A Quarantine Well Spent: How to Foster Teen Independence During This Time at Home
High school seniors around the world are mourning the loss of final athletic competitions, social gatherings, and visits to college campuses. They are being forced to make decisions about their future without perfect information, and there is little parents can do about that. What they can do is use this quarantine as an opportunity to coach their teens with ADHD in the life skills they will need to live independently. Here is how.
Nationwide school closures have abruptly thrust American students into virtual learning — and a time of uncertainty. While all students are impacted, those with ADHD and learning disabilities are reeling, untethered from the services and supports they need (and to which they are entitled by law). And those counting on a smooth transition from high school to college and/or the workplace rightfully feel bushwhacked!
There’s nothing normal about our ‘new normal.’
With little or no advanced warning, schools are now figuring out how to implement from afar IEPs and 504 plans, behavior contracts, and other supports that were a lifeline for students with special needs. Caregivers, meanwhile, have been recruited (without warning or preparation!) to assume roles regularly performed by specialized teachers and support personnel.
And what about IEP goals? What about accommodations? What about related services that address organizational challenges and provide just-in-time, targeted assistance on learning tasks? And what about the social and emotional resources that students need to stay afloat? Being marooned at home without these supports is an invitation for heightened stress, anxiety, and avoidant behaviors.
What Lies Ahead for Students with ADHD and LD
Amid the uncertainty, one thing seems certain: this too shall pass. And when it does, schools will re-open, and life will resume — though likely not as “normal,” at least for students with LD. Graduating seniors with learning and attention issues will find the road to college littered with additional potholes. Because of this global pandemic and the challenges schools faced in providing all students access to the general curriculum, students with LD may have missed out on important learning opportunities at the end of their senior year.
Graduating students with ADHD and LD may find themselves having to make decisions about college without the benefit of a campus tour or conversation with student services. Without the information they need to make decisions that will guide their path to post-high-school success, these students are at risk for extraordinary college struggles.
How Parents Can Fill the Gap
Mother Nature has shredded the traditional post-secondary transition roadmap. But parents can pick up the pieces, step in as ‘navigators,’ and proactively help their children mold their plans for college enrollment.
Being out of school at this time in their educational career is a big deal! Disruptions in learning, changes in routines, isolation from teachers and friends, and being denied opportunities to socialize through extracurricular activities in school and the general community can have profound consequences for these adolescents. Looking forward to (and planning for) college can serve as an anchor during this time of uncertainty. By keeping college a real and prominent family priority, parents can help their children stay “focused on the prize” and see past the disappointment and confusion that rocked their reality.
Making college decisions is not going to be easy. In response to restrictions on travel and social distancing, most students will need to choose schools without the benefit of tours or meetings with campus disability and support professionals. Parents will be required to make financial commitments about college selections with only partial information about the “goodness of fit” for their child. And all of this will need to take place at a time when parents would traditionally be taking a step back and allowing (mentoring, modeling, and encouraging) their child to assume greater responsibility for self-advocacy and decision making. To best utilize their newfound time at home together, parents should focus instead on preparing their child for the realities of college life and independent living.
Some things matter more than others in predicting college success. College is different from high school in so many ways — for one, collegiate success is not just about acquiring new content knowledge. Parents should seize this opportunity to teach and reinforce executive functioning skills. Talk about “what if” scenarios that demand problem-solving and flexible thinking in what will certainly be a whole new set of situations and environments. And don’t shy away from having hard conversations about emotional regulation, social norms, and boundaries. In fact, creating and implementing these types of rules at home could be of huge help to students before they head off to school without the safety net of parents and other family members.
Routines matter. Going from 100 percent structure in school to “let’s see how things unfold” at home is not easy for anyone: not educators, not parents, not students. But this challenge in many ways mirrors the periodic changes in routine that students will experience in college. Parents can use this time to assess how their adolescent functions without direct guidance and schedules — and how they respond when required to plan and prioritize life for themselves.
Careful attention should be paid to how they create and adhere to schedules, how they manage their breaks from schoolwork, whether they engage in responsible self-care (e.g., personal hygiene, medication management, meals, exercise and recreation, sleep) and how (and from whom) they ask for help. Note how they use assistive technologies and other college accommodations, and whether they can do so independently or still need help from others. And chat with them about how they think college will be different, the types of support they anticipate needing, the resources they will want and need on Day One, and what they need to do now (e.g., prepare documentation) to ensure that they’re set for a good start.
Experience is the best teacher. While it’s not the same, using this time at home as a sort of trial run could be very instructive. Once routines are established, parents should regularly communicate with their teens about what is working, what is not working, and what may be helpful in the future — all with college in mind. This type of reflectional and metacognitive thinking could be invaluable in helping students identify barriers to achieving goals. It is going to be hard to predict what might trigger problems at college; demonstrating these skills at home does not mean they will necessarily work in college classrooms, dorms, and other settings.
Stay focused, stay positive. Students will experience some level of emotional dysregulation during the pandemic. While it’s important to address these stresses, parents should also frame these challenges in positive ways, providing feedback but also acknowledging effort and celebrating successes. This time at home provides parents with an extraordinary opportunity to see their child struggle. It’s hard not to jump in and try to address the frustration and discomfort, but doing so now will not help your child next year.
Being cognizant of a child’s limitations and identifying how much support they require during this time of transition, parents can play a critical role in weaning their teen off the supports they now receive and prepare for greater independence as they approach college.
Alexander Morris-Wood is director of transition services and outreach and Dr. Oksana Hagerty is an educational and developmental psychologist, who serves as a learning specialist and the assistant director of the Center for Student Success at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL.
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