Symptoms of Teen Learning Disabilities

January 21, 2022

As children begin their academic careers, tasks such as reading, writing, comprehension, and focus become parts of their everyday lives. As youth progress from pre-school to college, these tasks become more complex yet increasingly vital aspects of one’s ability to succeed both in school and beyond. Because reading, writing, and math skills are part of children’s learning plans during the early years of schooling, difficulties in any of these areas are often noted early. However, it is not unheard of for adolescents and teens to struggle through several years of schooling (even into college or the working world) before receiving a formal evaluation to assess the possibility of a learning disability. In some cases, people may live their entire lives without help or support to learn how to manage their learning-related challenges. 


It is important to note the difference between learning problems (difficulties or challenges) and learning disabilities. Learning problems are those difficulties with learning that arise out of functional challenges such as hearing, visual, or motor challenges. Learning problems are also connected to emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantages.


Learning disabilities are different. When someone struggles with a learning disability, specific factors alter how the brain functions. This can lead to difficulties with one or more cognitive processes associated with learning and comprehension. Depending on the severity of one’s disability, these problems can interfere with one’s ability to learn or master many basic skills, including math, reading, and writing. 


Types of Learning Disabilities

The term “learning disability” is an umbrella term used to describe several specific conditions. When people think of learning disabilities, they often think of conditions like dyslexia. However, there are several other diagnoses and related conditions that are classified as learning disabilities. 



Dyscalculia is a specific disability that affects one’s ability to learn math facts and understand numbers. A child with this particular learning disability will struggle with the ability to demonstrate accurate math calculation skills. A child with dyscalculia will experience difficulties completing simple numerical operations and will likely struggle significantly with higher-level math requirements. 



Dysgraphia affects one’s fine motor skills and handwriting abilities. Children with dysgraphia have difficulties with legible and automatic letter writing and numeral (number) writing. Struggles with numeral writing can also lead to difficulties learning and understanding math. Children, teens, and adults with dysgraphia often struggle with executive functioning skills such as planning and organizing. 



Dyslexia might be one of the most familiar learning disabilities. It is believed up to 20% of the population has dyslexia. This number represents up to 90% of all learning disabilities. Because dyslexia is the most common learning disorder, most people are familiar with it and its symptoms. Someone with dyslexia will experience difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition. They will also struggle with word recognition, spelling, and decoding. Because of these challenges, daily tasks like reading skills and reading comprehension are also inhibited. Dyslexia can also lead to difficulties understanding and producing sounds and sound structures. This can make seemingly everyday tasks like pronouncing words appropriately tricky. 


Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

Children, teens, and adults with nonverbal learning disabilities have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues and indicators such as body language and facial expressions. They may also struggle with coordination. Unlike other learning disabilities, nonverbal learning disabilities are not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a specific diagnosis. However, research suggests up to 5% of individuals with a learning disability exhibit the symptoms associated with this category of disability. 


Studies show nonverbal learning disabilities are typically associated with three broad categories of impairment. These include motor skills, social abilities, and visual-spatial organizational memory. In general, someone with a nonverbal learning disability will have a well-developed vocabulary and strong reading recognition abilities. 


Oral/Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit

This particular learning disability affects one’s ability to understand what they read. They often struggle with the ability to understand and (or) express language, whether in oral or written form. 


Other Related Disorders

Some conditions are not classified as learning disorders in the DSM; however, children with these conditions may struggle with essential learning. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects one’s ability to stay focused, control behavior, and pay attention. Each of these difficulties can increase the level of difficulty your child has as they begin to learn basic skills. 


Another disorder that causes problems with language and speech is Dyspraxia. Children with dyspraxia struggle with muscle control, language, and speech, leading to learning challenges. Dyspraxia often co-occurs with other learning disabilities and developmental difficulties, including ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. 


What Causes Learning Disabilities?

Current research has not offered a singular cause of learning disabilities. There are believed to be several causes and a range of factors that increase one’s risk of developing a learning disability. Most studies suggest that factors that contribute to increased risk are present at birth and often genetic, meaning they “run in the family.” Often children with a parent diagnosed with a learning disability are more likely to develop a learning disability.


Research is also ongoing into other non-biological factors that may increase the risk of developing a learning disability. These include drug or alcohol use by the mom during pregnancy, environmental factors during infancy, poor nutrition, lead exposure, and lack of intellectual support during the formative years may all play a role in learning disorder development or recognition once a child begins school. 


What are the Symptoms of Learning Disabilities? 

It is not uncommon for many children to struggle with writing, reading, and other tasks related to learning as they grow. The process of learning to write letters and words, read those words on paper, or create numbers to solve math problems looks different for everyone. If you notice your youngster struggling to master basic reading and writing skills, it may be scary at first; however, it is important to remember that early challenges are not necessarily an indication of a learning disability. In many cases, these early struggles will improve as your child ages or will resolve entirely with time. 


When a child has a learning disability, there are often several related indicators that do not resolve or improve with growth or time. There are several possible indicators of a potential learning disability. However, it is vital to remember that the signs and symptoms will vary from person to person. Common signs that a child or teen may have a learning disability may include memory challenges, reading and writing difficulties, problems with math skills, difficulties with attention span, problems following directions, organizational issues, challenges with telling time or reading a clock, and poor coordination. 


Younger children and teens with a learning disability may exhibit other signs and symptoms. Some of these may be easier to recognize in the academic environment, whereas others may present regardless of the environment. Examples include impulsive behavior, problems with focus (easily distracted), problems with academic performance, acting out (at school or in social situations), problems with thought expression, difficulties with word pronunciation, listening problems, difficulties understanding words and concepts, verbal regression (speaking like a child younger than their age), and problems with changes in schedule or environment. 


Treatment for Learning Disabilities

If you suspect your child may struggle with a learning disability, it is important to seek help early. If your child struggles with reading and writing early, advanced coursework will be even more challenging once they reach high school. Also, children who struggle with a learning disability may experience other challenges, including depression, reduced self-esteem, problems with motivation, and anxiety (especially related to activities in the classroom where the focus is on them). 


There are many ways to seek help for your child. Their teacher, doctor, or even you as a parent can request an evaluation. The first step in the evaluation process is usually to rule other problems other than a learning disability, such as vision problems, hearing problems, or other medical conditions that could mimic symptoms of a learning disability. These exams might take place with a variety of providers, including your child’s primary care provider, special education teacher, or a therapist at a youth-focused program like Hillcrest. 


If your child has a learning disorder, several possible treatments and therapeutic options are available to help reduce the severity of the academic and social challenges the learning disorder causes. Examples of common suggestions may be:


An IEP (individualized Education) Program

IEP programs can help set individual learning goals and strategies to help your child achieve their academic goals. IEP programs are mandatory at schools in the United States for children who meet specific criteria. 



For some children, classroom-specific accommodations may help them successfully accomplish daily tasks. Examples of accommodations may include extra time to complete tests or work, being seated closer to the teacher or chalkboard, using computer applications to support writing and math comprehension, or the use of audiobooks to supplement reading assignments. 



Some children may benefit from a therapy program designed to help improve their comprehension skills. Occupational therapists, Speech-language pathologists, and other counselors can help your child address their specific learning needs. 



For children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or other learning disabilities that inhibit focus, certain medications might be available to help improve focus. 


It is important to remember that a treatment plan to address learning disabilities will inevitably change with time and your child’s progress. If you are concerned your child may struggle with a learning disability or a related condition, it is important to reach out to their teacher, doctor, or a provider here at Hillcrest. There is no “cure” for learning disabilities; however, research has shown that early intervention can help your child manage their symptoms and learn alternate ways to master learning skills. Contact us today to learn more about how Hillcrest can help your child and family.