Academic Support for Middle School Students with Learning Issues
While many teachers are trained to identify problems with a student’s academic performance, many traditional schools are not designed to offer academic support for students with learning issues. Often, students who struggle with unique learning styles struggle to ask for help or to know what they need to be successful in a classroom and teacher’s resources are stretched thin in large classrooms. In order to create lasting changes in students’ attitudes towards school and their future goals, academic support for students with learning issues should take a strengths-based approach that encourages students to embrace their “learning differences.”
At Asheville Academy, we consider ADHD a learning difference, not a mental health struggle, although we acknowledge that many of the students we work with struggle with other co-occurring mental health issues. Asheville Academy uses a multidisciplinary approach to help girls with learning differences, like ADHD, stay engaged in the classroom and with their peers. We acknowledge that learning issues can affect many areas of a student’s life, not just their academic performance and focus on integrating interventions that support the mind, body, and soul.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
What are Learning Differences?
Every student learns differently, whether they prefer a specific style of learning, need additional help with certain topics, enjoy some topics more than others, or have difficulty understanding certain concepts. We reject the phrase “learning disorder” as it stigmatizes intellectual capacity, when in reality, students need to discover their preferred learning style, develop stronger study skills, and reach out to teachers to ask for accommodations to help them succeed in the classroom. Asheville Academy helps middle school girls who have struggled with low motivation or poor academic performance in the past rediscover their academic strengths by catering to individual learning differences.
Types of Learning Differences
Some signs of learning differences in middle school girls include:
- Issues spelling words correctly
- Trouble with memory and frequently forgetful
- Problems adjusting to new settings and environments
- Avoids reading and writing assignments
- Difficulty summarizing or grasping abstract concepts
- Often misinterprets or misreads information
- Either hyper-focuses or ignores details
- Works slowly or spends a ton of time studying yet still struggles in class and with grades
- Trouble following directions or staying organized
What is ADHD?
ADHD, or attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, is a condition that is usually diagnosed in childhood and is often most noticeable in classroom settings, although its underlying symptoms continue to show up through adulthood. Although many teachers may identify ADHD in students who have visible problems with conduct and impulse control, it is better understood as learning differences that can appear in a variety of ways. The four main categories of ADHD include insatiability for new experiences, mismatch of information, behavioral inhibition and control, and inattention. Types of treatment for ADHD depend on the most prevalent symptoms.
Signs of ADHD
Primarily hyperactive-impulsive type:
- Fidgety and restless
- Has trouble sitting down for an extended period of times
- Talks excessively and struggles to stay quiet
- Frequently interrupts others and has trouble waiting for their turn
- Insatiable need for mental stimulation, easily bored with information and easily distracted
Primarily inattentive type
- Difficulty staying focused during class, reading, or play activities
- Struggles to finish tasks they’ve started
- Makes careless mistakes around attention to details
- Difficulty staying organized
- Easily distracted
- Often forgetful and misplaces things
What Challenges Do Teens with Learning Differences Face?
While learning differences are most often diagnosed in childhood, in some cases you may not notice the effects until your teenager hits middle school or high school. Puberty, changes in social norms, and academic challenges may intensify signs of learning issues that may have gone unnoticed earlier. Learning issues, like ADHD, a high co-morbidity with other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and behaviors that may be identified before underlying learning differences. Based on their restlessness and do-it-all attitude, students with ADHD may be more likely to overcommit to activities and burn out when they realize it’s not sustainable. The amount of pressure they put on themselves is immense and they internalize realistically not being able to do it all as a sign of personal failure.
Some additional challenges teens may face may include:
- Low frustration tolerance
- Loss of belief in ability to succeed
- Perfectionism with respect to academic work
- Trouble advocating for themselves
- Increased academic challenges as course-load leans towards critical thinking skills
- Comparing themselves to their friends academically and socially
How Does Puberty Affect Individuals with Learning Issues?
Fluctuating hormone levels during puberty tend to intensify academic challenges, especially for girls. Hormone-induced mood swings, impulsivity, and irritability may resemble signs of learning differences, like ADHD. They may be more emotionally reactive and on edge due to a combination of underlying issues and hormone instability. These can lead to increased distractibility, disorganization, and overwhelming feelings which can take a toll on self-esteem. While your daughter may just be going through normal teen moodiness, learning differences can make the transition to adolescence more overwhelming.
Some changes in puberty may include:
- Peer pressure
- Difficulty understanding shifting social norms
- Delay in social-emotional learning
- Medication changes
- Increased insecurity
- Increased impulsivity
- Greater risk for substance abuse, depression, and other mental health issues
When Does Your Child Need Treatment for ADHD?
Adolescence brings a new set of challenges that can be hard for teens with learning issues to adjust to. Often, academic struggles change with age as school-related tasks and social situations become more complex. Children who received early intervention for learning differences with medication management and social and emotional skills training may be better prepared for the everyday challenges of adolescents than teens who have continued to struggle with their learning style. If your teen is also struggling with co-occurring mental health issues, they may benefit from treatment for ADHD focused on teaching them healthier coping mechanisms.
How to Motivate a Student with ADHD
Managing every object, idea, obligation, event, relationship, deadline, to-do, and expectation is overwhelming. Many young people find it hard to stay motivated, but students with ADHD struggle more with staying on task and keeping the same goals, especially if they’ve internalized negative beliefs about their academic potential. They may feel under pressure to succeed but are resistant to asking for help with motivation.
- Remind them to check in with themselves more frequently. It is easy to get caught up in to-dos and what-ifs and forget where you are in the moment. Their thoughts are often going a mile a minute and it helps to slow down and ask what am I doing right now? How am I feeling right now?
- Ask about their intentions. We set intentions subconsciously before we create more concrete goals. Intentions are qualities or values we bring into situations in order to help us engage more actively and achieve specific goals.
- Work with them to set personal goals and break them down into more manageable tasks. Creating a schedule or list as a visual helps them measure their progress. Some people do better with deadlines than others.
- Remind them of their strengths. Our society tends to follow standard ways of measuring success, which depersonalizes the qualities people possess that have shaped where they are. We often judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to others rather than focusing on what makes us powerful individuals.
Treatment Options for Teens
As the root issue of learning issues is challenges in an academic setting, the most effective therapeutic approaches integrate academic support. Treatment options, like therapeutic boarding schools, combine elements of some of the most popular therapeutic approaches in a supportive environment.
- Individual Therapy, preferably with someone in a school setting, helps students process emotional issues brought up by learning differences and academic struggles. Therapists may offer strategies for self-esteem, school anxiety, and self-advocacy in the classroom.
- Medication management can be a useful tool for teens with ADHD, who struggle with concentration and energy, in addition to other lifestyle changes.
- Recreation Activities are widely-recommended for teens with ADHD as a healthier outlet for their energy that helps them build confidence and develop stronger relationships. While many wilderness therapy programs are designed around the personal benefits of adventure activities, recreation activities are a strong component of other programs, like therapeutic boarding schools, as healthy social activities.
- Therapeutic Boarding Schools are recommended for teens who have fallen behind in school or are struggling socially as they balance group therapy with academic support in smaller classrooms. While they offer individual and group therapy for co-occurring mental health issues, their focus is addressing how learning issues have affected their academic performance and empowering students to become more invested in their future goals.
What Makes Therapeutic Boarding Schools Stand Out from Other Treatment Options for Learning Issues?
Individualized Treatment Plans
At Asheville Academy, we believe that treatment for ADHD should be individualized and focus on how to increase functioning in relationships and in the classroom. Our small classrooms offer fewer distractions in the environment and allow for more creative instruction. Our teachers break down assignments into smaller tasks and encourage students to set personal goals for their academic success to help them stay motivated and focused on the current task.
Mindfulness breaks and sensory stimulation are incorporated into the school day to keep students on track and help them stay regulated. Our holistic approach acknowledges the importance of mindfulness and recreation in building skills to improve coping and in empowering students to have fun and to find structured activities they enjoy that are mentally stimulating. Students can work with a psychiatrist to determine if appropriate medication would be helpful for them, but we believe that lifestyle changes can be a powerful form of healing for students with learning issues.
We incorporate strategies that acknowledge learning differences in individual therapy, group therapy, family sessions, and equine-assisted therapy. The overall goal for students is not necessarily to improve their academic performance, but rather to help them feel more confident in a school setting–academically, emotionally, and socially. Offering a variety of therapeutic modalities helps set students up to succeed in multiple areas of their lives long-term.