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5 Steps to College Accommodations: A Guide for Students with Learning Differences

“The first question parents usually ask is, ‘How do we transfer my child’s IEP or 504 Plan to college?’ Reality hits when I tell them that these plans do not transfer to college. Accommodations, however, are available for students with learning differences, but they are requested and implemented differently in college.”

Concept illustration college and students

If your college-bound teen has an IEP or a 504 Plan, you likely hope to smooth the transition to their new learning environment. Maybe you have already called the college’s director of accessibility services for information. And maybe I have answered that call.

I often hear both excitement and trepidation in parents’ voices when they call my office of Accessibility Services at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. They are excited about the opportunities awaiting their teen, but they also seek reassurance – that their child will be ready to live and study independently by the time classes start.

The first question parents usually ask is, “How do we transfer my child’s IEP or 504 Plan to college?” Reality hits when I tell them that these plans do not transfer to college. Accommodations, however, are available for students with learning differences, but they are requested and implemented differently in college.

ADHD Accommodations vs. Modifications: College Differences

Most parents and students do not know the difference between accommodations and modifications. These two words may appear interchangeable, but their implications in the classroom are significant. High schools can implement both accommodations and modifications; colleges can only implement accommodations. If your child is eligible for an accommodation of extended time for testing in a college course, that means they will take the same exam as their classmates, but with additional time to complete it.

The same might apply in high school, but additional modifications may be in place to allow your child to complete 75 percent of the questions in place of the full exam. Modifications are not available in college; all students must be tested on the same materials using the same exam.

Student-Driven ADHD Accommodations

Though parents may be paying the college tuition, it is the student who must request accommodations on their own behalf. Regardless of the legal implications of self-disclosure, a student’s ability to articulate their learning differences and self-advocate is invaluable as they forge a path to independence.

[Click to Read: Yes, You Can Get ADHD Accommodations In College]

These are the five steps that your soon-to-be college student can take to receive the ADHD accommodations they need to succeed.

ADHD College Accommodations: An Overview of the Basics

1. Learn the Vocabulary of Self-Advocacy

Students must to be able to name their disabilities, their strengths, and their challenges to develop an effective accommodation plan. It may be hard to imagine your child having the initiative, vocabulary, and maturity to initiate this process with strangers, but I assure you it happens every day.

Prepare your high school senior for this change by encouraging them to discuss their needs with people they trust. Include your child in IEP or 504 Plan meetings during their last year of high school to teach them how to discuss their disabilities and develop self-advocacy skills.

2. Get Prepared to Communicate Challenges to the Accessibility Office

Work with your child to obtain copies of their current, high school accommodations, recent neuropsychological testing, and/or medical documentation in preparation for proactively reaching out to the college accessibility office. Help your child draft an email or letter to the school’s accessibility director that includes these documents. Rest assured, information will l be reviewed in confidence and will not be shared with faculty and other departments.

[Read: ADHD and College – Survival Guide for Teens on Their Own]

3. Self-Identify and Develop a Plan

Your student must identify their own needs and request services from the accessibility office. Send the email or letter you’ve prepared, or encourage your child to simply walk through our front door. Present whatever documentation you have gathered to support their request for accommodations. An assigned advisor will meet with your child once they arrive on campus to review the provided documentation. This is an interactive process wherein the student takes the lead. Your teen should be prepared to explain the accommodations that supported them in high school, and to articulate what accommodations will best support their academic success in college.

4. Outreach to Professors

Once an accommodations plan is agreed upon between the student and advisor, the student must initiate outreach to their professors. While the advisor will provide guidance, your child must also take the lead in this process. Most students are confident in their outreach, having already worked closely with their advisor.

5. Ask for Help

Every student who walks into a college classroom will be challenged to demonstrate initiative and show intellectual curiosity. Oftentimes, professors will be purposefully open-ended in providing instruction for assignments to prompt questions and to observe students’ resourcefulness.

Students with learning challenges need to develop the confidence to request clarification or discuss face-to-face with professors their intended direction. They may already have a baseline level of comfort with their professors, given their initial outreach at the start of the semester. Your child should take note of professors’ availability and office hours, and never feel embarrassed to ask for clarification.

Students who are coming from very supportive or structured high school programs may find the transition to a student-driven model challenging. Encourage your child to seek out the resources available to them.

A word of caution: New students regularly tell me they want to begin their college experience without accommodations, and that they will request them if needed. Recognizing the balance between self-sufficiency and support can sometimes be difficult. It’s important to help your teen understand now that asking for available resources is an indication of strength and self-knowledge. Putting resources in place before they are needed is a great way to build a safety net, and it is also a sign of growth and independence.

College is an exciting new chapter. Researching academic expectations and practicing self-advocacy skills before arriving on campus will help students with high school IEPs and 504 Plans succeed in their studies. While parents can’t be on-campus advocates, you can support your child along the way and help build a bridge between the high school student with learning challenges and the successful college student on their way to achieving life goals.

ADHD College Accommodations: Next Steps


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1 Comments & Reviews

  1. Please be mindful of the terms accommodations and modifications. IMHO it is misleading in this article and should have been further qualified. In the school district where I work, it means something different than what was described. The “modification” described in the article re: 75% of test questions… would be considered an accommodation because it does NOT alter the grade level curriculum. Where I work, “modifications” are NOT standards based. Modifications involve simplifying work to the point where it is no longer at grade level. “Modifications” are for students on the alternate curriculum that are NOT on track towards a high school diploma. Students receiving “modifications” may have cognitive challenges such as intellectual disability, autism, downs syndrome, etc. They might be in a self-contained class or fully mainstreamed. (On a separate note… eligibility does not drive placement… students may have autism and/or an intellectual disability, but may perform well enough to warrant placement in a standards-based classroom such as a special day program for students with learning disabilities.)

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