Activating the Second Wave – Intervention for teens experiencing learning challenges.

If you are a parent of a child with special educational needs (SEN), I hope that I do not need to convince you about the importance of early intervention with your child. Usually between the age of 2-4 years old you may have noticed that your child does not respond or develop in sync with their same aged peers. Intervention activities aimed to aid physical, cognitive, communicative, self-help, and behavioural development. Early intervention activities start at diagnosis and usually curb off when they child begins regular school, with some training continuing throughout childhood.

You may think that was it. I am here to encourage you to think of the period between 12-17 years old as the, possible,  Second Wave of intervention. At this time your child, typical or atypical, will go through a lot of change, and similarly to early childhood there is significant developments during these years. As parents and professionals working with teens SEN, the second wave provides a new chance to explore the opportunity for change and positive development. Its important that we honour the struggle that all teens face, and support them accordingly. The Second Wave of intervention needs to meet these children at the stage of development that they have now achieved, not as a simple add on to early intervention plans.

Changes during the teen years.

The teen years are a significant developmental period of internal change for an individual. Together with the growth of body and hormones there is significant development in the learning capacity of teens. This is extremely well detailed in Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nut’s fantastic book, “The Teenage brain”

From a neurological perspective, the teen brain is seen as only 80 percent mature. The finer connections in the brain are yet to be firmly established, and the brain is a time when it is more open to learning and being excited. The neurons in the brain are well connected at the back of the brain, the centre of sex and excitability, but not well developed for the frontal lobes, the centre for rational thought, self-awareness, generating insight, assessment of risk and danger, abstract thought and planning. Jensen likens the teen brain to a sports car that is all revved up, with nowhere to go.

During this time teens are also expanding their knowledge base. It is a period of great flexibility, with windows for great development of learning. However, the open brain is more open to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and drives us into a, “gotta have it” type of state. If you have your teen responding to situations in a FOMO style of anxiety, you know what I’m writing about. Put this all together and you have a teenager – highly excited, easy to learn, find it difficult to explain themselves, difficult to stop an activity, irrational under pressure, and not able to see another person’s view very well. And this is for typical teens!

Adolescents is a period where behavioural and psychiatric issues develop. The general theory is that the onset of such issues may be created with the changes in body chemistry. Therefore, we see issues such as anxiety, depression, self-identify and body image develop during the teen years. Dysregulation of emotion can become common. The atypical teen is as, if not more, susceptible to these mental challenges. Additionally, for some atypical teens conditions, such a epilepsy can suddenly begin in the teen years.

And then there is puberty itself and all that new hormones introduce into and onto the teen: genitals, periods, a desire for physical stimulation (aka masturbation), voice changes, breasts, hair – everywhere – and the new hygiene requirements attached to much of this. You may still think of your teen as a child, but they certainly don’t look like one anymore.

On top of significant internal changes, the atypical teen faces significant changes in their external life. They may be at high school and surrounded by many typical teens, and viewing many behaviours – romantic, personal, oppositional, defiant, illegal – you may have wanted them to avoid. but this is not possible

All of this requires a new intervention plan – one based on their age and the launching pad that the teen years represent. For many children with special educational challenges, they grow into their challenge rather that grow out of it. Rather than trying to change them to fit the world, we have to help them be who they are going to be, but still be able to have a place in the world.

Elements to be considered in the SECOND WAVE of intervention.

The second wave of intervention is different from Early Intervention (ie the first wave) in many ways. Firstly, this wave coincides with the teen years and all the opportunity for growth, and challenge, that those years represent. Secondly, the focus moves away from a deficit model of the child to a strengths model. This is described in detail in another blog from our team , (htps://

Basically we start to focus away from areas that the child can not keep up with their same age peers, unless those skills are considered essential life skills, and spend a greater proportion of time turning splinter skills into academic success, and hopefully career options.

seond wave graphicLastly, we add specially teen focused training towards new essential behaviours and to revisit some behaviour management issues from the past. These include new and updated behavioural expectations, social and emotional support, relationship advice, academic support, learning about learning, independence and understanding of the self.

Areas of training: There will be some behaviours that were cute when your teen was a child may be perceived extremely negatively now that they look like an adult. For example a young boy’s fascination with girls with blonde hair may seem cute, or even charming, when they are a toddler. When they are 6ft tall, very few people will find amorous fascination acceptable, or cute. We need to help these teens navigate the teen and adult rules of engagement around expected behaviour, conversation topics, expressing themselves, etiquette, personal reputation and dressing appropriately, personal space, and personal hygiene. Many of these topics benefit from some peer-to-peer work, discussion and explicit instruction.

Counselling/Emotional sensitivity: It is extremely important that atypical teens are given the opportunity to learn about and express their emotions. After all their experience in the world is very different from ours, or that of other teens. They are more likely to be ostracized, bullied, or overwhelmed. Yet at the same time like many teens they appraise values such as “independence” and “having friends” as important. So we need to help counsel and guide teens to navigate the world of belonging, the importance of a growth mindset, self-acceptance, mindfulness, self-advocacy, resilience, emotional understanding and regulation.

Relationship navigation:  Friendship is a major need of all teens, although the intensity of relationships may differ. Our kids need to learn the basics of making, and being a good friend to another teen. They also need to be able to distinguish a good influence on them, from a poor. Some atypical teens are being bullied by the very people they consider “friends”. During teen years romantic interest will also be piqued. One needs to learn the expectations and restrictions around interpersonal romantic relationships. This is particularly true for those teens who are poor at reading social cues so may come on a little strong, and risk complete rejection. 

Explicitly learning what doesn’t come naturally: Many teens with special educational needs have difficulty is executive function (learning how to learn, how to think) and theory of mind (understanding how other people see the world differently from you) are sometimes easier to train in the teen years, rather than to children, because of the expectations of all teens are explicit around these topics. Teens passionately learn to express their opinions confidently, and listen to those of others. Performing on tests, and comparison of marks, can be a mixed blessing. Knowing that you didn’t do as well as a classmate on a test can open the door to discussion on your learning practices. Whilst we may have explicitly taught  our kids that, “it’s okay to ask for help”, we may need to update this to include the comment, “but try to do it on your own first”.

Cognitive development: remains important: Some atypical teens may have subjects that they are extremely good at (splinter skills), as well as areas that they perform less well in. As teens age, specialisation allows them to drop some topics that hold no interest or remain too difficult and focus on those skills that may help them form success stories, future studies, or even a career. Some topics – specifically basic math, and English, remain essential skills that require continuous learning within age appropriate contexts. It insults the teen to perform reading comprehension around topics or stories aimed at young children. I encourage children with SEN to take on learning communication training – persuasive text, expression, vocabulary banks, as a lifelong education plan.

Independence: Independence is the reward of the teenage years. All of the teens I have worked with over the years see Independence as a positive trait, even if they are not, yet, capable of many aspects of independence. As the parent of a child with special educational needs I have occasionally found offering independence very challenging – what if she gets lost, what if something bad happens. My own daughter has navigated getting home from school when she lost all her money, dealing with flirtations by weird men, and having to ready herself for an exam which we had recorded on another date. In every challenge she was stressed, but responded. In the exam, she actually passed! Independence can, and must be trained.

I am Me: The last special area that is to be considered within the Second Wave is appreciation of the self. This is not just part of the emotional growth that needs to be undertaken during the teen years, this is understanding your unique position in the world., what you contribute, what you want to contribute and how you are different from others. When our children with disabilities are young children we may focus on trying to fit in. In the teenage years this can change. Their strengths become a pathway to the future. Their quirks may become how they are to be defined. To quote a phrase from the fantastic book about being different, Wonder, “Why try to blend in, when you were born to stand out”?

I hope you found this detail of the Second Wave helpful. If you have any questions about the Second Wave, and your child, feel free to contact us via to see how our team of psychologists can help frame support for your child.

#specialeducationalneeds #earlyintervention #teens #autism #relationshiptraining #socialskills #reddoor #theoryofmind #executivefunction #splinterskills #secondwave  

Useful books

Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nut – The Teenage Brain

John Donvan and Caren Zucker – In a different key

Tony Attwood and Temple Gradin (and others) – Aspergers and Girls

Delia Samuel – Against the odds

Barry Prizant – Uniquely Human: a different way of seeing autism

Tony Attwood – The complete guide to Asperger’s Syndrome.

Blythe Grossberg – Autism and your teen

Liam Dawson – Teens therapy: The mental emotional and physical challenges with teenagers.

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