The following is a transcription of the podcast, “Helping Teens with LD Explore a Career Path (Audio).”
In this podcast, the National Center for Learning Disabilities asked Candace Cortiella to interview Dr. Arlyn Roffman, a licensed psychologist and full-time professor at Lesley University, where she served as the founding director of Threshold, a transition program for young adults with learning disabilities (LD). Their conversation focused on helping teens with learning disabilities discover their career path. Dr. Roffman is the author of Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities: Navigating the Transition from High School to Adulthood published by the Princeton Review.
Candace Cortiella: More than 80 percent of students with LD enter the workforce immediately after high school. This makes it critical to provide high school students with the skills and knowledge that lead to successful employment. Dr. Roffman, what is the first step in the process of introducing teens to the world of employment?
Dr. Roffman: That’s a really good question and I promise to answer it. But first I feel I have to make an editorial comment. If 80 percent of youth with LD are headed to work, that means only about 20 percent are headed to college, and even fewer of those complete college. I wish more of them would find a path to higher education instead of diving right into employment after high school because there’s plenty of time to enter the workforce. It’s important to keep in mind that workers with even an associate degree have significantly higher earning power than high school graduates. And lifetime wages increase with each higher degree earned.
So, we all have to work harder to encourage youth with LD to continue their education. I know our goal for all students is to eventually find their place in the work world, which, of course, is our topic for today. I truly believe that the first step toward successful employment (and to a healthy adulthood for that matter) is self-awareness. Teens need to tune into their interests, their strengths, and their challenges. We can help them by asking lots of questions about their interests, their favorite subjects in school, their hobbies and the free-time activities they enjoy, and what special talent(s) they might have.
Once we know what kinds of activities motivate students we can move on. We need to help them take a hard look at their basic skills in math, reading, and writing, and those areas of strength or challenge. We can also ask them how good they are working with their hands, getting along with other people, and being a member of team. We can also ask if they tend to work better when they can sit quietly for long periods of time or if they prefer taking a test that allows them to move around. In my book, I have a series of questionnaires that can help parents sit down and talk with their kids about things like this.
Answering these questions raises awareness and helps you begin career planning. So, for example, a young man who recognizes his strength in tinkering with machines is really a strength in spatial perception, he might use that information to work toward becoming a machinist. But he might also see that there are a variety of career paths that call upon those spatial skills. Self-awareness is the first step.
Candace Cortiella: So, before teens with LD begin career exploration they should engage in the process of self-awareness. Does this also help foster better self-image and self-acceptance?
Dr. Roffman: Absolutely! Part of the journey into adult life for any child with LD is coming to terms with the label [of learning disability] and what it means. This is not easy but it’s critical. We just have to tackle the shame factor that is such of source of pain for so many kids with disabilities. We need to help kids understand what an LD is. I personally prefer to call it a learning disability and not a “learning difference” or some other phrase that avoids the term [disability], largely because learning disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and in Section 504, where learning differences and other terms are not protected.
We need to help teens recognize their LD and understand that they are going to have to deal with their disability in their day-to-day life and work. LD isn’t just a matter of being in school or an academic issue. It is not going to go away. It will play out in different ways in an individual’s life, but it will stay with them. This is tough stuff, but they need have a chance to ask questions about it and to understand “the elephant in the room.” They know there’s something different about them. Ideally they’ll come to understand that LD is only one piece of a larger package of who they are.
I like to talk with students about the yin and yang of learning disabilities, that along with their weakness (the yin), they have strengths (the yang), that some of those strengths may be directly attributable to the LD itself. LD can bring gifts such as empathy to the struggles of others or create a problem-solving [ability] as students with LD find many creative ways to work around their issues. So, once a teen is able to see that and to reframe his or her LD, then self-image problems often decreases significantly.
Candace Cortiella: What about the importance of building an understanding of why people work? Should this be part of the process?
Dr. Roffman: Absolutely. The financial benefits [of work] will be the most obvious to them since most kids at some point save up for items they want to buy. But it’s also important for them to know about the sense of fulfillment that comes from working and that it brings people a sense of purpose. People don’t just work for money; they also work to find their place in the adult world.
Candace Cortiella: As you know, school – and high school in particular — doesn’t offer much flexibility for students. They need to take certain courses at certain grades in order to graduate. But unlike school, work provides an opportunity for young people with LD to focus on something that interests and motivates them. How can teens go about discovering what types of job might be a good fit for them?
Dr. Roffman: Finding the right fit is really important for anyone entering the workforce. Unfortunately, many teens with LD don’t know how to match their interests and strengths to jobs that are out there. Often they aren’t even aware of the job possibilities. Many teens with LD underutilize a great resource: the high school guidance department. Guidance counselors have access to all sorts of tests and inventories to assess student strengths, interests, and aptitudes .They also have the tools to match the result to positions in the workforce. They have all sorts of lists and software that can help them say this set of strength and this profile matches with this list of jobs.
The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation is a federal agency that works with individuals with disabilities to help with this kind of assessment as well. So, there are resources out there. Students can also ask other people about what kinds of jobs they have and what that entails. I think sometimes students don’t even know what their parents do, so asking their parents and relatives what their jobs are can give them a sense of what options might available to them.
Candace Cortiella: What can parents do to promote career exploration while their teen is still in high school?
Dr. Roffman: There are many things parents and schools can do to help kids explore their vocational options. Research tells us that having a job during high school is an important first step to being employed after high school. It’s really important that we give kids opportunities to work even in volunteer positions during their school years. A lot of [school] districts create school-based jobs like helping in the main office, or assisting with custodial or landscaping services. Some schools have school-based enterprises such as photocopy centers or school stores, and these are great at providing students with the chance to try out work skills within a supportive environment.
[School-based work] is a good starting place, but it isn’t authentic enough to meet a student’s career-training needs entirely. What are missing are the social expectations, the stresses, and the real job tasks that come with work in the community. When students work in a real-world setting they are much more likely to generalize the skills that they learn, which means they will use them in the future. So, community-based job training comes in many different shapes and sizes. There are internships that allow students to work for several weeks or months in jobs that interest them. In these situations they typically attend academic classes in the morning and then go to work several days a week at places such as the local daycare center or auto body shop or the library, where they benefit from on-the-job training and plenty of supervision.
Apprenticeships are another community-based option. Some schools help students find extended training opportunities under the supervision of experienced workers in highly-skilled trades, such as cabinetry. Schools may also provide opportunities for job shadowing which entails working alongside an employee to develop a sense of what that person’s position involves. A series of job-shadowing experiences can really help a student gain a sense of variety of occupations. Job shadowing can even take place during the weekend, not just during school hours.
Candace Cortiella: What other things are important for parents to keep in mind during the transition planning process during the high school years?
Dr. Roffman: First of all, we want all students with LD to graduate from high school. If they can graduate with a standard diploma, more doors will open to them. At this point, nearly 40 percent are not getting a standard diploma, or are dropping out. Those numbers are just terrible. So, we have to keep them in school and help them graduate. Beyond that it’s critical that both parents and teens understand that when a student exits high school he or she leaves behind the entitlement of IDEA. There is no special education in the adult world, even in college. It’s a harsh reality but individuals with disabilities have to understand that once they leave high school, assistance won’t be provided unless they self advocate for any help they might need.
Self-advocacy is a really important skill to have, and it begins with the self-awareness I spoke about earlier in our discussion. High school students have to be aware of their needs and what accommodations will help them perform their jobs well. And they need to have both the skill and the willingness to ask for any accommodations they need. By the way, there is a great resource to help figure out which accommodation might be needed for any particular position. It’s called the Job Accommodation Network (JAN); it can be easily accessed online at askjan.org.
There are also laws that people need to be aware of. These laws provide civil rights protection for individuals with disabilities. IDEA protects students aged eight to twelve years, but beyond that, Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are designed to protect them in adult life from discrimination based on the disability in adult life. But here is the big caveat: These laws only apply if the individual discloses that he or she has an LD or any other disability. Another whole podcast could be about the pros and cons of disclosure. There are many issues that people have to consider about this.
It’s very important to be informed and to develop the self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-advocacy skills to step forward when necessary to optimize their chance for success in the job. I firmly believe that with good training, with knowledge about themselves and the law — and with self-advocacy skills mentioned — individuals with LD can enter the work world and succeed.
Candace Cortiella: Currently under the IDEA, transition planning for high school students with LD is meant to begin at age 16. Do you think that’s the right time to begin transition planning?
Dr. Roffman: I think the process should begin as early as possible. And certainly self-awareness activities and teaching self-advocacy and promoting self-determination can begin as early as elementary school and certainly by grade five. In terms of actual transition planning, however, a lot of states have stuck with IDEA’s previous requirement that the process begin at age 14. So, there is a movement in many states to start the process earlier — and in some places even earlier than that. I think the earlier, the better.
Candace Cortiella: Thank you so much for talking with us today. We would like to remind our listeners about your book Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities. It’s a great resource for parents, teachers and other service providers who work with students with LD.
This transcription was made possible by a grant from the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation.
Job Accommodation Network (JAN)
Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities: Navigating the Transition from High School to Adulthood