ADHD in College

Good to Go (to College)

Learn how to help your child take charge of his own life before he heads off to college, including managing his own money, staying on task, and knowing when to ask for help.

Teen boy with ADHD wearing headphones while he does the laundry, learning life skills

John Muscarello had no trouble making the transition to college life, despite his severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).

That’s because the 20-year-old cultivated good habits while attending high school in Glen Head, New York. “I had an assignment pad where I wrote everything down,” he explains. “I also had a big calendar on my bedroom wall. I wrote down upcoming papers and dates, so I always knew what I had going on. I would get home from sports, take a shower, eat dinner, take a pill, and then do all my work.”

In high school, John handed in papers before they were due. “Teachers would help me revise them,” he says, “and I’d hand them in again, when everyone else did.” And he cultivated close relationships with faculty members – a strategy he continues at Pennsylvania’s York College by e-mailing his professors at the beginning of each semester to introduce himself and explain his academic “issues.” He got this idea from his mother, Mary, who always made it a point to meet with her son’s teachers to give them a heads-up.

Of course, laughs Mary, “The fact that we owned a pastry shop and brought stuff to school didn’t hurt either.”

Things were different for David Burkhart, a 28-year-old graduate student. He had done well at the prep school he attended, where students woke up, ate, studied, and went to bed at prescribed times. Given the order imposed on him, no one even suspected that David had ADHD, as well as dysgraphia.

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But David’s life unraveled as he began his freshman year at Auburn University.

“I got to college and moved into my own apartment. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a bedtime and I was a night owl,” he says. “I had no clue how to eat or plan my day. I went from having one hour of free time a day to having three hours of class a day – and nobody cared if I didn’t show up for those. I ‘washed my clothes’ by buying new stuff. I bought a new pair of slacks every week.”

Within weeks, David had dropped all his classes. He tried to hide the truth from his parents, but his father, the chairman of Auburn’s psychology department, and his mother soon found out. David’s dad sent him to live with an uncle in Florida, where he spent four grueling months pouring asphalt and considering what he would do differently if he returned to college.

Real Life 101

If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD or a child with learning disablities (LD), you probably try to make sure he or she learns critical academic skills. But knowing how to listen in class and keep up with assignments aren’t enough to ensure success at college. Your youngster must know how to manage his time, set and stay within a budget, do laundry, and generally get through life on his own.

To give your child the best chance at succeeding in college, try to make him the “author of his own life,” says Karen Boutelle, director of coaching services at Landmark College, in Putney, Vermont. Rehearse real-world situations that will let your child practice essential skills before leaving home.

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“Children must be allowed to fail,” Boutelle says. “If you let them experience disappointments, they learn to make choices and handle the results. It’s not about teaching a system, but about engaging in a learning process.”

Boutelle encourages parents to ask their children what she calls “curious questions.” “When people with ADHD run into a roadblock,” she explains, “they tend to feel they have no option. But if you ask them a question, it serves as a gateway into their options, and helps them activate their knowledge.”

Not Enough Hours

As David Burkhart learned the hard way, college lets students choose how to spend their time: Write the paper or attend the party. Do laundry or buy new clothes. His problem, he says, is that he had no experience at managing his own time.

Ben Mitchell, director of admissions at Landmark College, says kids can avoid this problem by getting into the habit of scheduling everything in their lives – sports, laundry, parties, TV shows, and, of course, study time. “The more a student can externalize his schedule, the more likely he or she is to remember it,” says Mitchell.

Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a Silver Spring, Maryland, psychologist who specializes in ADHD, agrees that time-management skills are critical. She says that tweens and teens with ADHD should get in the habit of using a day planner during high school, if not sooner.

“If your kid has a dentist appointment,” she says, “have him write down ‘dentist appointment, Dr. So-and-so,’ on the correct date and time. Next, help him develop the habit of shutting down for the night, getting ready for bed, and taking a look at what’s happening tomorrow – literally teaching him to anticipate the following day.”

According to Holly Susi, a developmental education specialist at the Community College of Rhode Island in Lincoln, the typical youngster with ADHD must be “explicitly taught” to use a planner. “Often I see students with day planners, but they haven’t written a thing in them,” she says. “Or they write in them but never look at them again.”

To get her 18-year-old with ADHD, Stephen, to use a planner, Susi sat down with him every Sunday night to go over his upcoming appointments. After six months, she says, he “took ownership of the process,” and the weekly sessions were no longer necessary.

Drowning in Paper

Meg Edwards knows firsthand what those with ADHD encounter in college. From 1995 to 1998, she worked in admissions at Landmark. Before that, she spent three years coaching young adults with ADHD. And she has ADHD herself.

Edwards remembers a college freshman who dropped out because she was overwhelmed by paperwork. “She had been in school just two weeks,” recalls Edwards, who now works for the David Allen Company, a coaching firm in Ojai, California. “In that time she had collected a foot-high stack of papers – menus, syllabi, and so on. It all came at her. She had no idea how to make decisions about what she collected.”

Students with ADHD can avoid “death by paper,” Edwards says, if they learn to use an old-fashioned in-box. Every day, the student puts every piece of paper she accumulates into this box. At the end of each day, the student goes through the box. She discards or files items that require no action, and transfers appointments or due dates to an electronic or paper planner. From this planner, the student prepares a daily “next action” list.

“Dear Dad, Please Send Money”

Once they reach high school, children should assume more responsibility for managing their money. If you help them answer questions like “How much money can I spend?” “Where is the nearest bank, and what are its hours?” “How do I find time to go to the ATM and get cash for the coming week?” during high school, they’ll be better equipped to manage money at college.

Nadeau suggests giving your high-schooler a monthly clothing allowance. She gave one to her own kids, including a daughter who has ADHD, and says they quickly started checking prices, looking for sales, and making good spending decisions. In addition, Nadeau says that parents should open a checking account in the child’s name by eleventh grade.

All Out of Clothes — Again

There’s nothing hard about operating a washer or dryer, even for the most distractible teenager. The trick is to do the wash before you exhaust your supply of clean clothes. This is the sort of planning that kids with ADHD have trouble with.

“It’s not about teaching them to put the soap in the machine,” says Patricia Quinn, M.D., a developmental pediatrician who specializes in ADHD and learning disabilities. “Children can learn that quickly. It’s about learning how to schedule, a skill that you can apply to other areas.”

Quinn suggests that youngsters start doing their own laundry during high school. Tell your child how long a wash cycle takes, she says, and then have him enter a “laundry day” in his planner, with the appropriate amount of time marked off.

Monday Morning Jet-Lag

Adolescents are night owls, and few know that sleep deprivation limits brain function and attention span.

You probably can’t control what time your teenager goes to sleep, but you can encourage your child to wake up at the same time every morning. Quinn explains: “Let’s say your child sleeps from midnight to 6:30 a.m., all week long, and, on Friday and Saturday nights, he sleeps from 3:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. That’s like going to Europe every weekend. Every Monday morning, he is jet-lagged. If your child is allowed to sleep until noon every Saturday and Sunday, he’ll do it. But if he has to get up to play soccer on Saturdays at 9:00 a.m., he’ll get up. Give the child the freedom to decide what he cares about, then figure out how to deal with that.”

If your child has trouble getting up on time, Nadeau suggests giving her two alarm clocks – a vibrating clock to place under the pillow, plus a clock set up across the room, so she will have to get out of bed to turn it off. If your child sleeps through both alarms and is late for school, so be it. Let her deal with the consequences. (You might want to alert your child’s first-period teacher about your “experiment.”)

Knowing How to Ask for Help

John Muscarello works hard to be self-reliant, but he’s not afraid to reach out. “We always encouraged John to try as hard as he could,” says his mother, “but also to learn to ask for what he needed. He wrote a letter to his sixth-grade teacher, saying, ‘I’m working really hard here, what can you do to help me?’ You can’t go through high school without asking for anything and then be an advocate for yourself in college.”

Holly Susi says that many of the college students with ADHD she encounters have never had to explain to an adult how the condition affects them. “Students who come to see me are often unable to tell me how I can help,” she says. “Students should be prepared to explain how ADHD affects their academic performance and be ready to ask for specific accommodations.”

Susi urges parents to begin role-playing such discussions while their children are still in high school. The parent can act as a learning disabilities officer, a college professor, or a classmate, while the son or daughter practices advocating for his or her needs.

The Ultimate Decision-Maker

Parents can do a lot to empower their child to succeed in college. In the end, however, it’s the student’s own behavior that determines whether he succeeds.

This fall, John Muscarello returns to York College, confident that he is on track toward his degree. And David Burkhart, having earned his bachelor’s degree, is heading back to Auburn to study public policy — the next step toward his goal of becoming a college professor. “I’ve learned that I have to create my own structure,” he says. “My natural state is complete and total chaos. My life is about trying to overcome that.”

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