Here is the last installment of my ADHD mini-series. If you recall, last week we talked about how to help your Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disordered student succeed at school. This week, we’ll be discussing how to prepare that same student for college. While these articles may sound like one and the same, it’s actually very critical to understand the difference.
When any parent takes the time to think about sending their student off to school, they can often feel overwhelmed with the prospect of helping their child mature enough to make decisions on their own. You want them to know how to prioritize, make decisions in difficult social circumstances, and be able to navigate through this completely new freedom they’re about to discover. Preparing for college is so much more than simply academics. There are a million aspects coming in to play at once, and I believe that this is at the core of why only 5% of college students with ADHD will actually graduate with a degree.
There are things to consider when you’re looking at preparing your ADHD student for college that you wouldn’t necessarily have to think about otherwise. A lot of this will feed back into their executive functioning; just as a quick brush-up, executive functioning is the self-regulation that allows for focus, juggling priorities, and remembering instructions successfully. ADHD students tend to struggle with this and so taking the extra mile to help them prepare to deal with challenges they will uniquely face is crucial.
A few suggestions on how to prepare your ADD student for college
Learn about the resources available from your specific college.
I had no idea that there were resources specifically for ADHD students at college until recently. In elementary school, I know that there are all sorts of protocols set in place to help these students succeed as well as regular meetings to involve parents and teachers. I know that parents can still be highly involved up through high school as well where the school is near and classes are smaller. This allows for more personal relationships with teachers to help students make it through their classes. As I researched how to help my husband succeed in his college classes, I came to learn that colleges have special accommodations for ADHD students as well. Just a couple of examples from my husband’s university…
1) Students with ADHD get first dibs on teachers and class time slots.
While a good professor is going to be good for any student, it can be even more crucial for an ADHD student who has a hard time focusing. If students know themselves, they can also choose times of the day where they’re going to be able to stay more focused. For example, many students with ADHD have sleeping problems as well. Signing them up for morning classes isn’t going to help anyone. Having options to choose good time slots and good professors can make a huge difference.
2) Testing accommodations are also often available.
One of the specific options my husband can look into using is scheduling a time to take a test in a room by himself. This will greatly limit distractions. He can also request to get rid of time limits imposed by professors.
3) He can request individual accommodations.
At his particular college, you have to fill out a short accommodation request form detailing his “disability.” As part of the form, he describes how ADHD affects his learning, and there’s a separate box to ask for any accommodations that he believes will be helpful for him. This won’t necessarily translate into receiving any request he wants, but it’s nice to know the school is taking steps to try and make things easier for these students.
If your student has a preferred college, help them research what’s available to them. They’ve probably been living with extra resources throughout their academic careers up to this point. Taking all of these accommodations away at once just as they’re moving away to live on their own can be overwhelming and will contribute to failure and negative experiences.
If your student hasn’t really chosen a college yet, research colleges that are known for being good with accommodating ADHD students. Here’s a link that can get you started:
Teach them how to advocate for themselves.
It’s easy to jump in and save your child while they’re living with you, but eventually (and hopefully!), they’re going to move out and need those skills for themselves. Teaching them to reach out to teachers starting in high school is a great way to begin. At the beginning of the year, help your student stay after school to talk to a teacher. If this is a big step for your student, have them start with an email first. Sometimes an email may work even better considering college classes are so much bigger; it may be wise for students to learn how to reach out to professors in that manner.
Another small suggestions includes helping them know how to appropriately reach out for help when they’re falling behind. Professors often respect students who reach out as early as possible when they’re worried about an upcoming project, test, or big learning concept.
Consider community college as a stepping stone.
There’s absolutely NO shame in a community college. One of the biggest perks that applies to all students regardless of ability is the cheaper options. Classes (and often rent because students choose to stay home) are astronomically cheaper than big name schools.
Beyond being cheaper, there is wisdom in a community college for ADHD students. ADHD students will already be facing harder class loads and more freedom in how they plan out their assignments for the year. Professors often assign papers or projects at the beginning of the year and don’t address it again for the rest of the semester until a week before it’s due. This is a potential recipe for disaster for ADHD students.
If ADHD students can stay home where parents can still help with laundry, meals, and other life skills, ADHD students can focus on taking on new academic tasks that they haven’t faced previously. It’s important to understand that this is not an excuse for parents to continue to intervene in everything. Allow for your student to take on new responsibilities in order to prepare them to move on. This is meant to be a stepping stone, not an excuse to put off the inevitable task of learning how to take care of themselves.
Help them learn to-do lists, calendars, and how to break down large tasks.
Most students can figure out to-do lists, calendars, and large tasks on their own. These are things that need to be directly taught to ADHD students. At the beginning of their school year in high school, teach them to take out a planner, write down assignments throughout, and how to make their to-do lists from these calendars. Practice looking at big projects with them, and encourage them to figure out the things they’re going to need to finish it. Break it down with them. In fact, have them take the lead as much as possible, but directly work on these specific skills. This will help them learn executive functioning. They’re not incapable of it; it’s just harder for them than it is for others.
Specifically and articulately teach life skills.
Depending on when your student leaves the nest (whether straight out of high school or after a couple of years at a community college), articulately teach them life skills. Help them develop habits like having a regular wash day for their clothes. Help them create a grocery list on their phone where they add things as they go. It’s hard for a normal person to remember what they need unless they’re continually writing it down. Help your ADHD student navigate tools that will enable success.
If you have the means, you can actually hire a personal life coach who works with ADHD directly. It’s not a huge market, but it is available to consider.
This is a big consideration. I am a huge believer in the capability of these students to learn to cope with their unique struggles without medication. In my opinion, America is largely over-medicated. When you go to a doctor with your student to find out if they have ADHD, the first thing they’re going to do is offer you medicine. Medicine has its place and time in the world; it truly is a gift for many. However, I don’t think it’s for everybody. Don’t medicate your child simply because it was the first thing offered by a doctor. Doctors are trained to prescribe; it’s what they went to school for.
When my husband first considered medication, he went to a doctor who prescribed him the regular dose of whichever medicine he chose first. Our goal with medication was to use it minimally. We wanted smaller doses and we didn’t want him to have to take it every day. ADHD medicine is a highly controlled substance because it’s known for being abused. This particular doctor refused to prescribe my husband anything unless he took it every day. We decided that it wasn’t worth it to us for him to take medicine every single day.
However, my husband ended up going to a different doctor for a different problem, and his ADHD came up. This doctor had ADHD as well and absolutely encouraged my husband to break the pills in half and to only take it when he absolutely needed it. My husband often takes his medicine when he has a big test to study for or when he needs to work on a big coding project. It makes it hard for him to eat, and it also messes up his sleep schedule even more than it already is. Taking it every day would have potentially wreaked havoc on his life, but being able to take it only when it was absolutely necessary made all the difference for him.
One more caution to consider
It’s easy to become dependent on ADHD drugs. My husband often found himself even more unmotivated the day after taking some medicine. ADHD medicine is going to affect everyone differently, but I give my husband’s examples to help you understand that there are a myriad of considerations to take in when medicating your child. Don’t rule it out, but don’t accept it immediately. Your child is capable with the right guidance, and medicine may be a gift when they are truly in need.