Life Skills for Teens with Learning Challenges

Life Skills for Teens with Learning Challenges

by Kathy Kuhl

Part 2 of a series on Life Skills (which began here).

Recently, I spoke on helping teens and young adults with ADHD develop life skills. (The link to the audio is below.) This is important for all teens, but especially those with learning challenges. Young people who struggle with attention or learning don’t pick up all skills as readily as their peers.  How can we help them?

As I said last time, it’s most effective to begin teaching these skills early. But if your child is 15, 18, or 23, needs more life skills, and isn’t really interested, what can we do?

Many things, in fact. Let’s look at one example. Suppose you want your young adults or teens to learn to read maps, but they aren’t interested. Here are some things you can do:

Compromise on the small stuff

First of all, don’t give your teen an excuse to say, “You never listen to me.”

Let’s assume that you want them to learn to read maps, but they say that they don’t need to learn how. In that case, you might:

  • Admit that, if they have a smart phone or GPS, they can get by most of the time.
  • Start them using those devices, and reading directions to you. This will help them learn routes and learn to read the maps on the devices. (That’s another of those sets of skills that come automatically to many, but not to our kids with learning challenges.)
  • Ask them to help you find good landmarks, then…

Compliment them as they make progress

Encouragement should remain in our repertoire with teens, just as with younger children.

Build slowly on those skills, using real-life situations

As they make progress, point out reasons for developing those skills further. So in the case of map reading v. GPS, point out that:

  • Devices sometimes lose their signals, and sometimes lead us astray. That’s when map reading skills can help us out.  (My first GPS tried to tell me to take Route 15 across the Potomac. There is a Route 15 on both sides of the river, but no bridge nor ferry.)
  • GPS and map apps can take you on weird routes. Looking at a paper map first can help. (Last week, my route across suburbs in rush hour included a half-mile of gravel road. Ten cars were ahead of me. I’d bet we all just trusted Google. Yes, I got around a traffic jam. No, I didn’t save time.)
  • For long distance trips, paper maps can give you a great overview and a valuable back-up plan.

Engage their interests

For the map reading, you might have your young person:

  • Find a favorite local destination and trace a couple different routes. (Suppose this intersection is closed. How else could we get there?)
  • On a multi-state (or multi-province) map, sketch out long trips to places they’d like to go.

Teach them about consequences.

To reinforce the importance of map-reading, you can:

  • Offer to drive them places, if they will track the route on a paper map. Choose places you don’t mind not going to, in case they say no. Begin with places they want to go to and already know the way to: nearest store, theatre, library, or playing field. Have them track the route, and perhaps even give you directions. 
  •  On such trips, ask them: if someone gave you a ride home, could you give good directions from the same playing field, theatre, store, friend’s house. Encourage them to think like a driver. They should learn to say ahead of time what the next turn will be. “Down at the next light, make a left,” instead of, “Oh, sorry, turn right here! I mean, left.”
  • For your dyslexic teen or young adult riding in front in the passenger seat, teach them to gesture with the whole arm, not one finger, in the direction they mean, so their driver can see it in their peripheral vision. (Let them practice with you so they don’t whack the driver in the face.)
  • Next, practice with them giving you directions. Be ready to drive past your street if they don’t tell you to turn. Yes, they will be annoyed. Be sympathetic, not snarky.

Another Example: Job-hunting skills

Teaching a teen how to apply for jobs? There are plenty of things you can do here, as well. First, get a dozen applications from each place, or make copies. Kids with handwriting struggles will hate this, however, so work in small sections to lessen stress.  

Paper applications are useful. Online job applications do avoid the handwriting problems, but can be a huge hassle. Dyslexic students can misread one line, and often the application software makes it hard or impossible to go back and change an answer. My son applied about thirty times to two companies, contrary to their printed advice, because the software was very badly written. 

Prepare for job interviews

Then, talk over the kinds of questions that managers and online applications will ask. For example, “Is it okay for an employee to take a soda without paying?” Your child may think, “They’ve got hundreds. This is no big deal.” But the answer is no unless the boss—not just a co-worker—says otherwise. Make sure all your children understand that shoplifting is theft and can lead to jail. As with the map-reading example, help them understand the real-life impact.

For all young people, but especially those who have trouble seeing the perspective of others, emphasize the business owner’s perspective. Discuss business’ cost of doing business to help them see why certain things are important on an application. For instance, one store manager explained to us that his grocery earns only a few cents on every dollar purchase. So while we customers may wait in a checkout line where many people spend over $100 and think, “This store is raking in money,” perhaps they’re only raking in the pennies.

In addition, role-play job interviews, even if your teen hates the idea. Ask a family friend to play the role of interviewer. Talk about how to dress, and when to arrive (a little early). Ask the kinds of questions you’ve already been discussing with your teen.

Finally, encourage your child to get to know store staff before and after they apply, by visiting a business several times.

Parents should read or have their teen or young adult read Learning a Living, which covers much more on the job search. If parents have read this book, they will be ready to share short sections from it with their dyslexic teens as needed.

More tips for teaching life skills

  • Don’t try to teach in the midst of a crisis. It’s hard to learn in a panic.
  • Keep your life skills lessons as real and hands-on as possible.
  • Make math meaningful, but round the numbers and allow calculator use.
  • Keep such math lessons grounded in reality. A math book or a parent can ask, “Is three shirts for $15 better than four for $18?” But a math book will never ask if the student needs four more shirts. So you should ask.


Next time, I’ll have more on teaching teens life skills. What are your tips? What questions do you have? Please post them in the comments section below.

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