High school is downright brutal for many teens with ADHD and learning differences — and plenty of kids without, too. But the truth is, high school is a cakewalk compared to college, which requires students to use rock solid executive functions, unwavering academic skills, and daily stress-management strategies. Parental support doesn’t evaporate — but you won’t (and shouldn’t) be around to talk to a professor after a failed test, or dispatch daily schedule reminders, or keep pizza consumption to moderate levels.
College is scary. It is also one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of a young person’s life — if he or she engages in deliberate, strategic planning both before and during college.
These six tips — touching skills ranging from laundry to self-advocacy — can help parents and teens work together to transition from the structured environment of high school to the independent, challenging world of college.
1. Help your teen develop self-acceptance.
Self-determination — knowing who you are and what you’re capable of — is a critical factor in any college career. Self-determined people understand their strengths and weaknesses, and accept both. This, in turn, allows them to establish realistic goals and work deliberately toward success.
Some teens with ADHD struggle to achieve self-determination. They haven’t yet accepted that they learn differently — and often hesitate to talk about their challenges or accept treatment as they grow. But in order to succeed at college (and in life), your teen will need to understand and accept her ADHD.
How can parents help? First, make sure you have come to terms with your teen’s differences. Teens often mirror parents’ perspectives, so if you’re ashamed of your child’s ADHD — or feel guilty for “passing it on” — he will likely feel the same. Take an honest look at your feelings. If you view ADHD negatively, it’s important to work through those emotions. Talk to someone you trust: another parent, a medical professional, or a support group. Once you understand your own feelings, you can help your child better manage her own.
Focusing on your child’s strengths — and teaching her how to manage challenges — is the next step toward self-determination. Look for opportunities for your child to reflect on his strengths, and create a climate that allows his talents to flourish. If your child feels like he’s “bad at everything,” make use of tools that help identify skills; StrengthsQuest is one excellent resource designed especially for teens.
2. Help your teen become a self-advocate.
You’ve been fighting tirelessly for accommodations since grade school. But college brings with it some major legal shifts, and parents (and teens) need to be prepared. U.S. law mandates that college students must work on their own behalf to disclose disabilities, pursue accommodations, and communicate needs — in fact, schools are forbidden from contacting parents unless they have the student’s written permission.
In order for your child to advocate independently and effectively in college, you need to slowly step backward throughout high school. Start bringing her to IEP meetings as soon as you feel she’s old enough to participate. Encourage her to ask and answer questions, but act as her co-pilot if she needs assistance. Slowly let her take the lead more and more; by graduation, she’ll be meeting with teachers on her own and planning her own accommodations. Then, when she’s flying solo in college, she’ll be confident in her ability to advocate for herself — and, of course, you’ll be just a phone call away.
3. Learn (together) how college differs from high school.
Even teens who breezed through high school agree that college is a different ball game. Lecture attendance is seldom mandatory, just a few tests or papers may determine a semester’s whole grade, and class sizes can range from 4 to 400. Most teens who struggle through the first few semesters often do so because they arrived at college ill-prepared for these shifting dynamics.
To paint a more accurate picture, sign up your teen for a campus tour conducted by students who have in-depth knowledge of daily campus life. Most parents wait until junior or senior year to start touring schools, but you should start younger if you have the resources to do so — even middle-school students can benefit from a quick snapshot of the future.
Ask your child’s high school to invite recent graduates back to talk about their experiences. Teens are more likely to listen attentively and to ask candid questions about dorm life, essay writing, and balancing schoolwork with a part-time job. If the school opts not to do this, look to college-aged relatives or neighbors who could chat with your teen one-on-one.
4. Practice daily living skills needed for college.
This might be the most important and obvious piece of advice — but it’s also the most commonly forgotten in the daily chaos of senior year. Living on her own, your teen will do her own laundry, manage her own meds, wake herself up for classes, and eat — healthy food! — on a regular schedule. Teaching these skills doesn’t take long, but it does require advanced planning and routine practice.
Spend the summer before senior year teaching your teen how to do his own laundry, order his own prescriptions, and keep track of his keys. Brainstorm strategies he can use, and work together to figure out which ones work best. Experiment with using bi-monthly phone or calendar reminders so laundry never gets out of hand, and invest in tools like Tile to make organization easier.
Training your teen to fold laundry and track expenses won’t be popular. But these skills will impact her health, social life, and happiness. He might not mind wearing a dirty t-shirt for a week straight, but roommates or potential friends may not find it as charming. In my experience, teens who come to college without these skills wish they had taken time to learn them — before a roommate complains to the RA about the piles of dirty socks.
5. Slowly phase out accommodations not available in college.
Colleges are mandated only to provide reasonable accommodations that don’t fundamentally alter the course or degree requirements. What this means: a teen who has relied on extended test time in high school, for example, may not receive that accommodation where it’s critical to the course that he completes the exam in a set period.
Research the availability of important accommodations, and make sure your child’s IEP in high school focuses on building the skills necessary to get by without services that will fade away. If possible, slowly wean your child off targeted accommodations as she ages.
6. Develop a strong transition plan.
College isn’t right for everyone. Some teens are better off taking a gap year or diving into a career right away. College is expensive, time-consuming, and difficult — so before your child accepts a spot, make sure you both agree that it’s the best next step for him. If the answer is yes, great! Now you need a plan. Simple hoping that your teen gets it together can — and often does — backfire, leading to flunked classes, wasted money, and devastated families.
To ensure the transition is successful, research the college’s available supports with your teen. That doesn’t just mean the disability supports, which some teens are hesitant to use. Most schools have supports — like writing centers or mental health services — that are available to all students. Make sure your child knows what those supports are before she gets to campus, and talk her through a few scenarios where they might come in handy.
Next, plan a wise first semester. The first few months of college are a whirlwind of social events, new experiences, and changing expectations. Can your child handle her workload in the midst of all that? As much as possible, help her choose a course load that’s manageable and that plays to her strengths. If she’s comfortable disclosing her differences, academic counselors can be a great resource for designing an ADHD-friendly schedule that syncs up with degree requirements.
Last — but certainly not least — make a plan for parental involvement. What are your expectations for communication? Will a weekly phone call suffice, or do you expect a daily text? Respect your child’s desires for independence, and make sure he knows you’re available whenever you need him. Communication may be spotty at times, and his needs may adjust after a few weeks or months. What’s important is that he knows that no matter how difficult and exciting college can be, you’re there for him.