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Does your teenager have an attitude problem, or a learning disability?

May 22, 2014

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Lucy Lafleur seems both proud and concerned about her son Benny. He’s 15 and in the ninth grade.

“He’s a great kid. He has these grand ideas, just sitting around the dinner table,” she says. “And then, I’ll look at the grades. It’s like there’s a Benny at home, and there seems to be a completely different Benny at school.”

It’s been that way as long as Lafleur can remember.

The Lafleur family didn’t know Benny had dyslexia, a common learning disability that makes reading and writing difficult, until this past winter.

Benny is now getting some help in school, but now that the Lafleurs know more about learning disabilities, they’re looking at different schools for next year. They want a place with more hands-on learning, or specialized services for kids with learning disabilities.

As a parent, Lafleur says it was hard to know whether Benny’s experience in school was normal teenage stuff.

Is it OK for a kid to not do that well in school?

The Lafleurs ended up paying out of pocket to have Benny evaluated, something they should not have needed to do.

Lafleur says Benny’s schools in East Grand Rapids dismissed her concerns for years. They told her Benny probably wouldn’t qualify for services despite MEAP exam scores around 13% several years in a row and going through all of seventh and eighth grades without a passing grade on a midterm or final.

East Grand Rapids High School Principal Jennifer Fee says the school's goal is "to provide access to education and to the curriculum for all students." She added that it can be difficult to balance the needs and expertise of everyone involved in a special education determination. 

The Lafleurs ended up paying out of pocket to have Benny evaluated, something they should not have needed to do.

Advocates, parents, and experts around the state have lots of information on how to spot a learning disability in a teenager and how to find services.

It’s basically about two things: knowing what to look for, and knowing what to ask for.

What to look for

Here’s a list of common signs from the National Institutes of Health.

  • Difficulty with reading and/or writing
  • Problems with math skills
  • Difficulty remembering
  • Problems paying attention
  • Trouble following directions
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty with concepts related to time
  • Problems staying organized

Learning disability experts like Lauren Katz and Joanne Pierson say most learning disabilities get diagnosed around third or fourth grade. That’s when a school expects a kid to make a switch from “learning to read” into “reading to learn.”

But plenty of kids get missed

By the time they’re teenagers, kids with learning disabilities are coping with their disability, and that can make it hard to spot.

Sandee Koski is an advocate with the Michigan Alliance for Families. It’s an organization that connects families of children with disabilities to resources.

Koski says one way kids mask a learning disability is with bad behavior. It can be easier, she says, for a kid to get kicked out of class if it means missing having to read aloud with the embarrassment that might bring.

When Lucy Lafleur first thought her son might be dealing with a learning disability, she took a quiz on a dyslexia website.

Advocate Sandee Koskee says if you suspect your child has a learning disability, but aren’t sure, you should talk to your child’s school. But, she says, you need to know what to ask for.

It’s important to talk to your child’s school, but know what to ask

Kids with learning disabilities are protected by federal and state law just like kids with other disabilities.

But to get this protection and the services in school that come along with it, parents need to follow certain steps.

The Michigan Alliance for Families has lots of resources on this topic.

They also say they’ll happily talk to parents who have questions or feel like they’re not being taken seriously.

In a nutshell, here’s their advice:

  • Know your rights. You don’t need to fight your child’s school, but you may need to be assertive.
  • Request an evaluation of your child in writing. Your child can’t get services without an evaluation and the school must provide one, or a good reason why they choose not to, which parents can appeal.
  • Ask for a broad evaluation including the phrases learning disabilities, emotional impairment, and other health impairment, so your child is evaluated in the most comprehensive way possible.
  • Make sure your school follows through on their timelines.
  • Don’t feel you need to have all the answers. Learning disabilities can be difficult to understand and parents or guardians can’t be expected to know exactly what their child needs. Schools and parents may need to work with a teenager to experiment a little until they find something that works.

What services are out there?

Schools aren’t the only places your child can find help. There are things parents can do at home or with the help of a disability service organization. But school is a big place for educational resources.

After a child is evaluated they will either qualify for special education services or not.

Kids who don’t qualify for special education services can still get accommodations  from school that can be helpful. Parents or guardians should ask for help like a child getting more time for tests or being allowed to use audiobooks instead of written books for an English class, for example.  

What can go wrong?

Kids don’t get identified: Learning disabilities are sometimes called “hidden disabilities.” You can’t tell a teenager has a learning disability just by looking at them. Young people dealing with these hidden disabilities might slip through the cracks and not be identified.

Kids don’t qualify for services: It can be famously difficult for kids to get services based on a learning disability. A school district may say they require a child score below 9% on the MEAP exam to qualify as learning disabled.

Even if a child is scoring above that 9%, a parent has a right to request an evaluation.

In an evaluation, test scores should be used as one factor, not the only one. Some districts are more inclusive with their definition of learning disabled. If you are a parent who is unsure of what to do, reach out to a disability advocacy organization for advice.

Kids aren’t getting the services they qualify for: If your child’s accommodations or individualized education program (IEP) don’t seem to be making a difference, connect with your child’s school.

If that doesn’t work, talk to the special education coordinator at your intermediate school district. They generally have a lot of experience and knowledge. If you need to, call an advocate like the Michigan Alliance for Families or Michigan Protection and Advocacy.

How does your teenager feel about all this?

It might be a relief for your teenager to know a learning disability is keeping them from feeling successful in school.

But having a learning disability or qualifying for special education services can still have a stigma. Even if stigma isn't a problem, the process of identifying a learning disability comes with a lot of attention a teenager might not want.

Advocates recommend talking openly with your teenager and focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses.

This post has been updated to include comments from the principal of East Grand Rapids High School.

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