Adolescents with learning problems: Are they too old to help?



Some teachers believe that older children or learners in High School who struggle with academics and the demands of school are too old for therapeutic interventions.  They stop looking for signs that could indicate the underlying cause of the problem and instead revert to other ways of helping.  Ways of organising their daily routine, courses in study skills and other remedial aids are offered instead.  But is this the best way of helping?  If the cause of the learning difficulties was not correctly identified and addressed during Primary School years, why is the older learner denied help or even further help once he reaches higher grades?


Older learners and even adults carry with them unresolved neurodevelopmental issues that can make life more difficult for them.  As an example, I remember clearly how, during one training session, a mature adult was found to have a retained primary reflex.  Anyone who has studied Integrated Learning Therapy will be aware that we teach how the reflexes play a significant role in the development and subsequent functioning of the brain.  This is the reason why we include reflex testing in our assessment of learners – no matter how old.  The adult in question showed a strongly present ATNR (Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex) – which means that movement of her head initiated overflow movement of her arms.  On hearing this, she exclaimed that it explained why she had such trouble driving her car.  She was forced to look straight ahead at the road because if she turned her head to look sideways, her arms would involuntarily turn the steering wheel in the same direction.  A dangerous thing to do when driving!  A few months of daily repetition of an activity helped her to resolve this problem.


The fact is that we’re never too old to restore more efficient functioning of the brain.   For hundreds of years this idea was inconceivable because mainstream medicine and associated fields of study believed that brain anatomy was fixed after a certain age.  It was commonly believed that after childhood, the brain only changed when it began to age and decline in functioning.  If brain cells failed to develop properly in the first place, or were destroyed due to illness or injury, they could not be replaced.  Today we know differently.  We all accept that after severe brain trauma, such as a stroke, the patient has a chance of recovering part or even full functioning. This is because the brain finds a new way to function if part is damaged; often it builds new neural pathways around the site of injury.


So the brain is capable of changing – and it can do so across the lifespan. This is due to what is called ‘neuroplasticity’.  Neuro stands for ‘neuron’, the nerve cells making up the brain and nervous system, and plastic for ‘changeable, modifiable, malleable.’ Even eighty-year olds can use neuroplasticity to sharpen their memories and regain earlier mental abilities. 


With this knowledge, it is clear that we might be neglecting our older students if we fail to consider what might be interfering with their brain’s ability to cope with schoolwork.  By evaluating the way their brains developed, assessing vital brain systems that support learning and considering all other factors that could have negatively affected brain structure and function (and perhaps still are), learners of all ages can be helped.


For more information about Integrated Learning Therapy and our neurodevelopmental approach, visit our website We offer training courses to parents, teachers and helping professionals and details of those are on the website.  In addition, you can contact us at


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