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Prepping for College


High school seniors have a lot to think about, including college visits, applications, financial aid forms and, of course, graduation. For parents of high school seniors with learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, there are additional concerns. These teens often have supports in place at home and school to help them stay organized, manage their time and meet academic demands, but parents worry how their teen will fare in college.

And there is reason to be concerned. Students with ADHD or LD are more likely than their peers to struggle in college. As Theresa Maitland and Patricia Quinn write in their book Ready for Take-Off: Preparing Your Teen with ADHD or LD for College, these students are more often on academic probation, have lower GPAs and graduate in smaller numbers.

The unstructured nature of college life is something many students are unprepared for. The good news is parents can help their adolescent evaluate and assist in “college readiness” during their child’s junior and senior high school years.

College readiness includes skills in three major areas: daily living skills; self-independence; and academics. Maitland and Quinn’s book offers an inventory that both the parents and their teens can use to measure readiness (and self-perception) in each of these categories.

Daily living skills include tasks like keeping track of possessions and getting up each day independently. It incorporates skills such as taking medications without parental reminders and punctuality—getting where you need to be on time.

Does your teen know how to do laundry and have basic cooking skills? Does he make thoughtful financial decisions and manage his money well? For teens with ADHD or LD, one of the more challenging daily living tasks is balancing time among recreation, schoolwork and other responsibilities.

Self-independence involves self-awareness, advocacy and self-management. Self-awareness is self-knowledge of talents, learning styles and reactions to new situations. Is she cognizant of her tendency to isolate when stressed? Does your teen realize when she needs help and seek out appropriate resources? Can she work through conflicts with others and clearly express thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner? Teens with self-management skills are able to set realistic goals and develop a plan to get there. They are flexible when the situation changes and able to adjust their behavior and problem-solving strategies as needed.

College freshmen with ADHD or LD often find the learning environment in college more challenging than expected. Many college courses offer only two to three graded assignments throughout the course, unlike high school with numerous graded assignments and midterm reports.

In college, by the time the student realizes he is in trouble, there is little opportunity to bring his grade up. Academic success in college is linked to a student’s self-awareness and tenacity. Does your teen know his learning style and how to get motivated in the face of a difficult assignment? Does he have a way to stay organized, keep track of due dates and break large assignments into smaller tasks?

Colleges offer academic support and tutoring—but only for students who seek it. Parents can help their teen check with the student services department of prospective colleges or universities to explore what support services and resources are available to students with ADHD and/or LD.

These college-readiness skills can be developed during a teen’s last year or two in high school. Parents can help their teen develop a plan and allow opportunities to practice while he or she still lives at home with the support of family.

The first step is an honest evaluation of your teen’s readiness. During this time of transition, the parents’ job is to steadily turn over the decision making and planning to their teen. Maitland and Quinn recommend parents take a “coaching approach.”

“A coach needs to be nonjudgmental, compassionate, curious and truthful,” according to Maitland and Quinn. Coaches are essential to a successful team but do not play in the game. That’s the job of team members, in this case, your son or daughter. Coaches help players assess a situation and decide what factors to take into consideration when making a decision on the field. The decisions are the player’s.

Teens with ADHD and LD can have a good and successful college experience if they enter with a solid set of needed skills. Focusing on college-readiness skills during the final high school years is a good parenting investment.