How to Prepare Your ADHD Student for College

Too many distractions and not enough structure derail many college students with ADHD. How to help your child prepare for freshman year.

College Prep, Part 3

Discuss with your child the habits he'll need at school in the fall, for example, waking up without help from Mom or Dad. "If somebody needs six alarms to get up, this is the time to practice," stresses Vickie Ball, an ADHD coach in Providence, Rhode Island. Figure out how much sleep your child needs and what works to get him to sleep (earplugs) and get him up (a loud alarm clock).

Does your child know how to do laundry? You'd be surprised at how many high school seniors are clueless about washing clothes. Summer's a great time to walk your child through it. Break down the steps — get the laundry bag, separate clothes, select detergent — and make a list of them. How does your child handle money?

Practice budgeting on a weekly or biweekly allowance, to help your child cut down on impulse spending. Use a color-coded envelope system — a red envelope for transportation money, blue for entertainment, green for toiletries, and so on — to track where his money goes. Practice using a prepaid phone card, and discuss how often you plan to keep in touch.

What kind of time-management system works best for your child? Some students prefer printed calendars or day planners, while others turn to digital assistants like cell phones. Gadgets like these make great graduation gifts, because students can start using them over the summer. Otherwise, in the rush of college life, a freshman and his Palm Pilot may never get acquainted.

College is an extremely competitive scene, one where even the "smart kids" from high school often feel inadequate. Summer courses can give a student with ADHD an edge. He'll have the opportunity to see what class rhythm is really like, and what he's up against come fall. This intro to academic life can help him plan a realistic course load — and the transferable credits give him some wiggle room, should he find his schedule too heavy.

Most importantly, remind your child that you won't be there with him in school. Talk about his strengths and weaknesses. Identify his potential trouble spots now, and brainstorm how he should handle them. Take note of how many daily promptings you give him — "Billy, it's time to take your medication" — and discuss how he can get by on his own.

What's a parent to do?

A parent's role changes enormously as a child makes this life shift. The adjustment can be particularly wrenching if your child has ADHD, because you've pretty much been his eyes and ears for 18 or so years. But as your child enters college, you need to let him find his own way.

"It's not that your parental responsibilities lessen," says Manhattan College's Pollack, "but they morph into a different type of responsibility."

Sure, you can stay involved — just make sure your youngster has the tools to help himself. It's OK to be inquisitive — in fact, it's mandatory. Ask your child about his schedule and his syllabus, and explore ways to support him from home. Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your child is the best way — perhaps the only way — to find out how he's doing. Unlike in high school, your child doesn't have to let you in on his school life — even if you're footing the bill. Adult students are protected by privacy laws, and your child must grant permission for any information about him to be released. Even his grades are considered privileged. However, if your child signs an academic release or privacy waiver — a good idea, says Pollack — teachers can speak about him.

So even as you allow your child to solve his own problems, don't be afraid to check in. "If youngsters have always had support from their parents," says Weyandt, "they will continue to need it." Maybe now in a different way, but adjusting to the needs of your child is what parenting's all about.

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