellent teachers, and a supportive family can see a teen through high school and into the work world.

Research Vocational Rehab – Vocational rehab programs offer those with learning disabilities opportunities to work and function in adult society. Some learning disorders, like dyslexia, are easier to work with than others. Vocational rehab programs help teens learn to work around their specific challenges.

Be an Advocate – A lot of teens with learning disabilities are misunderstood, commonly labeled as having behavioral issues when they can’t keep up. Stand up for your teen so they are not improperly disciplined in instances where they should be supported. Teens struggling with learning disabilities can be incredibly smart and talented, merely needing help and guidance. They are capable of living productive lives, especially if they are surrounded by people who recognize their potential enough to help them learn to harness their skills.

What Type of Help is Available?

The academic problems caused by learning disabilities are not quite the same as those caused by mental health disorders, but teens with either problem can successfully receive an education.

The key is to identify a learning disability and/or any coexisting disorders. The right diagnosis will ensure your teen receives the treatment necessary to better integrate into society. Teens with learning disabilities often have low self-esteem, not only from their own frustrations but because they are often victims of bullying.

Talk Therapy

Therapists work with teens to help them better understand how their learning disabilities have been impacting their lives. They help them to better understand their needs, how they have and have not been met, and how to better cope with related stressors. It’s important for a teen to grasp the entirety of their situation so they can understand why they need help. It’s easier to help a teen explore and evaluate their situation in a supportive therapeutic atmosphere.

Our goal is always to empower teens. This means teaching them to manage their own learning disorders. They’ll be able to identify their current unhealthy coping mechanisms and explore healthier alternatives.

Academic Support and Tutoring

Academic support is critical for teens with learning disabilities. They need to develop confidence in the skills they do have while at the same time learning that it is acceptable to ask for help when they need it. Private tutoring slows down the pace and gives teens room to learn at their own pace.

Vocational Rehabilitation

These programs focus on teens who want to go to work, giving them the skills they need to find and maintain employment despite their learning disabilities. Teens will explore their talents and skills in order to find suitable options in which they can excel --- sometimes better than the average person. This program includes counseling, classes to develop skills, and even job placement.

Helping Teens with Learning Differences at Paradigm San Francisco

Paradigm San Francisco opens its doors to teens with a wide variety of challenges. We understand that learning disabilities are a part of a teen’s personality --- something that can’t be changed. Our goal isn’t to “cure” a learning disorder; rather, we strive to help teens live productive lives while working around it. Teens with learning disabilities tend to be incredibly intellectual, quick witted, and capable of performing a multitude of activities. They simply need guidance to ensure they’re turning to the correct outlets as they move forward in life.

Asking for Help

Part of the program here at Paradigm San Francisco involves working with private tutors. The goal is to allow teens to learn at their own pace in a calm, quiet setting. The traditional classroom can be incredibly stressful, making a teen feel stressed and intimidated. Teens participate not only in private sessions, but in small group classes as well.

A Therapeutic Approach

While it’s important to help teens get through their curriculum, they also need to understand why they are stressed. Our therapists work closely with each teen to help them better understand their own needs while identifying the best coping mechanisms. Teens leave empowered, with the tools they need to avoid their old habits while managing their stress levels in any situation.

 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 Teen Learning Differences & Academic Challenges

Can a residential treatment really help teens with learning disorders?

While a diagnosis is always helpful, being able to put a name to what they are experiencing doesn’t actually change a teen’s life. Teens with learning disorders struggle even more through adolescence. They are misunderstood, embarrassed, and bullied --- in school and in other social settings.

Time away from school gives teens a chance to recover in a safe environment. They can learn about themselves, better understand what it really means to have a learning disability, and discover their own potential.

My young child isn’t speaking as well as other kids. Is this a learning disability?

Not always. Some children do have intellectual or learning disabilities, while some are ultimately diagnosed with autism. Other children simply develop at a slower pace, but won’t necessarily have a learning disability at all. If in doubt, have your child evaluated by a physician or early-intervention program.

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