Supporting Youth with Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are more common than you may think. In Canada, 17.9% of people over the age of 15 and 8.4% of school-aged children and youth (ages 5-17) have a learning disability, defined as a neurological disorder that affects the way an individual processes information.
Youth with learning disabilities face a number of challenges, which may include a short attention span, limited memory, difficulty following directions, and challenges in telling the difference between letters, numbers, or sounds. Still, these youth have the desire and ability to learn, and they can thrive in supportive learning environments.
Challenges in Accessing Accommodations
In Ontario, elementary and high school students who experience challenges completing the standard curriculum might be provided with an individual education plan (IEP), which must be developed in consultation with caregivers and include details about educational goals, services and supports, and timelines for educational transitions.
However, teachers often share that it is difficult to implement IEPs and support students’ needs in practical ways. They are expected to assess students, develop plans, deliver different lessons for those students, and attend meetings to discuss students’ needs, often while lacking the necessary time, resources, and supports. Caregivers and teachers can become frustrated, confused, and exhausted in navigating the system to support students with learning disabilities.
Navigating the accommodation process at the post-secondary level is even more complex, and students must often do so on their own, without the support of caregivers or educators. The purpose of accommodations in post-secondary education is to help students with learning barriers have the same opportunities as their fellow classmates to engage in the curricula and demonstrate their capacity to understand course material. Accommodations should not change the requirements of the course nor give students an unfair upper hand in approaching or completing their course work.
Post-secondary accommodations address and mitigate the specific challenges that each individual student may face, and accessibility advisors determine what specific accommodations need to be implemented. However, unlike in high school – where teachers have the autonomy to enforce accommodations based on what they perceive a student may need – post-secondary institutions require rigorous documentation that “proves” a student’s disability and/or accessibility needs before accommodations can be provided.
Opportunities for Youth Workers
Outside of school, youth workers are uniquely positioned to support youth with learning disabilities. There are a number of evidence-based strategies that youth workers can consider in creating an inclusive learning environment, regardless of program focus:
1. Focus on participants’ strengths. Incorporate a strength-based approach to build young people’s confidence, sense of self, and self-esteem, and to support their mental health and wellbeing.
2. Assess each participant’s needs. Recognize that each young person, including those with learning disabilities, is unique: tailor program content to their needs, strengths, areas of improvement, and interests.
3. Break down tasks. Decrease feelings of overwhelm by making activities less daunting – break down bigger tasks into smaller ones.
4. Meet youth where they are at. Affirm participants and support youth to trust themselves by acknowledging the challenges they may be facing, including with respect to experiences of stigma and discrimination.
5. Build participants’ advocacy skills. Support youth in learning how to describe and give voice to their perspectives and needs.
6. Serve as a resource navigator. Connect youth with learning disabilities to services and supports that may be helpful outside of school or program settings.
By creating programs that keep in mind the challenges youth with learning disabilities face, youth workers are also creating spaces were many young people will have the opportunity to thrive. Making programming accessible is one step in the right direction to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to do well, with or without a clinical diagnosis of a learning disability.
Teja McFarlane is a Research Assistant at YouthREX and a Master’s of Social Work student at York University, having previously completed both a Social Service Worker diploma and a Bachelor’s of Social Work.