How to Help Teens with Disabilities Navigate Challenges in School

A cheerleader with Down's Syndrome

School for teens with disabilities can look quite different than what others experience. Unfortunately, outside of disability-conscious communities, there isn’t often much discussion about what young people with disabilities face as they pursue their education.

But there should be. Despite what popular culture may suggest, many young people live with disabilities. In fact, recent estimates suggest that as many as 1.3 million Americans ages 16 to 20 have a disability.

There are more young people with disabilities than there are resources to support them. That means parents, friends, and loved ones can play a crucial role in helping young people succeed.


Helping Teens with Disabilities Face Academic Challenges

School is where many teens and young adults with disabilities spend most of their time. But it’s also a place where young people may face significant challenges. 

Especially without advocacy or support, teens with disabilities may struggle to keep up with the curriculum, navigate assignments, or explore their identities. Understanding what you or your loved one needs to succeed academically is arguably for a positive experience at school.

Special Education for Teenagers with Disabilities

You or your loved one have rights protected by U.S. law regarding access to special education programs. 

For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that free, appropriate public education be available to eligible children and teens with disabilities. Under IDEA, all schools must ensure special education programs are accessible and meet student needs.

Not all teens or young adults with disabilities participate in special or disability education programs. But for those who can benefit from individualized support and tailored academic goals, special education is key.

If you’re a parent or guardian, make it a habit to sit down with your loved one and discuss their experiences in the classroom. There may be opportunities to improve their academic experience or focus on new goals.

Reasonable Accommodations

While they’re more often discussed in the context of the workplace, accommodations are also integral at schools. Ensure your loved one has access to accommodations they need and check in regularly. 

A big part of helping young people navigate academic challenges isn’t eliminating the challenge but leading the way through it. Processing emotions, wanting to fit in with peers, or feeling frustrated are all normal parts of the process. You may not be able to erase the problem, but you can demonstrate how to manage it successfully. 

In some cases, teens and young adults may be expected to take the lead when it comes to expressing the need for new or different reasonable accommodations. Be sure your teen or young adult knows how to access resources that help them get the right support.

Helping Teens with Disabilities Face Personal Challenges

Unfortunately, the ups and downs of the school year don’t necessarily stop when the bell rings. Personal challenges – like those related to relationships, identity, etc. – impact just about every young person. They’re a natural consequence of maturing. But choice, a key tenant of person-centered planning, can significantly lessen these challenges. 

Giving teens and young people control over how they experience the world (who, what, where, when, and why) can make facing personal challenges much easier.

Social Skills & Obstacles

Some teens with disabilities may communicate differently than others. These communication differences can be perceived as social deficits, especially by outside peers. 

But helping young people feel empowered to connect with others in a way that fits them is important. Look for natural opportunities to forge new friendships, like clubs or sports, and encourage existing relationships. 

Be open with your loved one about the challenges they face. Invite them to speak honestly about their experiences. Social isolation, bullying, and similar concerns shouldn’t be ignored. But many challenges are opportunities to learn how to comfortably and authentically express oneself. 

Above all else, remind yourself or your loved one that everyone faces social obstacles sometimes. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s also true that things can get better.

Finding a Community

Humans are social creatures. Feeling a sense of community is a basic need. But many teens and young people find it challenging to find one. 

Fortunately, the disability community is strong and supportive. But young people can also find community through extracurricular activities, volunteer work, jobs, and much more. 

What matters most is that your loved one has the freedom to pursue the community that feels right to them.

Final Thoughts

No two young people with disabilities are alike. There may be no one-stop solution that will take away all of your or a loved one’s challenges, but there are steps you can take to lessen them. 

Engage with the resources available to you, foster open communication about challenges, and empower your loved one to take charge of their experiences. NeuroNav is here to help you understand your options for support. 

Our services help connect individuals aged 14+ with disabilities and their families with the tools they need to bring their goals to fruition. We’re here to make it simple to understand and engage with California’s Self-Determination Program. Book a free consultation today to learn more.


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