Learning Disabilities, ADHD and Deliquency: Is There a Link? An Introduction

By: Kathleen Ross Kidder

Youth with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are significantly less likely to graduate from high school and significantly more likely to be placed in juvenile detention facilities (Winters, 1997; Crawford, 1996). Students with LD and/or ADHD typically have average to above average intellectual potential. They can succeed in college. An information processing dysfunction limits their ability to use information successfully in one or more academic areas. For example, a student may have a visual-motor processing deficit. S/he is accident-prone. In school this translates into difficulty with solving math problems as numbers are incorrectly aligned. As the teacher implores the child to do better "because s/he has the ability if only s/he weren’t so lazy," self-esteem often plummets, positive peer involvements decrease, and a pernicious pattern of academic and social withdrawal can begin that leads to a downward spiral of delinquency, drug use, and emotional problems.

It has been estimated that as many as 50% of incarcerated youth have identified special education needs (Rutherford, et al, in press.). Among all incarcerated young people, 46% of males and 27% of females will become repeat offenders. Recidivism rates are even much higher for youth with LD. Adjudicated youth with LD and /or ADHD are also far less likely to make the transition to post-secondary education.

The academic failure hypothesis of delinquency predicts that as students fail they leave school or suffer academic frustrations that are externalized onto society in the form of delinquent acts. Students with LD also often have poorly developed social skills, low self-esteem, and impulsivity that increase their likelihood of getting caught.

Traditional remediation models focus on alternative educational settings for such youth once adjudicated and incarcerated. In 1998, for example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) initiated projects to "facilitate smooth transitions back to their home, school, and communities." These models focus on the inadequacies of the student rather than systems that make transitions more difficult. Traditional remediation models provide family counseling, probation houses, and other programs to help the youth adjust. They do not take into account the significant percentage of youth with special education needs within this population. If the models do not account for this it means their staff, from judges to probation officers do not understand how students with LD and/or ADHD respond. These models ignore what educators have long known: those who work with students with disabilities must have special training. The better trained the staff, the greater the likelihood of educational success. Those who work with incarcerated youth generally have little awareness of the needs of youth with special education needs. They also tend to be unaware of the implications of case law and the obligation under federal law (IDEA, 504 and ADA) to provide services to these young people (Sturomski, 1997).

Bittan (2002), a special education attorney in Denver, Colorado, developed "Commitment to College," a program for imprisoned youth. By working to educate judges, correction staff and educators on the needs of students with LD and/or ADHD he achieved significant increases in student motivation. Training of judicial staff translated into a college transition success rate of 80% among a pilot group of students with special education needs. This success translates to the wider community as recidivism rates decrease, crime is reduced, and the number of individuals productively engaged in the work force increases.

There is an urgent need to address the lack of education among personnel who work in the court systems with youth with special education needs. This need was recently amplified by Dr. Robert Pasternack, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, who spoke last month at the International Dyslexia Association meeting in Atlanta as he discussed the relation between learning disabilities and risk for juvenile delinquency. Suggested solutions included courses that met learning needs of all students and perhaps a model that involved innovation models of instruction using collaboration with the junior college systems.

What can be done now? Greater care in program selection of students whose unique learning needs are outside of the traditional academic model is a start. Of critical importance, however, is the training of staff, judges, policemen, and parol officers who work with youth. First time offenders too often become repeat offenders because they are not able to alter the behaviors that got them in the trouble in the first place. When a police officer does not realize an adolescent is unable to follow the chain of events that led to an action (as too often quickly explained by the policeman), due to a learning disability, both the adolescent and the officer lose. The adolescent can become mired in the downward spiral. The police officer may lose the chance to really help an offender turn his or her life in a more positive direction.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Akers, R.L. (1997) Criminological theories: Introduction and evaluation. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Bittan, Bradley (2002) Utilizing Special Education in the Juvenile Justice system, paper presented at the Learning Disabilities Association in Denver, Colorado.

Crawford, D. (1996) Review of research on learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency. In S. Cramer & W. Ellis (Eds.) Learning Disabilities: Lifelong Issues. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Robinson, T. Rowland & Rapport, MJ, (1999) Providing special education in the juvenile justice system, Remedial and Special Education, 20, 19-26.

Rutherford, R.B., Bullis, M., Anderson, C.W., & Griller-Clark, H.M. (In press) Youth with special education disabilities in the correctional system: Prevalence rates and identification issues. Youth with Learning and Other Disabilities in the Juvenile Justice System. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

Osher, David (in press)Addressing invisible barriers: Improving outcomes for youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.

Pasternask, Robert (2002) International Dyslexia Association presentation, November 16, 2002.

Sturomski, N (1997) Learning Disabilities and the Correction System, paper presented at NIFL.

Winters, C. (1997) Learning disabilities, crime, delinquency and special education placement. Adolescence, 32, 451-462.

Kathleen Ross Kidder (2002)