Teens and Learning Differences

Parent Q&A

  • Our daughter was diagnosed with inattentive-type ADHD at the end of first grade. Medication and tutoring in writing improved her schoolwork dramatically, but as time has passed it has become clear there are other issues. An assessment last summer said that while she has a 99th percentile IQ, she also has slow processing speed and specific learning disabilities in reading, writing, and arithmetic, the whole three R’s. She also becomes anxious easily, has emotional issues around being adopted, and is considered at risk for depression. She is an unusually compassionate and well-behaved kid. She has been in a private school since pre-K, where her learning issues have been informally accommodated. Our finances dictate that she will be going to Berkeley High, where we will be seeking an IEP. We hope to get her academic and psychological help in the immediate future and likely for several years. Cost is a concern, though money will be easier (though not easy) after this school year. We plan to continue with our writing tutor, whom our daughter adores. We’ve been advised that we should seek an educational therapist who can complement our tutor in reading, writing, and organization (leaving math issues for later), and help dealing with Berkeley High. Both the educational and psychological help has to be reasonably affordable. Please let us know what has worked for you! We are open to an independent educational therapist, or working with an organization like the Ann Martin Center or Strategies for Learning. Thanks!

    I hope you get numerous names for educational therapists thru your post. I wanted to alert you and others on this newsletter about a parent support group led by parents for parents with kids with learning disabilities. The group, called BOLD, meets monthly at Berkeley High. Their email address is BHSBOLDcontact [at] gmail.com.  Attending the meetings while your daughter is still in middle school might help prepare you for the issues you’ll face getting your child the accommodations she’ll need in the future.

    been there/done that!

    Sounds like she's a 2E kid (Twice exceptional).  Summit Center might have some recommendations.  There's also an active community of families with kids who have the same issues. Holy Names and Raskob are both resources for finding an ed therapist.

    You might be interested in this software intervention that addresses processing speed: 


    It's scientifically validated to help children with processing speed issues. I have not used it with my children, but I have friends who have used it for their children with good results. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews


    Kids with processing differences hard to identify as LD

    Dec 2009

    My two teenagers both have processing issues which affect them in school. They have both been tested through the Berkeley School district as well as through Kaiser. My daughter was found to have an average IQ, slow processing and auditory attention weaknesses (but not disabilites). My son has a high average IQ, was diagnosed with ADHD but was not identified with learning disabilties. With each year, their grades get worse, their motivation lower, and their discouragement greater. They do not qualify for IEP's, just 504's and my son's has not been renewed since he started high school (they want to try other options, which seems like nothing). I still suspect either auditory processing disorder or executive functioning disorder or something else may be at work. I wonder if the tests that were done were not as comprehensive as they should have been. I need advice as I am drowning in despair over how to help them. Should I have further testing done and if so, what? How can I get the school to respond? Please help! stressed out single mom

    I would highly recommend Jessica Lipkind as a resource for you. Jessica is very well recommended by local therapists and we had her come to my son's school. She does testing for learning challenges and she could also help you review the results of the tests you've had done. She would be excellent at helping you to formulate the way to go from here. She is also mindful of cost. She has a Berkeley office. Contact details: drjlipkind [at] gmail.com Grateful parent of kid with learning challenges

    This sounds like a very frustrating and difficult situation you face. I would question the validity of retiring your son's 504 Plan in order to ''try something else''. There are many reasons why you need to keep that plan in place, some of which relate to the future, some to the present. If he isn't doing well, the accommodations may not be the right ones. A resource you might benefit from is available for free on the web through CASE (Community Alliance for Special Education). Your legal rights are explained in clear language. If your kids are struggling, now is the time to work on the problems. Be a squeaky wheel and persevere! linda

    Go to the UC Berkeley Psychology Clinic. They do a very thorough job of testing. You will work with a very knowledgeable PhD candidate (supervised, in the background, by a professor), who wants to administer every test possible. We got a 25-page report with every detail imaginable, interpretations, recommendations, etc. We received several thousands of dollars worth of testing for only a few hundred dollars. They really worked to make the fee something that we could afford. (Unlike most ''sliding scales'' which don't apply to anyone who makes a living wage...)

    It turned out that the biggest issue was a ''processing speed'' problem, along with inattentive-type ADHD. The testing sessions took much longer than was typical, but he did beautifully on any test that wasn't timed. If the test was timed, nearly everything that he did was correct but he never finished in time, so the score was low.

    The problem didn't show up until Jr. High, because in the lower grades he was able to compensate, just by being smart. Eventually, though, the volume of work increased to a point where compensating just wasn't possible any more. He spent hours and hours on homework, and his in-class assignments and tests were usually turned in unfinished because he ran out of time.

    When we got to high school, once I explained the situation, the teachers were very understanding and informally gave him as much time as he needed to finish his tests. He often went back at lunch or after school to finish a test from earlier in the day. (He still spent hours and hours on homework, but not everything has a tidy solution...)

    Where we ran into trouble was trying to get a formal 504 plan -- because he was ''doing too well''! I tried to explain that his grades were so good only because he informally received the very accommodations I was trying to pin down. Finally, after a lot of work -- and the arrival of a different person as school psychologist -- we did get our 504 and the extra time was always given. This was important because ''informal'' accomodations cannot be given on standardized tests (SAT, AP, etc.), but a formal 504 is valid. (He is in college now, and the extra time is still granted on exams.)

    Anyway, I did not mean to ramble on so long! I highly recommend the UC Berkeley Psychology Clinic. anonymous

    Dmitra Loomis is a great audiologist whose fees are not outrageous if you already have the results of a hearing examination. She's in Danville now so I don't have her current contact information. ADHD definitely results in executive functioning issues as do combinations of attentional and processing issues. If your children are slipping, it only gets worse during the teenage years. If they haven't had neuropsychological evaluations, those evaluations can put their issues in context. You don't mention working with tutors. Classroom Matters was recommended to us by the parent of a teen with ADHD although we tried other options with mixed results. It isn't easy but I hope you can turn things around for your children. Anon

    I've read your post and it sounds like a few things are going on.

    1. The testing may not be comprehensive enough or the testing is comprehensive enough, they're just not being honest with you about the results.

    2. If your kids have 504 plans and they're still not doing well, maybe it's time for an IEP. There are lots of different categories under which they may qualify.

    I'm a special ed attorney and I offer a free one hour consultation if you have more questions. Bring the test results with you. LP

    14 y/o with learning disabilities and teen attitude

    May 2007

    Do you have a teen like this and what did you do? Boarding school for dyslexic/LD kids? Homeschool? Private school? Outward Bound? Our almost 15 y/o dd is bright, fun and articulate, a perfectionist who gives up easily (deadly with LDs), and has a variety of learning disabilities (ADD, rapid naming type dyslexia, visual / auditory processing /executive function issues, slow processing speed etc) only partially remediated by vision therapy, lindamood-bell, making math real. We have tried Rx but they work 10% at best, and it's a struggle to get her to take them due to the side effects. She's at Orinda Academy, 9th gr, they say she is not yet 'literate' and needs intensive 1-on-1 this summer. Every day in school reminds her of what she CAN'T do. She just quit her therapist (long story) and we're investigating family therapy. She's giving up: all she says she wants to do is be a flight attendent or massage therapist. What we're hoping to hear from you is what things finally worked for your child? Signed Very concerned mom

    My 16 y.o. son sounds some what similar to your daughter - smart, fun, similar LD profile - dyslexia, auditory processing issues, executive function issues, slow processing speed, recall issues, etc. We also did various types of ed. therapy, lindamood-bell, as well as alternative therapies, tried medication (not a good solution in our case either), etc.

    Our approach has been to give him the support he needs, but also to let him be himself and to make sure he has his down time - for him that means having time to play soccer and other sports, no high intensity tutoring during vacations, and time to just relax and be. Finding the right school has definitely been a big part of this.

    After many very painful years in private school where his self esteem basically went down the toilet, he is now in 10th grade at Millennium High School (part of Piedmont Unified, but they take out of district students). Millennium is an amazing school - small classes, engaging, hands-on curriculum, a real understanding that different kids learn differently, and real interest in helping each student find their strengths, passions, etc. They also strongly believe that kids should have a life outside of school. Millennium does not consider itself a school for LD kids, but it works for my son and many others where a more traditional lecture-notes-homework high-pressure structure just doesn't work for them. This is the first school my son has been in where he doesn't actually need accomodations for his LD on a day to day basis! He still goes to tutoring outside of school, but also has time for team sports and other activities.

    The result? I can honestly say that I have a happy, healthy 16 year old who feels good about himself, which to me is 90% of getting through the teen years. After years of hating school and saying that he would go no further than high school, he now talks about college without even a question. Will he go to Harvard? I doubt it. But I have faith that because he is smart, knows himself, cares about the world, is able to think outside the box, and all those other non-academic gifts that all our children have, he will find his niche, his passion, and pursue it.

    I know it's hard in these days of so much focus on high powered academics, and may not be the direction that you want to go, but maybe taking the pressure off will help your daughter to see her gifts, find her passions, develop interests that may end up taking her farther. Sometimes our round kids just don't fit into those square holes.

    Best of luck - I know it can be challenging. If you'd like to hear more about Millennium or otherwise, feel free to ask the moderator for my e-mail. mom of a happy, healthy 16 y.o.

    I read the response regarding Millennium High School with great interest. I applied for my teenager who has ADD and LD issues. We do not live in Piedmont, and would have had to been admitted as an interdistrict transfer. I was told by the current principal that Millennium will no longer accept interdistrict transfer students with an IEP. I assume it is because Piedmont tax dollars would be spent on non Piedmont students. I offered to waive services, but that was refused. The only option would have been to get our district to pay the cost of services, and that would have been remote. Everything that I have read about Millenium is wonderful, and I have yet to speak to a parent of a student that did not think the same. I just could not figure out a way to get into the district and did not think that I could mask my child's ADD/LD issues. If anyone gets in on an interdistrict transfer that has an IEP, please let me know how you did it. Anon

    15-year-old has just been found to have learning disabilities


    I recently had my daughter ( 15) tested at Scottish Rite for language learning problems because she did poorly on standardized tests, although I know she is bright. It turns out she qualifies as a learning disability student. Of course I feel awful not to have had this info earlier - she is very bright and had other things to cope with, things I thought were responsible for school difficulties and not liking to read. Now I am full of questions. Can anyone recommend a licensed neuropsychologist? I am told ( by a duslexia association spokesperson) that a more specific diagnosis is needed. Has anyone had experience helping a teen deal with this -- at this late age? I think we still have time to address the issues in preparation for PSAT, SAT etc -- the qualification will give her extra time for these tests and tutoring ( when I find the right person, etc) should help. But in order to get these accommodations I will have to document her as learning disabled. I'm wondering how best to help her deal with this. She is in therapy. I have of course informed her therapist. But I'm just wondering if others have had experience with this situation. She is now doing average work in high school, but under her ability level because of obstacles in reading. I welcome suggestions.

    Raskob Institute in Oakland (at Holy Names) was wonderful for specific testing. The also made good recommendations of specialists for treatment. Contact Jack Davies, Ph.d. there.

    Regarding the parent whose daughter was tested for language/learning difficulties, the good news is that there really are a tremendous amount of resources available in the community for helping teens and their families with learning differences/disabilities.

    Part of the challenge of getting help is negotiating your way through the maze of school and legal issues about just who does additional testing, sets up the IEP (Individualized Education Program) and assures your daughter's rights under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and Section 504 and the IDEA. These terms are terms you'll be getting familiar with over the coming weeks and months.

    It's SO common to feel overwhelmed and a little (or a lot) guilty that you didn't recognize her needs earlier. But you have permission to set this aside. Most parents try everything they can on their own before seeking outside assistance and trying tutors, different teachers, different ways of giving assignments, etc., are all common things that parents have tried first. Learning disabilities can be tough to spot and if you're a parent like me you already have enough to feel guilty about without adding one more thing to the list!

    So, one step is to contact the Learning Disabilities Association of California. You can ask for Betty Schiemenz (the administrative director of LDA-CA) and she or another staffperson can begin to help you negotiate the maze of support services. You can visit LDA-CA online too, at www.ldaca.org . This is a great place to start, because they have links and resources to the entire LD community of support. There are annual conferences, a host of workshops, more written material and support groups than you or your daughter will ever be able to get to--this is the great news! Don't do this alone, you deserve support in it just like your daughter does.

    You might want to contact Marilyn Hatch, an educational psychologist in the Fairfield area (far, but worth it). I'm sure her number is available through information or you can get it from Betty at LDA. She can give you resources for additional testing in your area and is really great herself in terms of assessment.

    Finally, I work with kids and families who are dealing with learning differences. Teens go on to have amazingly successful academic and professional careers and you'd be shocked at the number and just who out there in the world you see on television, movies, newspapers, etc. has a learning disability. A learning disability is not a solid impediment to success and progress; it is, however, an invitation to learning creative and compassionate ways of responding to difference. And you don't have to do it alone!

    Michael Simon, M.S., MFTI Oakland, CA

    Re Learning Disability in Teen
    Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley can provide you with a list of specialists in the Bay Area. Telephone 510-644-2555 and ask to speak with Rachel, the intake assistant for the parent advocates--she'll take a little information and send you the list. You can also ask to talk to a parent advocate if you have more questions or want other referrals.
    Good luck S. H.

    RE: teen with newly discovered learning disabilities. I recommend Ann Gordon , on Grand Avenue in Oakland. She can handle additional testing, IEP with schools, dealing with accomodations for tests, etc. She also has a tutoring program. Liz