In a busy school cafeteria a teacher innocently calls out to a student, “Amy, there are already three of us at the table, and four more are coming, but we only have two forks. Can you grab enough for the rest of us?”
Amy is being asked to do algebra, which she struggles with at the best of times due to her dyscalculia (a specific difficulty with learning or doing mathematics), and this is a complex word problem she’s being asked to do in her head.
Amy’s auditory processing challenges (she struggles with integrating new information via auditory input, and does much better with written instructions) are being exposed in the already overly-stimulating environment of the busy school cafeteria.
Amy’s slow processing speed (the time it takes for her to assimilate, evaluate, or act on pertinent input) further complicates all of these factors.
Amy’s anxiety immediately increases, which has the inverse result of decreasing her available bandwidth for problem-solving and evaluating possible solutions, actions, and consequences, and triggers her fight/flight/freeze response.
All of this is happening in front of her peers, which adds social stress to the situation (remember, a teen’s number one job is to avoid being embarrassed in front of her peers, no matter what the cost or consequence).
Amy snaps back to the teacher, “If you need something, you can get it yourself. I don’t want to be a part of your stupid Community Service Club anyway” and she storms off.
Later that day Amy, and her parents, are called into the principal’s office for a family conference about Amy’s poor attitude and the importance of respecting teachers. When asked why she would ever talk to a teacher that way, Amy sulks, grunts, shrugs her shoulders, and gives the ubiquitous teenage response: “I don’t know.” To be fair to Amy, she may be being quite honest - she might not have any idea why she reacted the way she did; it was simply the quickest way to get out of a stress-filled situation.
Consider the following statistics:
Roughly 13% of all students in the United States suffer from an identified learning disability, although the total percentage may be even higher, when undiagnosed or unidentified learning differences are considered (Source: nces.ed.gov).
Up to 60% of adolescents in treatment for substance abuse have learning disabilities. (Source: Hazelden Foundation, MN 1992)
Rates for adjudicated adolescents who have learning disabilities range from between 26% to 73%, depending on the study (Source: Encyclopedia of Juvenile Violence, L. Finley, 2007)
These are staggering statistics, and it’s important to remember that learning differences don’t just start and stop at the classroom door, but instead they impact students in all aspects of their daily experience (including seemingly innocuous interactions in cafeterias). While there’s rarely a one-issue/one-solution approach to the complex challenges your teen may be facing, understanding your child’s learning profile, their skills, their struggles, and any learning differences they may have can be a key step in helping unravel complex or problematic behavior - even if there’s no initial indicator of academic struggles in the classroom.
About the Author
Jake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs. He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.