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At Risk Teen Behavior -- Find the Right Program for Your Teen

by Bodin Associates

At Bodin, we have found that a correlation between learning disability with "at-risk" behavior is indisputable. Parents often contact us with a litany of behaviors and trends in their child's academic career that have now culminated in truancy, substance abuse, etc. They will describe the many early intervention attempts that have failed, leading them to call us. What we are seeing is the risk factors associated with learning disabilities are magnified when they are not identified or addressed early on. Many times, we are dealing with exceedingly bright adolescents who may be compensating for a processing disorder or other undetected learning disability. By middle and high school years, this compensation begins to impede a child's progress. It is at this point that many are shutting down and giving up as the effort becomes too great. The challenges and tasks associated with school years over-taxes the executive functioning capabilities to the point that the student may lose their sense of self and competence. This, of course, can lead to a downward spiral where associating with other kids who are "underachievers"becomes a source of comfort.

It is also during this time that our students may have introduced to alcohol, marijuana and other substances. Other behaviors that these students may engage in include shoplifting, self-mutilization or "cutting", vandalism, social avoidance and internet addiction. By this stage there are often years of "failures" resulting in a near total erosion of the child's self-esteem and often other associated elements such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and or addiction and oppositional defiant behavior. By this stage, substances have begun to have a somewhat palliative though fleeting, effect. The substance replaces true emotional development and maturation and further erodes motivation and other executive functioning such as delay of gratification, frustration tolerance and organizational skills. It's common that parent's describe a reversal of the maturation process in these students. This often makes developing a therapeutic relationship with the teenager exceedingly difficult. Attempts with tutors, therapists and medications have proven insufficient by the time families reach us.

At this stage, after multiple attempts to negotiate change, both the parents and student are frustrated at what seems to be a lack of desire, but is really an inability to meet the expected changes. Intervening at this later stage requires a broad, objective strategy and plan. Families may begin to consider residential placement, especially if the behavior has taken on significant risk of physical harm. Parents must also consider the "opportunity cost"of not intervening when a child's development is impaired.

As the objective architect of this plan, we must first be familiar with the ever-broadening and shifting range of options that exists for families and children. By traveling constantly throughout the United States we maintain an understanding of this range. We strive to educate families about the range of options and what we have seen work historically for children in similar circumstances. Parents facing these tough choices are often constrained by the lack of good, objective, information. The internet produces a dizzying array of pitches for schools and programs with slick images and glowing testimonials. While there are excellent facilities out there, it is essential that a 360 degree view of the child and family system be addressed to optimize the chance for long-term success for each individual child and their family. We seek the input of the various collateral professionals who have had contact with the child and his family. This often includes therapists, tutors, school personnel, etc. Reviewing prior testing or even getting further, perhaps more in-depth, testing done is also often part of the planning process. Integrating thorough, formal assessments into the strategy phase is one of the most important steps when dealing with a child with learning Disabilities. However, one of the many frustrations we encounter is how few treatment programs out there, while they claim to deal with children with learning disabilities, really have much in the way of sophistication around these issues, especially as they interrelate with other treatment objectives. Further complicating things, the family system must be attended to therapeutically. Without casting blame on the family for their current predicament, it is imperative that families understand and get coaching through how their role will contribute to the successful outcome in any intervention plan. Many times, parents will disagree as to the origin and nature of the problem, even blaming each other for the problems.

Often, we will integrate an initial "wilderness" experience at the front end of a treatment intervention for "at-risk"adolescents. While there are many wilderness programs out there these days, a good wilderness program (in contrast to Boot Camps) is based on a philosophical foundation of natural and logical consequences. For our purposes, wilderness programs can be a powerful initial "wake-up call" that has, in addition to its therapeutic benefits, an extraordinarily helpful evaluative and preparatory role in the overall plan for a given child and family. As with any other type of program, wilderness programs' overall sophistication with regard to learning disabilities varies greatly from program to program. Furthermore, we routinely make recommendations to wilderness programs not only because of the attributes of the particular program, but also based on the areas of expertise and style of specific therapists in various wilderness programs.

In many ways, learning disabilities are one of the last frontiers in the developing world of treatment programs for adolescents. There has been much progress with regard to individual and group therapy, addictions, family systems, etc. And, while there are many programs that do well with children with learning disabilities, too often these disabilities get neglected in treating the other, more immediately identifiable "problems" presenting upon admission.

The good news is that there is, indeed, a growing sophistication around these issues and there are many programs that have developed or are developing a truly sophisticated, integrated approach to working with at-risk adolescents who also have learning disabilities.

Please visit our website for information about our school and admissions process at

For information about what Bodin can do to help your child find the right program for him/herself, call 650-937-1111, or email us at

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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