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Understanding a Student’s Different Learning Styles

When Brigid was in 10th grade, she seemed to be struggling with … well, just about everything.

“Her educational struggles weakened every aspect of her life,” recalls her mother, Alice. “She had difficulty studying, prioritizing, and organizing.” Brigid had an IEP, but all her friends were in honors classes, which made her feel excluded, depressed, and anxious.

The hardest part was how difficult it was to help her. Her teachers tried, but as Alice describes it, schools can’t always adapt to all the different learning styles of students. Alice herself is a teacher and offered help, but as we all know, teens can meet offers of help from their parents with major eyerolls.

Identify Learning Style and Pinpoint Roadblocks

Brigid’s story has a happy ending. Over the past two years, she was able to advance to honors classes and became a much more confident student. This spring, she graduated from high school and got into college.

The secret to her success? Identifying her individual learning style and pinpointing her roadblocks with the help of an academic life coach.

Interestingly, it wasn’t academic ability that her coach identified as Brigid’s main weakness, but rather executive functioning skills such as organization, time management, and stress management — “life skills” not usually taught in school, but so key to success.

“All kids have different needs and skill sets,” says Natalie Borrell, a certified academic life coach at Life Success for Teens. Her organization provides online or in person coaching to students across the country. “Some students struggle with how to balance studying and managing other commitments. Oftentimes, a more quiet student won’t ask for help. We work with them on how to address these challenges in a way that is comfortable.”

Prioritize Concerns

Knowing what your kid needs is half the battle. “When you are a parent, you worry about so many things at once,” says Borrell. Her recommendation is to pick the one big thing affecting your teen most and start with that.

As a guide, Borrell’s team developed a fun, free quiz on their website to help parents identify what their teen struggles with most. Here’s one sample question:

What are you most worried about when it comes to your teen?

  1. My teen not being able to make it in the “real world.”
  2. My teen’s self-confidence.
  3. If my teen continues at this rate, he or she may not have as many opportunities for their future.

In this case, says Borrell, if you answered “A,” your teen likely needs to develop skills, confidence, and a growth mindset. If your response was “B,” your teen likely needs a boost of self-esteem and the tools to handle stress. If  “C,” then your teen needs help finding the motivation to succeed.

Address the Issues

These kinds of academic struggles are very common among teens, says Jessica Terzakis, a former teacher who now trains new teachers at the University of New Hampshire. “From the most advanced to the most remedial student, so many struggle with balancing work and life, stress, anxiety, and rebounding from setbacks,” she says.

There are many tools parents and students can use to address these issues once they are identified, says Terzakis. For kids who have trouble rebounding from setbacks, identifying emotional triggers and using meditation to reduce anger can be helpful. If you have a student  battles anxiety, breaking overwhelming tasks into smaller chunks and shifting negative thinking are great options.

The Magic of Outside Help

For Brigid, working with an academic life coach helped her structure her time, learn study skills, and plan for the future. The best part? Eventually, Brigid was able to do these things independently.

And, for some reason, the magic seems to happen when it’s not a parent giving the advice. “The unique relationship between the coach and student allows for accountability and no judgment,” says Borrell. “I might say the same thing in the same way as mom or dad, but somehow it’s much more appealing when it comes from me.”

Wendy Wisner’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a frequent contributor to

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