Dyslexia in Teens: The Ultimate Guide for Parents to Set Your Kid for Success

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Imagine if you were given the choice of having an intellectual superpower, but to gain this power, you would need to give up other things. For people who have dyslexia, it is not a choice but a reality. If you have a child who is dyslexic or are dyslexic yourself, you don’t need to think about it as a negative! This article will explain why that dyslexia in teens can be celebrated and provides a guide for parents to support their dyslexic child. Let me guide you in helping your child overcome challenges associated with dyslexia. More importantly, let me help you help them unlock their superpowers!

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The Dyslexic Gift

If you have a teenager with dyslexia, you know that there is much more to the diagnosis than trouble with reading or spelling. Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder or learning disability that impacts people’s understanding of language. Dyslexia is widespread, with some estimates stating that up to 15 to 20 percent of the population has the condition.

Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence! People who are dyslexic often have an above-average IQ. Though reading, spelling, and many other tasks are difficult for them, people who are dyslexic can still become skilled readers or writers. It just means that getting to that end requires a different path. This is true for most things when it comes to being a dyslexic person. Forging a path is the dyslexic way.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– Unknown, often attributed to Albert Einstein

Signs of Dyslexia: A Developmental Progression

Dyslexia signs will often become apparent in elementary school when reading, writing, and math concepts are introduced. But as a parent of a dyslexic student you may have noticed signs of dyslexia in your child earlier. Every person with dyslexia is unique and has their own ways of coping. They will never fit the mold. There are, however, some general commonalities most dyslexic kids share:

Signs of Dyslexia in Preschool

Common signs a dyslexic student shows in preschool include:

  • Learning to talk late
  • Trouble following multi-step directions
  • Mispronounce words
  • Learning difficulty with letters, colors, or days of the week
  • Difficulty rhyming
    Difficulty sequencing sentences

These students might show interest and ability in activities like drawing, puzzles, and building models.

Typical Dyslexia Signs in Elementary School

  • Poor spelling
  • Avoids reading/poor reading skills
  • Trouble hearing individual sounds in words
  • Confusing similar letters
  • Struggling to read even when words are familiar
  • Substituting words when reading aloud
Struggles may peak again during middle school and high school when language, organizational skills, and planning are stressed. However, despite these struggles, you may recognize that your dyslexic teen excels in other areas.

The Science Behind Dyslexia

Most of the scientific information that follows was summarised from the book, The Dyslexic Advantage, written by Brock Eide, MD., MA, and Fernette Eide, MD. This book is a highly recommended read for anyone struggling with dyslexia or the parents of a dyslexic child. It is available in many formats.

When it comes to the cause of dyslexia, structural differences in the brain can be to blame for the language based learning disability.

These differences are not well understood, but researchers think they stem from early development when the brain forms functional networks. Unfortunately, these networks don’t develop in a “well-integrated way,” creating processing impairments.

These impairments generally manifest in difficulties processing language, specifically phonological awareness. It is particularly prominent in reading and writing. These impairments also mean that the brain is forced to adapt, leading to some unexpected advantages!

Dyslexic brains are different. They have broader neural connections. Research by Dr. Manuel Casanova suggests that dyslexic brain connectivity may predispose people to big picture or visionary thinking. These broad neural connections are why dyslexics’ facial recognition skills are usually above average, which requires many different parts of the brain to work together. Joining distant areas of the brain is what dyslexics do best. They can draw ideas from anything and anywhere and connect different concepts together.

For this reason, while dyslexia has its downsides, it isn’t all negative. Instead, dyslexia is more of a trade-off where people can take advantage of unique processing benefits on the one hand but might struggle with reading and writing on the other. Dyslexic people are not defective, but their brains are organized to display different kinds of strengths.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Dyslexia

Dyslexia goes far beyond trouble with spelling or reading. It is not just a reading disability like many people think. While people generally focus on the deficits associated with dyslexia, there are also areas where dyslexic people are more capable than the average person. In this way, dyslexia isn’t a positive or negative condition; it just means that someone might have different strengths and weaknesses.

Neuropsychological testing is not only helpful in diagnosing dyslexia but can explain your child’s unique set of advantages and disadvantages. These tests are hard to read and understand for the average person but can be very valuable. This is where asking for help interpreting the testing is essential so that you can understand your child’s needs.

When explaining testing results to your child, it is vital to show them that their strengths are more important than their weaknesses. If your child has issues with low self-esteem due to being in special classes, being asked to read out loud, or mixing up word pronunciations, then explaining the why behind the struggle can help them overcome those challenges. While someone with dyslexia might struggle with these tasks, they also have a big right brain that makes connections that others don’t. They are some of the best BIG picture thinkers out there.

Common Strengths that People with Dyslexia Often Display:

  • Understand the larger context behind an idea
  • Can make new, unusual, or distant connections
  • Inferential reasoning or ambiguity detection
  • Ability to recombine things in novel ways and a general inventiveness
  • Greater mindfulness during tasks that others might take for granted
  • Problem-solving
  • Spotting interesting associations and relationships
  • Recognizing similarities

Dyslexics store information like a mural or stained glass, connecting ideas like a spider web or hyperlinks. They are also exceptional at spatial reasoning. Researchers found that this skill is not compensation but rather an innate ability.

Common Challenges that People with Dyslexia Often Encounter:

While this article discusses how dyslexia does not need to be a cloud hanging over you, it is also important to be upfront and realistic about some of the disadvantages of being dyslexic. While there are ways to mitigate many of these disadvantages, awareness is the first step in overcoming them.

Phonological Impairment

A phonological impairment is a deficit in the understanding of written language in its complete form. People with a phonological impairment struggle to break down language into smaller parts, which leads to the reading and spelling issues typical of a person who has dyslexia. Some dyslexics process in non-verbal ways and have a hard time putting things into words. As a result, there’s often a gap in understanding concepts and demonstrating that understanding in words. This is important for parents, teachers, and future employers to understand because nonverbal reasoning is valid. It can even be the key to creative insights. These individuals may struggle with tasks tied to language and phonological awareness but can often express themselves better with a drawing, diagram, or other forms of representation.

Procedural Learning and Procedural Memory

Procedural learning and memory have to do with learning how to do something through practice in a way that eventually becomes automatic. This is the “practice makes perfect” type of learning. Unfortunately, it is common for a dyslexic teenager or adult to struggle with procedural learning and memory.

Sadly, academics are often rooted in procedural learning and memory. This includes breaking down works, spelling, recognizing rhymes, sentence organization, and social pragmatics associated with words. Someone who is dyslexic does not often learn these types of things automatically with practice. Instead, they must use conscious compensation. That is a combination of focused attention and active working memory. This compensation works, but if the task is too complex, the working memory is overloaded because they have to actively think through all the tasks. Someone who is dyslexic will likely do better when rules and procedures are broken down into small steps. This makes them easier to master and demonstrate clearly.

Working Memory Overload

A key difficulty that comes with dyslexia is working memory overload. Basically, when someone is forced to actively focus on too many things, the dyslexic brain can struggle to keep up, leading to errors. Someone struggling with working memory overload often requires more repetitions than others to master a task or might take more time to reach the same level of mastery.

Also, someone who is dyslexic might forget skills that they have mastered more quickly if they do not practice them. So when a kid comes back to school after the summer, they might seem to forget more of what they learned the previous year.

Executive Functioning Struggles

Some people with dyslexia struggle with certain areas of executive functioning. This is caused by dysfunction in the cerebellum. This part of the brain plays a key role in things that become automatic with practice – like movement, speech, language, working memory/attention. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of being dyslexic! It feels like you have to work so much harder than everyone else. This can be discouraging. Another area of executive functioning that can be hard for a dyslexic teenager is transitions. They may have to develop new strategies to get around this when coursework changes… like the first semester of college. While executive functioning struggles can include a variety of different things, they can generally be mitigated through various strategies. It really just depends upon what works for each individual.

Finally, other areas that dyslexic people tend to struggle include; poor motor coordination, low muscle tone, difficulty with time awareness, timing, sequencing, and pacing.

Other Common Disadvantages Associated with Dyslexia

Teens with dyslexia often struggle with:

  • Language problems
  • Late talking
  • Mixing up words
  • Making up new words
  • Low working memory / Slow at retrieving words from memory
  • Mastering grammatical rules
  • Reading/spelling
  • Math
  • Slow processing speed
  • Mishearing words
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Difficulty hearing with background noise
  • Following directions & procedures
  • Keeping information to themselves
  • Planning and organizing
  • Error detection
  • Time awareness
  • Spacing
  • Sequencing, focus, and attention
  • Understanding how words work together in groups.
  • Two-dimensional spatial reasoning – symbol reversal while reading, struggles with symbols in general.

Myths About Dyslexia

There are many misconceptions about dyslexia. One of the most common myths is that it means that you aren’t intelligent. In fact, most people with dyslexia have above-average intelligence. Another common myth is that every child who mixes up their letters when writing is dyslexic. Mixing up letters is actually very common in childhood and does not necessarily indicate dyslexia. A third misconception is that dyslexia means the same thing for everyone. Dyslexia is a complex condition that impacts each individual differently. No two people experience dyslexia precisely the same, but there are patterns that people tend to follow.

Subtypes of Dyslexia

There are many theories about different subtypes of dyslexia or even confusion between diagnoses with a similar name, like dyscalculia. When you break it down, it comes down to strengths and weaknesses once again. When doing neuropsychological testing on children with dyslexia, researchers see some common patterns. This also reinforces that each person with dyslexia is unique and will have unique strengths and struggles.

The most common way to categorized dyslexia is by type of deficit. The research shows that there are three clusters of deficits associated with dyslexia. These clusters can be seen as sub-types.

Phonological Processing Deficit

A phonological processing deficit is the most common type of dyslexia. Phonetic impairment is found in 80-90 % of cases. This deficit impacts decoding abilities and sounding out words. Sometimes this type of deficit is referred to as dysphonetic dyslexia or auditory dyslexia.

People with a phonological processing deficit will have difficulty

  • Analyzing and manipulating sounds
  • Understanding the rules of phonics
  • Sound segmentation
  • Sound discrimination

Rapid Naming Deficit

People with a rapid naming deficit have normal phonological processing, but they struggle to retrieve language-based information. This is most commonly associated with problems with word recall or the “on the tip of their tongue” type experience.

With this deficit, working memory is limited and can cause issues with attention. This is one reason why many dyslexic students are diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. Structural differences in the brain again can be to blame. This difference is not well understood, but researchers guess it stems from early development when the brain forms functional networks. Unfortunately, these networks don’t develop in a “well-integrated way” and create processing impairments.

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Double Deficit Dyslexia

As the name suggests, double deficit dyslexia occurs when someone has both a phonological and a rapid naming deficit. This sub-type combines the phonological and rapid naming sub-types and is the least common.

Common difficulties associated with all types of dyslexia include:

  • Problems with finger coordination for handwriting
  • Difficulties with eye movement control for reading
  • Difficulties with speech mussels control for speech articulation
  • Difficulties with language
  • Late talkers
  • Mixing up words
  • Making up new words
  • Slow at retrieving words from memory
  • Slow at mastering grammatical rules
  • Reading
  • Spelling
  • Decoding abilities

Teens with double deficit dyslexia often show problems with:

  • Handwriting
  • Written expression
  • Math
  • Processing speed
  • Mishearing words
  • Motor coordination
  • Difficulty hearing with
  • background noise
  • Following directions
  • Keeping information to themselves
  • Procedures
  • Planning and organizing
  • Error detection
  • Time awareness
  • Pacing
  • Sequencing
  • Focus and attention
  • Understanding how words work together in groups

Subtypes of Dyslexia, Organized by Strengths Instead of Deficits

While the most common way to categorize dyslexia is by deficit type, there is another, more optimistic way to do this. Rather than classifying dyslexia by deficits, it is possible to do it by strengths.

There are four types of strengths commonly associated with people who are dyslexic:

Material Reasoning

Some people with dyslexia display an increased ability to reason about the physical or material world. This includes spatial thinking, visual thinking, and navigation.

Interconnected Reasoning

Other people with dyslexia have an improved ability to spot connections between different ideas, objects, or different points of view. This can include things like pattern detection and big picture type thinking.

Narrative Reasoning

A third strength that some people with dyslexia have shown is an increased capacity for reasoning and learning with stories. People with this strength are capable storytellers, have strong personal memories, and have a talent for scene creation.

Dynamic Reasoning

Lastly, some dyslexic people have highly developed abilities to reason in complex and changing environments that include high levels of mental stimulation and the ability to predict future events with increased accuracy. People who have a dynamic reasoning strength are generally goal-directed and can understand complex systems.

Here are some other advantages (superpowers) that are associated with being dyslexic!

  • Strong mechanical and spacial abilities
  • Spotting unusual connections
  • Good visual/ spacial sense
  • Visual memory for people and past events (episodic memory)
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Social & Emotional Impact of Dyslexia

It is unfortunate that being “different” is often shamed. Especially in middle school and high school. Dyslexic teenagers are often in special education classes that take the place of “normal classes.” Teachers and other students often single dyslexic students out. This makes it hard for dyslexic people to understand what is “wrong” with them. The social implications can turn inward, and issues with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem can arise.

Anxiety and Depression

It is common for those struggling with dyslexia to also experience mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Dyslexia can often lead people to feel different from their peers and lead to challenges in a young person’s primary social setting: school. These challenges can make children and teens feel different, increase stress, and struggle with low self esteem.

Further, these challenges can cause self-doubt, a lack of self-worth and can lead to substance abuse. Everyone wants to fit in at some level, and dyslexia can make this more difficult.

Executive Functioning

"For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned"

- Benjamin Franklin, activist, author, humorist, and scientist who was dyslexic.

Bouncing from class to class, learning different subjects, and being on time for everything. It is a challenge for people who are dyslexic. Not to mention turning assignments in on time and planning study time. The combination of time management and organization can be tricky. So coming up with a way for them to keep it all straight in a way that makes sense to them. Maybe it is having a binder for every class. Or writing it all down in an oversized planner. Having a system to keep track of it all can help them keep it all straight and get what they need to get done, done.

This is a struggle for people who are dyslexic who tend to struggle with executive functioning.
Executive functioning is a combination of skills that includes:

  • Proficiency in adaptable thinking
  • Planning
  • Self-monitoring
  • Self-control
  • Working memory
  • Time management
  • Organization

Executive functioning skills are expected to be mastered during the teenage years. For a dyslexic teen or others with learning differences, it can make them feel like they are falling further behind because things like organization, working memory, time management, and planning can be difficult.

Breaking the Stigma around Dyslexia in Teens

While dyslexia in teens has its challenges, it is not all negative. Dyslexia is often associated with improved social awareness. One of the ways that this manifests is excellent facial recognition. Other ways include increased creativity, and a well-developed sense of grit. Those who experience dyslexia are also known to have increased empathy and commonly show higher levels of kindness and understanding. Your child will inevitably have mixed emotions about their differences. This can be combated with pride. Remind your child to look back on the progress that they have made in carving their own path.

How Parents Can Help

Parents can make a massive difference in the lives of their children with learning challenges. Their support and understanding of their struggles can make a huge difference. Parents can be advocates for their children and work with them to solve problems. Above all, parents can provide support by not shaming their children. Dyslexic teens have enough of that from their day-to-day life.

Instead, parents can provide the kind of support that brings up their self-confidence. This puts a lot of stress and responsibility on parents but is an opportunity to brighten that relationship.

Individual Attention

The most important thing for a parent to do for a dyslexic child is to be present and involved in their life. While there has to be a balance between providing opportunities for individuality and identity development, a parent should be fully engaged in providing the best possible situation for their child’s success. This can include everything from ensuring access to proper academic resources and accommodations to providing one-on-one tutoring. Finding the right balance for this role is difficult but is critical to your child’s future.

Help Them Learn to Advocate For Themselves

Traditional learning environments can be difficult for people who are dyslexic. Some can even be a complete waste of time, but small changes can make a big difference. For example, sitting in front of a class, testing in a separate room, or having someone read test questions aloud. There are many accommodations that your teen will be entitled to, as long as they ask for them, and make sure that others follow through.

Work with your child on how to be articulate and how to communicate their needs. This can often be an intimidating or uncomfortable part of the process, but it is critical for their success. Good communication skills are also likely to carry over into other areas of their life making the time invested an even better value.

Areas of Focus to Help Your Teen

While dyslexia is categorized as a learning disorder, it can also have significant impacts on one’s emotions. The emotional side of dyslexia is important to acknowledge to promote the healthy development of coping skills in children and teens.

Self-Efficacy

One of the emotional impacts associated with dyslexia is decreased self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals and succeed. For someone with dyslexia, there are going to be tasks that are always going to be challenging. Often for children and teens, these are tasks found in school, including reading and procedural learning. When faced with one of these challenging tasks, children and teens often require extra time or different kinds of support to succeed. Repeated struggles in these tasks can lead someone to doubt their abilities and decrease their overall self-efficacy.

Developing a Growth Mindset

A fixed mindset is a state of being where someone believes that their abilities are static and unchangeable. For example, when diagnosed with a learning disorder like dyslexia, people can often fall into a fixed mindset. This means that they believe that their learning disorder limits them from succeeding in certain areas. In reality, while someone with dyslexia is unlikely to win a spelling bee, they can succeed in many other areas as long as they believe that they can and develop a growth mindset.

Overcoming Failure

While there are some emotional challenges associated with dyslexia, there are also some positive emotional outcomes. Being dyslexic means getting comfortable with the idea of failure. This comes out of the learning challenges that children and teens often face in school. The positive of this is that people who are dyslexic learn to overcome the fear of failure that often paralyzes the average person. Rather than avoiding risks due to fear of failure, people who are dyslexic are generally not risk-averse. This can lead to positive outcomes, which can be seen in the fact that many successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. While starting a business has many risks, someone who is dyslexic is more likely to take on that risk and potentially reap the benefits.

Resources to Help Your Dyslexic Teen

There are many resources that your child has at their disposal when managing their dyslexia. One of the most important but often overlooked of these resources is your state’s disability office. State disability offices can provide professional services and tools that help your child. They are experts in this area, and it is their job to advocate for people who have learning differences and physical disabilities.

Dyslexia Tools

In the past, helping someone overcome the challenges of dyslexia meant teaching them different approaches and strategies of learning. While this is still an essential part of overcoming these challenges, there are now technological tools available that help someone who is dyslexic to work around their learning disorder. These tools mean that someone who is dyslexic doesn’t have to struggle as much as they may have in the past. There are now ways to make learning easier!

Spell check was one of the most significant technological developments for those with dyslexia. Before spell check, there was no easy way for someone to tell when they mixed up letters while writing or typing. While spell check changed all of that for the better, it has not been a panacea. Spell check still has some shortcomings. Grammarly addresses a lot of these shortcomings. Grammarly is an improved spell check that catches more than just spelling mistakes. Grammarly can check for things like spelling, grammar, tense, tone, and even simplicity. It is an excellent tool for someone who is dyslexic and can help in school, work, or personal settings.

Smart Phone

Smartphones have a few useful features for someone who is dyslexic. The first of these useful features is the speech-to-text function. This function allows the user to talk into their phone, translating that speech into written text. There is no need to write anything down. This is particularly useful for writing short text messages or emails. The next useful feature is text to speech. This can be great for reading text messages or emails. One of the struggles people who are dyslexic have is misreading messages. Enabling this feature can save them from written communication issues.

Reading & Writing Programs

One of the most difficult challenges for someone with dyslexia is reading at a level and pace comparable to their peers. No matter how much time someone puts in, they will often have to put in more effort than their peers in reading. One type of tool that can help with this is a reading program. There are many different reading programs out there, but they all function in a relatively similar way. These programs take written text and translate it into audio. So, instead of struggling with the written words, the reader can listen to the text at a speed of their choice.

Kurzweil 3000 is the most highly recommended reading program for text-to-speech functionality on the market. While Kurzweil 3000 is an expensive program ($700/year is the cost of the subscription), many school resource or disability offices will fund the purchase of this program for qualifying candidates. Kurzweil 3000 is particularly useful because it has a Google Chrome plugin allowing it to be used seamlessly with web browsing.

One of the most useful writing programs for speech-to-text functionality is Dragon. Dragon is a user-friendly piece of software that can help people who struggle with writing to get their ideas down on paper with less effort. This can help people keep pace with their peers in school or work.

Smartpens

Livescribe SmartPen is a helpful tool for dyslexics because it transcribes handwritten notes in real-time, acts as an audio recorder for lectures, and syncs your written notes with the audio for your future reference. There are also other kinds of smartpens with different functionalities that may fit your needs better.

Day Planners

A planner can help with the executive functioning challenges that your teen might be facing. While a physical planner might seem old-fashioned, the process of taking physical notes can sometimes help get things in order. If a physical planner isn’t working, there are many virtual planners available on phones and computers. These can be particularly useful for someone who is dyslexic because they pair well with text-to-speech and speech-to-text functions on these devices.

Kindle

While this is a simple solution, Amazon Kindle or other E-Readers have text-to-speech functions that allow easier reading access. This can be for school, work, or pleasure and make reading less intimidating and even fun.

Accommodations for Dyslexia

There are many accommodations that dyslexic teens can take advantage of, depending on their testing and individual needs.

These accommodations include:

  • Time and a half for testing
  • Individual testing rooms
  • Audiobooks
  • Text to speech software
  • Test reader (someone who reads the test to the student)
  • Someone to help take notes
  • Calculator
  • Scantron free testing
  • Smartpen
  • Recording lectures

Accommodations are an important step for dyslexic teens to find success at school. Finding the right combination of accommodations can be the difference between success and failure for your teen. It is important to ask questions and find solutions that help your teen to reach their potential.

"Special" Education

Many parents of dyslexic children are familiar with the special education offerings of public or private education. Here is a quick refresher and also additional information to help navigate this world.

504 Plan

A 504 plan is not specifically for individuals with learning disabilities. Person’s who qualify have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. As dyslexic persons, a 504 plan allows for them to remain in the classroom with accommodations. Therefore, a 504 plan can be less stigmatizing.

IEP

An Independent Education Plan is a common academic intervention. Many parents may be familiar with IEPs since they require parents’ involvement. An IEP means many things for a child or teen during school hours. For example, it could qualify them for special education classes, neuropsychological testing every year, and other types of special treatment like extra time on tests or taking tests in a remote area with minimal distractions. While these can contribute to a child’s academic success, many parents are led to believe that the school and their accommodations are all that needs to be done. In reality, for many people with dyslexia, that is not the case. Many dyslexics need additional support outside of their IEP.

When learning is removed from the walls of traditional schooling, many dyslexic students excel.

Additional Support to Consider

Outside tutoring – Dyslexic people tend to do well with one-on-one individual attention. Relieving social pressure in the learning process can help kids who might be embarrassed when they need clarification. When selecting an outside tutor, it is important to hire someone patient and understanding of the child’s struggles and strengths. Someone who can help them overcome struggles and be non-judgmental about them.

Private neuropsychological testing – To clearly understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses, neuropsychological testing outside of the school environment can add a lot of clarity. This kind of testing can lead to a proper diagnosis and successful early intervention. But just getting the test done and reading the recommendations isn’t enough. It is important to have someone who understands testing sit down and explain the results. Then for you to interpret those results to your child in a developmentally appropriate way.

For example, explaining that they may have a poor score on spelling and math is not as important as their IQ being 25% above average. Dyslexic people are used to others questioning their intellect and, in turn, doubting themselves. Having a piece of paper that proves that they are not only smart is key for their self-confidence.

Having an idea of their own strengths and weaknesses can be great for their self-esteem but also can provide a direction when it comes to future planning. It can help them choose classes that they can excel in or a school they want to go to, or even a career path that suits their unique talents.

How to Advocate for Your Teen

Being an informed advocate for your child is essential for them to succeed academically. Further, it is important to teach them how to advocate for themselves. Advocating for oneself can be hard for teens because it signals themselves out and highlights their learning differences. Still, developing good communication with your child’s teachers is the best way to advocate in a school setting. This helps teachers to become more aware of their student’s learning differences and lets them prepare accommodations for students who need them.

Teaching Teens to Advocate For Themselves

Even though dyslexia is common, people often do not understand what it means to be dyslexic and how to support someone who is dyslexic. Teens need to learn to navigate these challenges in school for themselves to develop the necessary skills for when it comes up in college or a future job.

What Dyslexic Teens Need to Learn:

  • Tools they need to succeed – reading programs, text to speech
  • Funding that is available to them
  • Rights they have and how to tell employers what they need
  • Resources that they can reach out to for guidance or assistance when needed

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) define the rights of students with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. These individuals are legally entitled to special services to help them overcome and accommodate their learning problems. Such services include education programs designed to meet the needs of these students. The Acts also protect people with dyslexia against unfair and illegal discrimination.

College and Career Considerations for Teens with Dyslexia

Sometimes traditional schooling doesn’t work out for a dyslexic individual. Work experience and on-the-job training become the way to meet their goals. As a result, dyslexic people’s career’s often are full of twists and turns. Sometimes it looks like their lives don’t make sense unless you really understand the connections between each point.

When looking into colleges, it is important to visit their disability center in the application process. Some are great and help guide through the college experience; others can be a hindrance to success.

Also, keep in mind colleges often give tuition assistance and tuition waivers for people who are dyslexic or have other “disabilities.” It is important to know that this process can take a while to work through. Make sure to get started as soon as possible. You will need to provide testing, IEP information, etc. It is recommended to start looking into this a couple of years before college. Early planning can ball rolling and maximize their benefits.

Treatment Options For When Teens With Dyslexia Need Extra Help

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All in all, dyslexia should not be looked at as a disorder but a different way of thinking and learning. It can be hard to look at it that way when you are young and struggling through school, among other things that go along with being a teenager. When things get too overwhelming for teens there are options that can help them become the best version of themselves.

Programs like Aspiro Adventure Therapy can provide teens and young adults with dyslexia the chance to step outside the classroom and learn life skills that go far beyond it.

One of the greatest benefits of the Aspiro program is the increase in self-efficacy that student’s experience. This can especially benefit teengers who are dyslexic. Wilderness adventure therapy has consistently shown to improve self-efficacy through a process by which youth are exposed to seemingly impossible challenges, in novel environments, and through guidance, hard work, and grit, they can find success. Studies on self-efficacy indicate that efficacy beliefs are the best predictor of future performance; therefore, by addressing these issues through wilderness adventure therapy, one can effectively improve the chances of future success.

Another thing that Aspiro helps students with is building grit and resilience. Grit is about perseverance, passion, and determination when things get hard. Resilience is about having the skills and experience to bounce back from setbacks and struggles. Together, Aspiro’s reliance on clinically advanced methodologies and the opportunities for growth provided by adventure and nature are a powerful combination.

Aspiro Adventure uses a dynamic approach that is evidence-based. Aspiro provides accurate mental health assessments, so you can be assured that your teen is getting the help that they need. Neurological testing can be done on-site and interpreted so that their unique set of strengths and weaknesses can be outlined. With this awareness they can have a deeper understanding of themselves. Aspiro provides direction, space and time that is unplugged from the normal everyday distractions.

At Aspiro parents get the coaching they need to support their child best emotionally, and academically.

If you are considering professional counseling and think that wilderness adventure therapy might be a good fit for your teen, reach out to the Aspiro Adventure admissions team. They are available any time to answer all of your questions. Give them a call today at (801) 349-2740.

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About the Author

  • Shannon Weaver, LCSW
    Shannon Weaver, LCSW
    Director of Marketing and Outreach

Failing College? 5 Tips for Conquering Academic Failure

Failing College? 5 Tips to Overcome Academic Failure

Don’t let failing college hurt your relationships, decrease your self-worth, or cause you to develop more serious mental health issues like depression & anxiety.  Here are five ways you can conquer academic failure.

Whether you’re going to college for the first time or are in your final semesters trying to power through to graduation, life in the academic world can be challenging. On top of the pressure to perform academically, many students struggle with living away from home. Being financially independent, making new friends, or finding direction in your life can all be overwhelming new challenges. It’s little wonder that 1 in 5 college students are affected by anxiety or depression.

1 in 5 college students are affected by anxiety or depression.

If left unchecked, these common challenges can lead to academic failure. A damaged GPA can hurt your chances of getting scholarships or being accepted to certain programs of study. It will also, most likely, increase the time it takes for you to earn a degree and find work opportunities related to your field of study.

More importantly, the stress that comes with living under such intense pressure can damage your relationships with friends and family, cause you to develop depression or anxiety, and can even lead to more serious mental health issues like suicidal ideation.

The good news is, there are a lot of resources available on and off campus to help students through this difficult time. College failure can be a scary prospect, but it doesn’t have to be your only option.

Whether you are considering staying in school, taking a semester or two off, or dropping out entirely, here are a few helpful tips that will help you find success.

Learn What Resources Are Available to You

Before you make any big decisions, it would be smart to pay a visit to your school’s counseling center. While many students have likely worked through the college admissions process and discussed grades with a high school counselor, few seem to realize that most college campuses offer similar resources.

School counselors will be able to help you understand the effects your grades will have on your future academic career and what you can do to mitigate the damage lower grades might cause to your transcript. In some cases, you may be able to retake a class or have your grades based on completion instead of a letter grade.

Your school counselor will know what kind of mental health resources your school provides. Thanks to mental health awareness increasing all over the country, many colleges and universities employ school psychologists to help their students work through whatever challenges they may be facing.

Reach Out to Family & Trusted Friends For Help

Unfortunately, many parents and close family members are simply unaware when students are facing difficult circumstances related to college. Even if you’re still living at home, communication usually decreases due to busy schedules and a student’s desire to be independent.

Your parents may ask you about what you’re learning and other exciting activities you are participating in, but without any indications of your internal struggles, they may not think to ask about how you’re doing mentally and emotionally.

Although asking for help may feel embarrassing or shameful it’s completely normal. Your parents or other trusted friends who have been through the college experience before will usually be eager to offer helpful advice or just to lend a listening ear.

They have probably experienced the fear of failure themselves and will be able to relate to how you’re feeling. Spending quality time with people who love you can also help you notice ways in which you are succeeding and help you recognize your value.

Parents are usually willing and eager to help their children but might not always know how. Feel free to look through our other blog posts and additional family resources for more ideas on how to talk with your parents.

Work on Mastering the Little Things

When your life is full of seemingly insurmountable tasks, it can be helpful to distinguish between the things you can and cannot control. For example, you may not be able to control what grade a professor will give for the essay you submitted, but you can control how you’ll react to whatever feedback you receive.

Examples of other things you’ll most likely be able to control are:

  • When you go to sleep and other routines you keep
  • The quality and amount of food you eat
  • How much time you spend on social media and video games
  • How much money you spend on eating out vs. cooking at home
  • Avoiding harmful substances like drugs and alcohol
  • Positive ways you spend your free time (extra-curricular activities, volunteering in the community, participating in clubs, working on a hobby, etc.)
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Sometimes, students living on their own for the first time struggle with common life skills like cooking, keeping a tidy dorm, or caring for a car. Growing up with the limitless distractions of the information age also means students spend less time honing their social skills too.

Taking time to learn these little skills from family or friends can also help you exercise more control over your life. There are even many helpful resources available online to help you learn these basic life skills. Being able to take good care of yourself, your relationships, and your belongings brings a sense of pride that will boost your self-esteem and give you the confidence to face bigger challenges.

Diversify Your Field of Study

Many students struggle to get through general education courses. Because they might have failed math or scored poorly on a psychology test they might feel like school just isn’t for them. General courses are beneficial in expanding your world view and helping you develop grit, but they’re not the most important classes you’ll take.

Higher-level courses that are focused on specific subjects often have smaller class sizes and can be easier to get excited about academically. Even if you’ve failed a general class in your first few semesters, realize that a lower grade now won’t have as great of an effect on your academic standing further on in your university career. Pushing through the generals now and succeeding in higher-level classes later will help you get back into good standing.

You might find more success in a field of study you hadn’t previously considered. Many students have hopes of becoming doctors, engineers, or businessmen and -women; fields that traditionally favor STEM subjects like math and science.

Try taking a liberal arts class in the humanities, communications, or fine arts programs at your school. Even if a career in these fields doesn’t interest you, these classes generally teach creativity, communication, critical thinking, and many more marketable skills that many high-profile employers are after. Most campuses also have career resource centers that can help you identify your interests and strengths and recommend courses that you will find enjoyable.

If you’re already enrolled in a specific major, consider talking to a counselor from your program about ways to fulfill general requirements that are more interesting to you. They have most likely worked with many students just like you before and know ways to help you find success.

Many programs offer courses that will fulfill general and major requirements. Not only will these classes help you feel more interested and successful, but they will also get you closer to graduation faster than your regular general classes might.

Many college campuses regularly host major fairs & career fairs. If you haven’t quite decided on a major, consider attending one of these events. This can be a great place to meet counselors, students, and successful people in various fields of study that interest you and can help you discover programs you might not have been aware of previously.

You could also try talking to other students about their majors to find something that interests you more. Try joining a club where you’ll find students with common interests or backgrounds to learn about new opportunities.

Consider Taking Time Off

Graduating is no little task. Recent figures show 6-year graduation rates at 58%. That means that, even after 6 years at a 4-year college or university, at least 42% of students still don’t have a college degree. While the idea of finishing college as soon as possible can be appealing (especially to your wallet), sometimes, overwhelmed students just need to take a deep breath and step back from all of the stressors that college life brings.

Even after 6 years at a 4-year college or university, at least 42% of students still don't have a college degree.

Consider lightening your course load and take one or two classes instead of a full-time schedule. Talk to your school counselors about internship opportunities that might help you save or earn extra money while still receiving course credit. There’s no shame in taking a little extra time to graduate if it means expanding your horizons and gaining diverse experiences.

If you do decide to take time off, it’s also a good idea to give your break an expiration date. Decide beforehand how long you’ll defer your study–a semester or two would be preferable in most cases. It’s normal for people (your family especially) to worry about whether or not you’ll ever go back to school. If you have a concrete plan, you shouldn’t have to worry about what they may think or say.

Make sure you spend your time doing something productive like getting a job, traveling, volunteering, or some other activity that inspires you. You can still take a valuable break without giving up entirely.

Don’t be afraid to try a class at a local community college or a vocational school. While a degree from any number of elite colleges can open many doors of opportunity, there are many successful people who have taken other paths. Depending on your personal situation, you might find better opportunities where you didn’t think to look before.

Enrolling in a Wilderness Adventure Therapy Program like Aspiro could also be an excellent way to get your life back on track. Well-trained guides and therapists can help you in many of the same ways school counselors and trusted family members can as mentioned above. A few big advantages they have, however, is the ability and resources to help you navigate your struggles with research-based expertise and the time to focus individually on your growth and progress. 

Spending time in the wilderness can help you change bad habits by shaking up your routines and helping you disconnect from addictive technology and substances. Participants at Aspiro also develop new hobbies and forge new friendships that can last a lifetime.

Additionally, Aspiro participants set goals and learn strategies that help will help you develop the self-efficacy & resilience needed to face the challenges in everyday life. Perhaps the best part of wilderness adventure therapy is that you’ll receive all of these benefits while also participating in fun adventure activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, and more.

We hope you find these suggestions helpful and wish you well in your academic career. Contact our admissions team at [email protected] or by calling 801-349-2740 to learn more about how we help young adults and how you can become an Aspiro participant.

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy

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Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

About the Author

  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW
    CMO

Motivating Teens & Young Adults: Over 65 Insights & Tips to Help Gifted Underachievers

Motivating Teens & Young Adults: Over 65 Insights & Tips to Help Gifted Underachievers | Aspiro Adventure Therapy 

In this article, we discuss motivating teens and young adults and provide an overview of the reasons some young people are unmotivated and underachieving in school. We focus on aiding these individuals who are experiencing academic failure by helping them work through a variety of challenges, including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, family conflict, self-esteem issues, risky/harmful behaviors, substance abuse, and behavior issues.

This article is written for parents, teachers, school counselors, or anyone needing advice on where to turn to help a teen or young adult who is unmotivated, underachieving, or struggling in school.

Wilderness Therapy: A Remedy for Low Motivation, Underachievement, and School Failure

Some students experience trouble in school due to learning disabilities or a neurodevelopmental issue such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Other students, however, struggle in school due to a lack of motivation. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults who have typically earned good grades in the past to start underachieving in middle school, high school, or college.

While parents often attribute this lack of motivation to their child simply being “lazy” or unchallenged, a sudden change in academic performance can signify a deeper issue. When adolescents and young adults are struggling emotionally or psychologically, their grades can certainly be impacted.

What is Motivation?

“The term motivation refers to factors that activate, direct, and sustain goal-directed behavior… Motives are the ‘whys’ of behavior – the needs or wants that drive behavior and explain what we do. We don’t actually observe a motive; rather, we infer that one exists based on the behavior we observe” (Nevid, 2013).

Theories of Motivation:

Researchers in biology, psychology, and economics have all developed various theories to explain motivation.  Many of the theories separate motivation into two types:

  • Intrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed because of the innate or inherent sense of personal satisfaction that they bring.
  • Extrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed in order to receive something from others—such as praise, attention, or social status.

Unfortunately, no individual theory fully explains motivation and what drives behavior. However, by looking at the key ideas behind each theory, you can gain a better understanding of motivation as a whole (click on each theory to learn more):

The Drive Reduction Theory states that our behavior is driven to satisfy certain drives.  If our hunger grows strong enough, we are driven to take action to reduce the feeling and we eat something.

Arousal in this sense does not refer to sexual intimacy, but rather a state of being alert, awake, and attentive. In terms of motivation, Arousal includes pursuits that help them to feel a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. People are motivated to engage in behaviors that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal, and depend on individual arousal levels:

  • low arousal levels – content to simply read a book
  • high arousal threshold – engaged in risk-seeking behaviors.
Humanistic Theories of Motivation states that people are motivated to fulfill basic biological needs for food and shelter, as well as those of safety, love, and esteem. Once the lower level needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfill one’s individual potential.

Incentive Theory of Motivation says that behavior is primarily motivated by the incentive of extrinsic factors. In other words, people are motivated to do things because of external rewards or to avoid external consequences.

Expectancy theory of motivation says that when we are thinking about the future, we formulate different expectations about what we think will happen. When we predict that there will most likely be a positive outcome, we believe that we are able to make that possible future a reality. This leads people to feel more motivated to pursue those likely outcomes.

The Stages of Motivation: Identifying Where Motivation Breaks Down

If you can identify at which stage your teen’s motivation breaks down, you can better know how to intervene. In psychology there are three fundamental stages of motivation:

  • activation – the actual decision a person will make to begin a specific type of behavior.
  • persistence – the factor in which a person will continue moving forward with a specific and set goal, even when hurdles are thrown in their way.
  • intensity – how much concentration, focus, and energy is put into the pursuit of a specific goal.

Again, motivation is defined as, “a cause or reason to act, an inner urge that moves or prompts a person to action.” If you want to motivate a teen or young adult, you can either increase the reasons to act or decrease the reasons to not act in each of these stages. In order to increase reasons to act, it is helpful to know what is causing the lack of motivation.

Causes of Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement

When an otherwise bright and capable student starts to experience school troubles due to a lack of motivation, parents, teachers, and school counselors will often attribute this lack of motivation as “laziness” or “slacking off.” While, sometimes, poor grades are simply a reflection of a student’s apathy toward school, other times it can be a warning sign that your child is struggling with something bigger. Academic underachievement and low motivation in teens and young adults can be triggered by any of the following issues (click on each item to learn more):

Goals can de-motivate a teenager when their goals are not their own, but ones that have been set for them by authority figures.  These goals are something you want them to accomplish, but they may not be something they want for themselves. Their heart just isn’t in the effort.

If your son or daughter has grown up overly focused on pleasing others and living exclusively the life you have planned out for them, they will end up with NO IDEA what they want or even who they are.  It is important to give your teen as much autonomy as is appropriate, let them fail, let them succeed entirely on their own, and let them figure out who they are and what they want for their own lives.  Help them to find their WHY.

A fixed mindset is when your teen believes their capabilities are fixed.  They are either good at something or bad at something.  This mindset is easily identified by phrases like, “I’m not very creative,” or “I’m not very good at math.” When teenagers adopt a growth mindset, they learn that they may be bad at something right now, but with practice, they can improve and become “good” at something.

It is important for your teen to have goals that are challenging but not overwhelming. Goals that are too small don’t inspire motivation, but goals that are too big seem impossible to achieve.

As adolescents transition into their high school years, there is an increased pressure to perform well in school, get into college, play well in sports, do well on tests, etc. When high schoolers make the transition to higher education, there is the added pressure and responsibility of being on one’s own for the first time. Some students simply are not prepared for these added stressors, leading to an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. This can certainly hamper academic performance.

There are few things that are as demotivating as feeling obligated to accomplish goals that you think are impossible to achieve. There are a couple of common causes for feeling overwhelmed:

  • Lack of clarity: either on what the actual goal is or on what to do next to accomplish the goal. If this is the case, help your teen or young adult make SMART Goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
  • Lack of task, project, and self-management skills: your teen or young adult may not know how to break tasks and projects down into manageable chunks. Help them identify the different steps it will take to accomplish a goal, and then help your teen to put each step on a calendar so they know how much time & effort it will take to accomplish.
  • They lack the necessary knowledge & skills: Imagine if you had never played the piano and someone told you that you needed to give a performance at a recital in 3 days. Your teen or young adult may feel the same way about accomplishing their goals. They just don’t know how to do it.
  • Procrastination: some teens and young adults (especially those with ADHD) crave the intensity that a deadline provides. They get a rush when they put off study sessions until the night before a test, or submit a paper with just minutes to spare. These teens argue that they do their best work at the last minute. Unfortunately, teens are terrible at estimating how much time and effort a project will take. As they get older and projects get harder, this habit leads to a recurring feeling of being overwhelmed. Help your teenager better manage their time and energy & avoid this “motivation by disaster” habit.
  • They are simply exhausted: If your teenager is already a particularly high achiever, or even if they are simply unused to exerting a sustained effort, they may be experiencing burn out.

Parents can do too much planning and problem-solving for their teen or young adult. We all want our kids to succeed and avoid the sting of failure.  Our best intentions lead us to be overly involved in their school and extra-curricular activities, sometimes to the point of doing projects almost entirely for them.  When you make ALL of the decisions for your teen, it trains them to be comfortable feeling helpless, knowing that you will ALWAYS do it for them. Learn to support your son or daughter without doing things for them by teaching them to embrace the decision-making process, not run from it.  Give them control of their own life, but don’t make them feel like they have to navigate life on their own.  It’s a fine line and will take some practice, but you can learn how to empower and support at the same time. 

If your teenager or young adult never finishes anything, they may struggle with either the persistence or intensity stages of motivation. There are three common causes for this lack of grit:

  • Failure to experience success: If your son or daughter has never experienced that emotional reward of accomplishing something they’ve worked hard to achieve, they don’t know what they’re missing. Encourage them to stick with a smaller but difficult goal, and when they finally achieve it, make it a big deal and truly celebrate. As they build on that success and accomplish more difficult tasks, their self-confidence and ability to tolerate discomfort will grow over time.
  • Failure to experience consequences: This often happens either when parents shield their kids from life’s natural consequences or struggle to enforce consequences in their own family. It is important to let your teenager learn from failure.
  • Mental health struggles: sometimes, this could be indicative of depression, anxiety, or a learning difference like ADHD. If you think this may be the case, please consult a professional to have your teen tested.

Most parents don’t truly understand the power of their words and actions. Sometimes our efforts to “toughen up” teenagers or young adults or to help them see a key character flaw results in shame rather than motivation.

These teenagers and young adults often feel they have to be perfect and are afraid of never measuring up. To counter this, make sure you focus A LOT more on the positives than on the negatives. Research suggests that it is best to give positive feedback 5 times more than constructive criticism.

Lack of sleep, poor exercise and nutrition habits, and toxic relationships all contribute to low motivation.  Help your son or daughter get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, avoid junk food (especially energy drinks and sugary foods), and have them take a walk around the block every day.  In addition to helping their overall health and well-being, it will increase their motivation.

​When teens and young adults have low self-esteem and self-confidence, this is typically accompanied by low-performance standards for themselves. They don’t believe they can achieve what they’re striving for. What looks like laziness may be fear of failure, exposure, pressure or, most of all, the future. Even the brightest individuals with low self-esteem can believe themselves incapable of performing well in school. In order for your son or daughter to be motivated to accomplish anything, they must first believe it is possible for them to succeed.

In a strange phenomenon, these teens and young adults often become comfortable being unhappy. In fact, they become so comfortable being unhappy, that it can be uncomfortable for them to feel happy. They not only struggle to believe that they can accomplish something, whenever they do they can feel that they aren’t deserving of the accomplishment.

And because your teen or young adult is uncomfortable with happiness, they don’t trust it. They often seek out a more familiar feeling of emptiness and discouragement. In these scenarios, they are not only unmotivated to accomplish a goal, but they also tend to self-sabotage.

Teens and adults display signs and symptoms of depression very differently. An adult who is depressed is more likely to outwardly appear sad. Teens and young adults, however, may appear angry, irritable, or just apathetic. School failure can be indicative of unmanaged or undiagnosed depression in young people.

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common diagnoses in young people. Because anxiety symptoms are associated with impaired cognitive functions, including concentration, anxiety can–much like depression–appear not just as excessive worry, but fear of judgment, unwillingness to try new or previously engaged in tasks/assignments, irritability, anger, and physical symptoms such as frequent stomachaches and headaches. At times students might display apathy towards assignments, saying “I don’t care about school,” when really they are anxious about underperforming, being wrong, or being judged negatively by others.

Adolescents and young adults who are the targets of bullying can often experience feelings of social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, and fear. These negative emotions can, in turn, lead to poor academic performance. In addition, since school is oftentimes the scene where bullying occurs, some victims will skip school altogether to avoid the conflict.

While many adolescents and young adults demonstrate a high level of maturity, most are not emotionally equipped to deal with major family conflict or trauma such as divorce, abuse, adoption issues, and similar situations. Some adults even have trouble dealing with these issues. Due to their inability to cope with the negative feelings associated with these situations, some will experience major anxiety and emotional turmoil that has the potential to hamper academic performance as well.

Grief is a hard emotion for anyone of any age to overcome. For adolescents and young adults who are less familiar with this emotion, the death of a family member, pet, friend, or peer can be overwhelming and hard to process. Young people may struggle to give it 100% in many aspects of their lives (relationships, jobs, sports, hobbies) after a loss, but the ramifications of failing in school are something that can follow them for some time.

When teens and adolescents start experimenting with drugs and alcohol, a drop in grades and a change in peer groups are usually two of the very first (and biggest) signs.

Because poor academic performance is often a reflection of emotional or psychological turmoil, parents shouldn’t simply dismiss bad grades or underachievement as their child being “lazy.” If you know your son or daughter isn’t living up to their potential, talk to him or her. Find out what’s going on. If you suspect that their underachievement may be simply the symptom of a more serious emotional or psychological issue, talk to his or her physician or mental health care provider.

Ways to Motivate Teens and Young Adults at Home

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The high school and college years are full of some major life changes for many students. Whether your “A student” has become a “C student” or your child is failing every class, academic underperformance and underachievement can be a sign of an internal struggle. There are, however, some ways you can help your child if he or she is struggling with academics. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of helping an underachieving student who lacks motivation (click on each item to learn more):

Every individual is different. Comparisons to their siblings, classmates, or friends can be extremely detrimental to your child. Statements like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your sister?” or “Your friends all got A’s on their projects!?” simply aren’t helpful. Some parents will even compare their child’s academic performance to their own, “I loved history when I was in high school! I got an A.” This can make your child feel inferior to others and that they will never be good enough as a person. If your son or daughter is struggling with an emotional or psychological issue such as depression or low self-esteem, statements like these can exacerbate the problem.

In addition to making comparisons to others, if your child is experiencing emotional or psychological turmoil, criticizing your child’s efforts can simply exacerbate the problem. Avoid labels like, lazy and unmotivated. Rather than criticizing, seek to understand their difficulties, help them know you see the good in them as a person. In addition, ask how you can help. “Do you need to drop an after-school activity to have more time for homework? Would a quiet working space help? How about after-school tutoring or lessons?” Limit arguing and lecturing, yelling never helps, discussing does.

When your child does perform well academically, make sure to praise each step in the right direction. Whether they aced their big midterm or improved their grade on an assignment, positive reinforcement is a significant motivator. In addition, it is vital to challenge any negative statements about him or herself. For example, if you child states that he or she failed a test “Because I’m so stupid,” simply remind them that, “You didn’t do well for the test, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s talk to your teacher to see how you can improve for next time.”

Chances are if you have noticed your child’s waning academic performance, so has his or her teacher. Reaching out to school staff to notify them of your child’s struggles will help to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks. In addition, your child’s teacher being more aware of the situation means it is more likely that they will know to notify you if he or she skips class or fails a major project or test.

If your child is having troubles in school, have him or her screened for a learning disability or neurodevelopment issue (such as ADHD) to rule that out as a possible culprit behind his or her waning academic performance. While many individuals are diagnosed as children, over 60 percent of adults with literacy problems have an undiagnosed learning disability. In addition, some students with ADHD (and in particular predominantly Inattentive ADHD) aren’t diagnosed (and therefore do not receive help) until the high school, college, or adult years.

​Depression and anxiety rob teens and emerging adults of the desire and energy to progress. If you suspect your son or daughter is struggling with depression or anxiety, please see a therapist or medical professional. If depression and anxiety are severe enough, you may need to consider a treatment program like wilderness therapy.

The goal of motivating teens and young adults is to get them to eventually be able to live independently and strive to achieve life’s goals without you pushing them. You can mold intrinsic motivation once you learn details about what fuels your teenager or young adult. Here are some ways to help your son or daughter develop internal or intrinsic motivation and not rely on external or extrinsic motivation.

  • Use incentives carefully Avoid external rewards and punishments as much as possible.  Research shows that external rewards can actually decrease intrinsic motivation.  External rewards, praise, punishment, etc. can be very effective, but there is a better way.  Help your son or daughter recognize their natural feelings of accomplishment after completing a task.  Or encourage them to study a subject that already fascinates them.
  • Recognize efforts and achievements – Celebrate your son or daughter’s effort and don’t focus solely on traits or outcomes.  This helps develop motivation for the process and the grit to tolerate the discomfort that may come as they work towards achieving a goal.
  • Celebrate strengths – You will find it is much easier to develop intrinsic motivation in your child if you focus on what they are good at and stop dwelling on what there are not good at.  If your son or daughter loves art and despises math, help nurture that creativity.  Or if they prefer biology to English, go with it. Your child has unique gifts, talents, and interests.  Teaching young people to discover their gifts and talents helps develop motivation.
  • Play video games – This may seem counterintuitive but playing video games teaches teens and young adults to put in consistent and sometimes prolonged effort to accomplish a goal.  Just make sure you set limits around playing video games.

As your child transitions to adulthood, it is important that you give them as much opportunity to practice independence as possible.  This applies to motivation as well.  Here is how you can start to put your teen or young adult in the driver’s seat:

  • Reflect on your own motivations – in looking for ways to motivate your teen or young adult, it’s important to reflect on the origins of the goal you want them to achieve.  Is it something they chose to accomplish or is it something you chose for them?
  • Let your child state his or her own goals – when you let your son or daughter have a say in which goals to pursue, it helps them to take ownership of the goal. 
  • Leverage their radical self-interest – help your teen or young adult answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  Once you help them understand the benefits that come from living a goal-centered life, they will be more open to practicing their motivation.
  • Expand their vision of the future ­– sometimes it is hard for teenagers and young adults to imagine that anything can be more important than what is going on in their lives at this very moment.  Help them develop motivation by painting a picture of what life could be like 2, 5, or 10 years into the future.  Once they catch the vision, the motivation to act today comes much more easily.
  • Make it achievable – previously we talked about how demotivating it is when your son or daughter feels like there is no way to accomplish a goal.  Avoid that overwhelming feeling by making sure everyone agrees on the end goal, the steps it will take to accomplish the goal, and the time frame. 
  • Don’t move the goal post – Once the goal is set, stick to it.  Don’t change the goal halfway through.  If goals are always changing, your son or daughter may feel like it is impossible to achieve them and lack of motivation to keep trying.
  • Seek out sources of inspiration – Dreaming motivates everyone, including teens and young adults.  One of the best ways to find a dream or goal is to be inspired by something.  When we see other people accomplish amazing things, it helps us expand our self-perception of what we are capable of.  Connect your teen or young adult with positive mentors and role models to help lift their motivation.  Take them to an art gallery, a concert, a sports game, watch an inspirational movie, or host an Olympics party.  Enroll them in sports, send them to robotics camp, or join an outdoor adventure group–Anything that will get positive mentors and inspiration in your child’s life.  
  • Encourage them to journal journaling helps teens and young adults understand their own thoughts and feelings.  It can be their sounding board just to get everything out of their head so it is easier to examine and challenge when needed.
  • Challenge the negative voices in their head – Everyone has a voice in their head telling them to play it safe and to not take too many risks.  Sometimes this voice can be negative, telling your son or daughter that they aren’t good enough, strong enough, or talented enough to accomplish their dreams.  It is safer to just spend the foreseeable future on your couch and not try anything too daring.  Ask your teenager about the negative beliefs they have about themselves and together develop a plan so that both of your actions challenge those negative voices and beliefs.

Maintaining a solid connection with your teen or young adult helps facilitate motivation. Here are some ways you can build your relationship and provide “motivation through involvement.”

    • Empathize – put yourself in their shoes.  Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.  Resolve any problems once you truly understand what’s going on with your teen or young adult.
    • Quantity over quality – It’s important for you to be there for the special moments and celebrations in your child’s life.  It is also important for you to support them through the boring, tedious, or uneventful moments as well.  The uneventful, but consistent relationship building provides a foundation for your child to practice being an adult and then come back to tell you about it.
    • Be Mindful Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life.  What are their patterns, what do they get excited about, what are their friendships like?  If it is hard to find the time to talk, see if you can set up a regular date night or a scheduled hang out with your kid.  Go do something fun and show genuine interest in what is happening in their life.
  • Communicate Encourage communication that is clear, sincere and open by using the EAR method:
    • Encourage Ask open-ended questions and validate your son or daughter’s feelings.
    • Affirm You can show you understand without agreeing. “I know it’s not easy for you to talk about this,”
    • Reflective Listening  Repeat what you heard in your own words to show that you get it.

If you encounter resistance when trying to motivate your child, try the Stop, Drop and Roll strategy created by psychologists Sylvie Naar-King and Mariann Suarez:

      • Stop and evaluate – Is your son or daughter escalating, blaming, stonewalling?
      • Drop your current approach
      • Roll with the resistance – Make a statement that shows you get it, quit for now and try another approach later.
  • Listen to them Practice motivational interviewing by asking open-ended questions about your son or daughter’s life and truly listen to the response. Fight your urge to comment or advise. Ask them what they are feeling and strive to connect and validate those feelings.
  • Always follow-through Teach by example and make sure you always keep your promises and commitments, including holding boundaries and implementing consequences. If you have a hard time remembering, try using a “contract” with your son or daughter.  Outline what each of you commit to and what the expected outcomes will be.

There are 4 common parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, Uninvolved, and Authoritative.  Authoritative parents create positive relationships with their kids while still setting boundaries and enforcing rules.  Here are some authoritative parenting strategies that can help increase motivation in your teen or young adult.

  • Focus on having influence, not control – One of the hardest realizations for any parent is to recognize the only person they can control is themselves.  Instead of demanding that your son or daughter comply with your rules and using punishments and bribes to get them to obey, try to influence them instead. Instead of telling them to do something, take the time to explain why it is important, discuss all their options, and talk about the potential consequences of their choices.  Imagine they are on a jury and you are a lawyer.  You can’t force them to make a certain decision, but you can make your case.
  • Joint problem-solving – Include your son or daughter in the decision-making process as often as you can.  It’s okay to let them know that you don’t have all the answers.  Simply state the problem and see if you can come up with a solution together. In doing so, you give them the respect they desperately seek and show them you are on their side.
  • Hold boundaries and follow through on consequences While you should include your teen or young adult when setting boundaries and deciding on consequences, it is up to you to hold those boundaries and follow through on consequences.  Doing so can actually help your teen or young adult feel secure, knowing that their home foundation isn’t going to shift depending on your mood or how badly they act out.
  • Help them remember – Use planners, checklists, external timers, and visible reminders to help your son or daughter remember their goals and track their progress.  This keeps goals and projects top of mind and helps keep them on track. It will also help you avoid nagging.
  • Stick to a bedtime routine free of electronics – As mentioned above, lack of sleep is a huge motivation killer.  Set a consistent time for you all to go to sleep, and together as a family, turn off your electronics at least an hour before.
  • Provide regular drug tests ­ 75% of high school students today have used addictive substances.  By regularly drug testing your teen or young adult, it gives them an easy reason to refuse invitations to use drugs & alcohol.
  • Share the responsibility provide opportunities for your teen or young adult to have control and make positive choices in their life.  Give them chores to do or have them cook dinner once a week.  Teach your teen or young adult how to accomplish a task and share the joy of doing something well.

When trying to motivate teens and young adults, it is important to focus on the process, not just the final outcome.  Think about a basketball team; if a coach only focused on what happened in the game, the team wouldn’t win very many games.  Rather, coaches provide guidance and direction during practice so that each player’s ability is well honed by game time.  Here are ways you can focus on the journey:

  • Allow small failures  Failure is an important part of learning.  You want to save your son or daughter from repeating your mistakes, but at the same time are you preventing them from learning the lessons that shaped who you are?  Let them learn from failure.  As they fail in small & safe ways, their learning grows until they are able to master what they are working on.
  • Don’t rescue them Allow your son or daughter to work out problems on their own first.  If they ask for help, don’t just give them the solution, but teach them how you came up with the solution.  Empower them so they can do things on their own next time.
  • Give them permission to not have it all figured out in high school – Don’t worry if they don’t know what they will do when they leave school.  The General Ed requirements in college are designed to expose young adults to a wide variety of subjects in order to help them find their passions.  And most people change careers three or more times in their life.  It’s a process.  What’s important is that they just start and try different interests.  The worst thing for them is if they stay paralyzed by fear or shame because they think they should have life all figured out.
  • Don’t make excuses – if your son or daughter is struggling in life or school, don’t shield them from consequences with excuses.  While you may be trying to shield them from pain or criticism, you may be conveying that you don’t believe they are capable.  Let your teen or young adult fail.  Let them experience the pain of the failure.  Validate that feeling and let them know that you believe they will succeed if they keep trying.
  • Never give up – in addition to letting your teenager or young adult fail, it is okay to give yourself permission to not have it all figured out as well.  Not everything you try is going to work.  That is okay, as long as you don’t give up.  If one of these tips doesn’t work, keep trying until you find something that does.  And please remember it is okay to seek help from a professional.  Therapists and treatment programs help teens & young adults find motivation everyday.

Practice using humor whenever you are frustrated.  It can change your whole family’s attitude. See if you can gamify homework and the learning process. Turn chores into a race or make cooking dinner into a singing competition.  Do whatever best fits your family but make things fun.

Options to Aid Academic Underachievers

As discussed previously, when otherwise bright and capable students are displaying waning academic performance, it can be a result of an unresolved emotional or psychological issue. Once they have ruled out the possibility of a learning disability or neurodevelopmental issue, many parents are unsure of where to turn. While every individual is different, here are some possible options to help your child:

Mentoring/Tutoring

If your child is having a hard time adjusting, a good first step in helping him or her is academic mentoring/tutoring. Some students who have done well in grade school and middle school are not used to having to study and work hard to maintain good grades. Enrolling your child in tutoring or mentoring sessions will help with any deficits in his or her studying habits, learning style, organizational skills, and note-taking strategies.

Counseling

If you suspect that your child’s waning academic performance is likely due to an unresolved psychological or emotional struggle, he or she may not feel comfortable talking with you about it. And that’s okay. However, these issues need to be addressed to avoid further disruptions in his or her academic development. Your child’s guidance counselor or physician may be a good starting point since he or she is likely familiar with your child. If they suspect that your child needs further assistance, they will be able to point you in the direction of a credible educational consultant or mental health professional.

Treatment Programs

Sometimes when psychological or emotional issues are present and talk therapy isn’t enough, a treatment program may be the best option for your son or daughter. While no parent ever wants to send their child away from home to receive assistance, it may be worth exploring the benefits of residential treatment. One type of treatment program that has proven especially effective at helping teens and young adults through difficult situations is wilderness therapy. The disadvantages of treatment–absence from school, separation from family and friends–are short-term, but the benefits to participants have the potential to last a lifetime.

Should I Interrupt My Child’s School Year for Treatment?

When your child is performing poorly in school, it may seem counterintuitive to pull him or her out for mental health treatment. However, if an unresolved psychological or emotional issue is the reason behind your son or daughter’s struggles in school, it may be the best way to get him or her back on track. If left unresolved, their poor academic performance could result in the following:

  • Falling further behind in school
  • Increased risk of engaging in high-risk behaviors (i.e., substance abuse, promiscuity, suicide)
  • Resentment towards and disengagement from family and healthy support groups
  • Not getting into a good college, university, or graduate program
  • Further detriment to his or her self-esteem
  • Hampering his or her chances at a successful career

In addition, if left unresolved, mental health issues or emotional turmoil could become exacerbated and can cause many problems in a young person’s life, including:

  • Developing maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with stress or negative emotions that will be more difficult to address later in life
  • Isolation from one’s family and/or peers
  • Increased likelihood for mental health problems later in life

Making the choice to send your child away for residential treatment is difficult, as it will interrupt your life and theirs. The type of intervention provided by residential treatment and, in particular, wilderness therapy may be best executed over several months, and that means that your child will miss school.

The most reputable wilderness therapy programs partner with accredited educational certification programs to ensure that credits are provided and that they will transfer successfully when your teen goes back to school. Earning at least some academic credits while also working through mental health issues may be the ideal situation for your child.

How Wilderness Therapy Addresses Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement

Promotes Self Esteem, Identity Development, and Self Concept

According to Keith C. Russell, a leading wilderness therapy researcher, completing a wilderness therapy program can help to remedy deficits in self-esteem. The strong sense of accomplishment upon completion “is combined with physical health and well-being, which may help clients feel better about themselves, leading to increases in self-esteem and the first steps towards personal growth.”(Russell 2001) In addition, Russell argues that, “An enhanced self-concept represents a sense of empowerment and resiliency.”(Russell 2001)

Mark Widmer, a leading researcher in recreation and adventure therapy, echoes the importance of identity development during the wilderness therapy process. According to Widmer, “Organized activities appear to provide an ideal context for the promotion of positive identity development.” (Widmer 2009)

Provides a Strong Sense of Accomplishment for Teens

A major aspect of the success of wilderness therapy in aiding teens and young adults who are underperforming academically is the strong sense of accomplishment upon completion. Russell states that “completing a wilderness therapy program represents a sense of accomplishment for the client that is concrete and real and can be used to draw strength from in the future.” (Russell 2001) That strength will prove useful in overcoming future obstacles in your teen’s life.

Aids in Self Efficacy

When young people complete a wilderness therapy program with a strong sense of accomplishment, this, in turn, can help lead to higher levels of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish difficult things. Adolescents and young adults believe that “If I completed all of these difficult tasks during wilderness therapy, I can do other difficult things!”

According to Russell, “Clients leave wilderness therapy knowing that they have only just begun the journey and need to continue their own personal growth process.” Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked to greater motivation, positive thinking skills, and lower vulnerability to stress and depression in teens.

Additional Resources on Motivating Teens

  • Duerden, Widmer, Taniguchi, McCoy, J. Kelly “Adventures in identity development: The impact of a two-week adventure program on adolescent identity development”, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Edition 4, Volume 9, Issue 4, Pages 341-359, 2009.
  • Legault, L., Green-Demers, I., & Pelletier, L. (2006). Why do high school students lack motivation in the classroom? Toward an understanding of academic amotivation and the role of social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 567–582.
  • Russell, Keitth C., (2001) “What is Wilderness Therapy?” The Journal of Experiential Education, Vol. 24, 70-79 http://www.pps.k12.or.us/files/tag/Characteristics.pdf

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

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This article was sponsored by Aspiro Adventure, the pioneer of Wilderness Adventure Therapy. Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults.

Aspiro’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging participants on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

Written by:

  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW
    CMO
Shannon Weaver, LCSW
Director of Marketing and Outreach

Shannon is both an LCSW and a certified teacher who brings over 20 years of experience to Aspiro through her work with families and students as a Primary Therapist, Clinical Director, and Admissions/Marketing Director at highly regarded residential and therapeutic programs. Her clinical experience includes county mental health, hospital crisis work, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding, and private practice. Shannon has traveled the world and lived overseas in Israel, Russia, and China while teaching and providing mental health counseling. Her diverse experience gives her great compassion and understanding as well as an ability to relate to and understand others. Shannon is passionate about helping students and families heal, discover their strengths, build positive relationships, and create meaningful change. She has a very caring approach that is informed by her years as a clinician and she has enjoyed moving from a clinical role to working in marketing and outreach. Her infectious positive energy, genuine enthusiasm, and commitment to helping people has made her a wonderful fit for this role. In her spare time you will find Shannon traveling, reading, or enjoying Utah’s beautiful landscapes with her husband and children.

Josh Watson, LCSW
CMO

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW
CMO

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.