4 Ways to Support Youth Who Learn Differently

BGCA’s Chrissy Chen and Kat Adams partnered up to write this post, filled with interesting info, fascinating examples, and practical ideas! Let’s dive in!

Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.

Kimbleré Crenshaw

I was recently stopped in my tracks by this quote from civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. Let it simmer in. What comes to mind? I paused thinking about times when inequality could result not just from “treating the same things differently” but also from “treating different things the same”  

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to reflect on the difference between equality and equity when it comes to supporting youth with learning differences.  

Prioritizing equality in a learning experience might look like giving every young person the same thing, even if youth needed different types of support to succeed and thrive. Prioritizing equity requires us as youth development professionals to be responsive to the unique strengths and needs of the youth who serve by providing different supports to different young people, especially because our brains don’t all learn in exactly the same way.  

The fact that our brains don’t all learn in the same way is sometimes called “neurodiversity,” and champions of neurodiversity often describe the way that a learning difference could be considered a disability is some scenarios could be considered an advantage in other scenarios.  

For example, Ingvar Kamprad – the founder of furniture giant IKEA – had dyslexia. As a result, he wanted assembly instructions to not rely on written words. The solution? Pictures! Another benefit of picture-based assembly instructions is they work in any language!

Actress Alyssa Milano also has dyslexia and found a different benefit. When struggling to learn monologues at age 14, a mentor suggested writing them down. She says, “I use that method to this day. It not only familiarizes me with my words, it makes them my own.” Quarterback Tim Tebow used a similar method for learning plays – drawing them out on flashcards 

World Cup US Goalkeeper Tim Howard was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder & Tourette syndrome as an adolescent. In his book, he writes about how his OCD and TS were an asset in the goal: “The more I played, the more I began to understand what the doctor had said about enhanced perception. I could see things somehow, things that other people didn’t seem able to. I could see, for example when a game was about to shift, could sense the attacking patterns before they happened. I knew exactly when the winger was about to cross the ball and whose head it would land on. I could see the flicker of a striker’s eyes before he pivoted. Sometimes I even saw it in time to warn my defender.”  

Mls Soccer Block GIF by Major League Soccer - Find & Share on GIPHY

Like other dimensions of diversity, neurodiversity makes groups more creative and effective by pulling together different perspectives. Neurodiversity is valuable, but that doesn’t mean creating an experience for a diverse group of learners is always easy for the person facilitating.  

So how can we, as Youth Development Professionals, help youth who learn differently optimize their strengths and feel supported when they struggle? BGCA and Kit have developed some fantastic resources which are available on BGCA.net, but here are a few first steps:

1. Identify barriers to access

In order to create inclusive experiences, you need to notice the systems, spaces, or practices that are exclusive. Look for the barriers that might prevent someone from fully participating.  Put on your access goggles and ask yourself what barriers might be preventing youth from participating. Sometimes offering materials in only one language is a barrier. Sometimes requiring youth to always talk in front of a large group instead of getting to share their ideas with one or two people is a barrier. As you’re planning or reflecting on an experience, ask yourself, “what barriers might be preventing some youth from thriving?” 

2. Check for understanding

If you’ve ever asked “Does everyone understand?” and then later found out that nobody understood, then you’ve experienced firsthand the importance of a good check for understanding. Spoiler alert: asking “Is anyone confused?” is not a good way to find out whether anyone is confused. Instead, ask young people to explain a concept back to you in a format that works for them.  They might say, write, draw, act out, or check in with a friend to demonstrate their understanding. Checks for understanding aren’t pop quizzes; they’re ways to help you know when you need to explain something differently or modify the activity. 

3. Scaffold big ideas

Imagine you’re part of a construction crew building a skyscraper. You can’t start on the 10th floor – you have to build your way up gradually and create extra supports for those fragile upper floors. Big ideas are like skyscrapers. If you don’t have a strong foundation, building those high-up floors will feel very shaky. Instead of charging ahead without support, help youth build little skills that ladder up to harder skills and then gradually take away the extra supports. If you check for understanding and youth demonstrate that they understand the initial concepts, you’re ready to move to the next level.  

4. Adapt activities so that everyone can fully participate

If an activity isn’t going to work for everyone, you can add adapt it or introduce accommodations to ensure that everyone can fully participate. Adaptations are not about making the activity easier (Some of my former students played wheelchair basketball, and let me tell you that sport is not easier than non-wheelchair basketball). Rather, they’re about removing barriers and making the activity accessible to everyone.  Exact adaptations and accommodations will vary based on the goals of the activity and the needs of the youth you serve, but here are some examples:  

Download this 2-page list of possible adaptations for youth in several categories, including developmental disabilities, speech and language delays/disorders, learning disabilities, and more.

Use the TREE Model for modifying and adapting activities:

Teaching style 

  • Simplify directions by taking one step at a time. 
  • Be prepared to have back-up activities for those who finish more quickly or lose interest. 
  • Provide both written and verbal instructions 
  • Narrate your actions while you are demonstrating 
  • Alter the sequence of steps used in the activity (for example: have paint in trays and shapes cut out for some, and allow for others to pour their own paint and cut out their own shapes.) 

Rules, Regulations, Roles 

  • Give you choice for how they plan 
  • Allow youth to choose the topic area for a project, and how they present that project 
  • Pair-up participants who can assist one another. Someone who learns best by reading or doing can read content to someone who prefers to listen 
  • Provide alternative, yet essential, roles  


  • Provide options for the materials and equipment used in the activity   
  • Provide options for the type of materials used 
  • Provide noise-dampening ear muffs for those who want to block out extra noise 


  • Have a quieter part of the room for those who prefer to work, create, or practice solo, and a space for collaborating.  
  • Give youth access to tools for them to control their learning (for example: have a “flashcard station” where there are always index cards, show youth how to use speech-to-text 

(Learn more about using this model in the Gym or Gamesroom here.)

Nyc Subway Internet GIF by Ryan Seslow - Find & Share on GIPHY

Let’s come full circle to the Kimberlé Crenshaw quote: “Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.” 

One simple takeaway? Youth Development shouldn’t be “one size fits all” because our youth are not all the same size. So, let’s be responsive to the unique young people we serve with adaptations, accommodations, and accessibility for all. 

Saint Mary's College of California GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

How have you supported youth with different learning needs? What other tips and ideas do you want to share with Boys & Girls Clubs across the country? We want to hear! Contact us by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org.

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