ADHD in College

“Mom, I’m Failing the First Semester!”

College is a time for freedom, fun, and friends — and for some students, all that pesky homework just gets in the way. If your kid comes home from break and tells you she’s failing her classes, don’t panic — follow these tips to get her back on track and (if necessary) secure an ADHD diagnosis.

Teen with ADHD looking at paper in high school hallway
Teen with ADHD looking at paper in high school hallway

November brings the joy of the holidays and the horror of a semester’s end. For students with ADHD, it can be daunting if avoidance and procrastination sneaked into the semester early on, and the reveal comes as the family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner.

If you’ve just received news of an academic turkey, and you think ADHD is the cause of your child’s struggle, here are my time-tested strategies for how to respond.

KEEP YOUR HEAD. Every November, and again in April, I get emergency e-mails from parents hoping to get their teens into our mythical ADHD “emergency room” to be tested, to pick up a referral for medication, and to grab a letter for disability accommodations, all by the end of the week. Not much comes from this knee-jerk response, which is why people who take the “ER” route are disappointed with the outcome.

[In Defense of the “Nap Year”]

So they give up on the therapist, and call the primary-care physician. The hope is that a friendly local doctor will respond eagerly to the emergency. That works sometimes, but this ploy often produces questionable results. In fact, it may be one reason why stimulants are overprescribed.

PROCEED WITH CAUTION. I have done emergency intakes on more than one student facing defeat in November, but there’s no way to get a test-based diagnosis, a medication referral, trial, revision, retrial, and disability accommodations in place in time to save the semester. Instead, I suggest reading through the next section, taking the actions described there, and completing the diagnostic and medication process before the next semester begins in January.

TAKE EVASIVE ACTION. Many students with ADHD surrender before the battle is over, skipping several emergency responses that may work. The first is to attend every class and every office-hour appointment the teacher or teaching assistant offers. In high school, teachers meet with students after school; college professors or TAs set aside specific hours for meetings, many of which go unused. The earlier in the semester the student begins attending, the better, but I’ve seen people, about to hit bottom, start camping out on their teacher’s doorstep and score dramatic recoveries.

In college, if a class is beyond repair, students can withdraw passing, if they act quickly enough, or withdraw failing if they don’t. The only advantage to a “WF” is that it frees the student to use his or her energy to tackle the rest of his/her subjects. There may be the possibility of a medical withdrawal, but procedures and availability vary from college to college, and the student must make the case that the withdrawal was necessary because of his ADHD.

[13 Survival Tips from College Graduates with ADHD]

Sometimes in high school, and often in college, students can ask for an “Incomplete” for unfinished projects and papers. Some students have this option written into their accommodations. However, few teachers will let you take a test late, because it blows the curve and the test security. If you take an “Incomplete,” you must either complete the task over break, or take fewer hours next semester, to be sure you have time to finish the uncompleted course.

TEAMWORK, PLEASE. Parents sometimes forget that teens with ADHD are developmentally behind their peers by two to three years. It is, therefore, not my first recommendation that ADHD students begin college living in dorms or managing their own college affairs. If there is a high-quality junior college near your home, consider it for your child’s first two years of college.

For a newly graduated senior leaving home for campus, I recommend that parents stay in close touch to monitor his progress, at least for the first three or four semesters. I’ve implemented this in my own home and for my clients by having ADHD students allow parental access to their college’s student portal to help keep them accountable through sophomore year. Some parents use electronic oversight from the first day in high school and college, unwilling to wait and see how things turn out. For the rest, I suggest implementing it after one semester of academic decline. Too many parents have heeded their child’s insistence that “I just need one more semester. I can do this myself,” right on through to academic probation or even dismissal.

HOW DID I GET HERE? If a semester has gone to pieces, and especially if two or three have, ask your child to sit down and consider his or her academic path. Though some will argue, I do not recommend dropping out of high school (ever!). But there are diploma equivalency programs in many districts that are worth considering if the alternative is quitting school. They’re often self-paced, but they do require attendance, usually at an adult education center. I do not ever recommend “virtual school” to students diagnosed with ADHD.

[Yes, You CAN Get Accommodations in College]

Ask those who are crashing in college to step back and determine whether they’re in school for the right reasons. If the answer is “yes,” ask them to consider whether they’re mature or interested enough to pursue their academic dreams right now. There’s no shame in taking a gap year or two.