ADHD News & Research

Specialized CBT Program May Help College Students with ADHD

A specially designed cognitive-behavioral program called ACCESS may help young adults with ADHD learn how to manage their treatment, schedules, assignments, and complete health in college, according to a small study published this month.

January 31, 2018

The transition from high school to college often comes as a shock — and a wake-up call — to students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). After two decades of support from parents who help manage medications, direct homework, and provide emotional support, many teens stumble and fall in the tumultuous first months of college.

“These students are good enough to get into college, but they often have trouble staying in and doing well,” said Arthur D. Anastopoulos, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), in an interview with MD Magazine. “Previously, coaching has been used in college settings — [but] coaching only scratches the surface of what a student with ADHD needs.”

To counteract this pattern and provide the collegiate population with more specialized support, Anastopoulos devised a cognitive-behavioral therapeutic intervention specifically aimed at undergraduates with ADHD. The program, known as Accessing Campus Connections and Empowering Student Success, or ACCESS, showed encouraging results in a small pilot study on 88 UNCG students with ADHD who ranged in age from 17 to 29. The study report was published January 5 in the Journal of Attention Disorders.1

According to the report, students who completed the ACCESS study saw significant improvement in almost every area measured, including behavioral regulation, medication management, and social adjustment — gains that endured through the end of the maintenance phase. And while the students’ GPAs remained largely unchanged throughout the study, the subjects did take on significantly more credit hours on average — indicating an improved ability to manage a college-level workload.

The ACCESS program consists of two phases, each lasting one semester, Anastopoulos said. In the first phase, students are educated about ADHD, and learn specific techniques for managing time, staying organized, and improving their executive functions. They also make use of traditional CBT techniques targeting distorted thought patterns and volatile emotions. The second phase is a maintenance phase, where active treatment sessions are tapered off to assess the lasting impact of the initial treatment.

Though the UNCG study was small and lacked a control group, the results were promising, Anastopoulos said.

“We view college as a critical period to intervene and flip the switch on the track and try to get [students with ADHD] heading on a more positive trajectory,” he said to MD Mag. The next phase of research will be a randomized, controlled trial; if results are positive, he said, his team will explore whether the program can be expanded to other colleges.

1 Anastopoulos, Arthur D., et al. “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for College Students With ADHD: Temporal Stability of Improvements in Functioning Following Active Treatment.” Journal of Attention Disorders, 5 Jan. 2018, doi:10.1177/1087054717749932.