ADHD in College

College Bound? How to Prepare During the Summer

Too many distractions and not enough structure derail many college students with ADHD. How to help your child prepare for freshman year.

Highschool student with ADHD in library staring at stack of books preparing for college
Highschool student with ADHD in library staring at stack of books preparing for college

Shortly before Aaron Wolf arrived at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At first, he ignored it. But soon he began to suffer from what he calls “brain overload.” “You do a lot of multi-tasking in college,” says Wolf, who graduated in May. “Do your work, pay your bills, do your laundry. It’s a challenge.”

Health experts and college counselors agree — college is a radical departure from high school. For a teen with ADHD, heading off to this complicated academic and social environment means leaving behind the routines and supports that have helped him to function.

In high school’s structured universe, students have constant interaction with their teachers and hands-on help at home. Reminders to do homework, eat lunch, take medication — even to exercise — are built into each day.

College life presents quite a contrast: a handful of classes spread throughout the week, with neither parents nor teachers overseeing schoolwork. Assignments are often long-term and exam scores determine grades. And there’s an endless supply of free time. “The abyss is greater than many people believe,” says Ross Pollack, director of the Specialized Resource Center and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Coordinator at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.

Your child isn’t making this monumental leap alone. You, too, must prepare for transition, from parenting a high school student to coaching a college freshman. And there’s a whole new set of rules. Your job is no longer about coaxing your child to wake up or to study; your new role is to motivate — and empower — him to do these things on his own.

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Most college freshmen get a crash course in self-sufficiency when school begins in the fall. But it’s imperative for the student with ADHD to ease into his independence. That’s why college prep needs to start now. “College is expensive, and it’s earth-shattering if it goes awry,” says Pollack. Rather than wait until your child hits an academic wall, spend this summer preparing for the ways life will change — for both of you.

Line Up Support

Perhaps the biggest difference between high school and college for a student with ADHD is that in high school the federal government lends a hand. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes the school responsible for identifying students with learning disabilities and for providing services when they need them. In college, there’s no such luxury. While colleges are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for learning disabled students, they aren’t required to seek out these students or provide diagnostic services. It’s up to the student to make his disability known to his school — and to ask for help.

A good place to start is the office of Disability Support Services, a service center that advocates and arranges learning accommodations on campus. When Aaron Wolf found himself in trouble at NYU, he turned to the university’s Henry and Lucy Moses Center for Students with Disabilities for assistance. “College is different from high school, and I wasn’t prepared,” says Wolf. “I realized that things weren’t happening, and that I needed someone to help me.”

All colleges have such support services, though they vary in the way they work. Some schools offer structured programs, while others designate a learning specialist to counsel students. Hopefully, you looked into these services at various schools during the admissions process. Now it’s time to get in touch with LD support services again. “Students should immediately introduce themselves to the disability support services officer, and find out what the university requires to utilize its resources,” says Lisa Weyandt, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, who has written about college students with ADHD. “Never assume it’s the same as high school.”

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This summer, visit the LD support service center with your child, and set up a meeting with the director and your child’s academic advisor. Hand in any recent evaluations (within the past three years) documenting your child’s ADHD, and make sure they list specific recommendations for the accommodations he’ll need. Discuss the best course load for an incoming freshman with ADHD. Students taking as few as 12 credits are considered full-time, though experts disagree on whether a reduced class schedule is the best way to start off freshman year. Ask which learning accommodations will be available — and how the LD support staff will arrange for them.

Get What You Need

Of course, accommodations vary depending on the individual student. Does your child struggle with organizing her time and assignments? Support services may arrange a special exam schedule for her, so she never has more than one a day. Does she have trouble reading? The school may arrange for her to have assignments recorded. Lots of students with ADHD find note-taking a challenge, as it requires two skills — listening and writing — at once. In such cases, support services may arrange for note-takers. Does your child have trouble in a particular subject? Does she have a hard time paying attention? She may need smaller classes, and support services may arrange for her to register early so that she gets them.

Learning accommodations can be as simple as a seat in the front of the room or extra time on a test. But in order to qualify for any special considerations, your school needs to know about your child’s ADHD in advance.

“When you decide you need extra time on a test, you can’t just go in and say, ‘Hey, I want to take my test untimed,'” notes Dr. Weyandt. “The university will expect documentation.”

Handing over your child’s evaluation is only the beginning. “Students should be able to describe their challenges and know what accommodations they’re eligible for,” stresses Lakshmi Clark, CSD (Center for Students with Disabilities) Coordinator at NYU. “They should read their own evaluations and understand the recommendations.”

Self Help

Being proactive is yet another important variation from high school. As young adults, college students are responsible for their own advocacy. This is no longer the job of their parents or teachers. And it’s an ongoing process that doesn’t stop after your child has arranged to have a note-taker in his Western Civilization class. If the note-taker gets the flu, your child needs to follow up with support services to find a replacement.

Not only can the LD support services office help your child get the accommodations she needs, it can also lead her to other resources on campus. For instance, support services may steer your child to the writing center, where a counselor can help her brainstorm ideas, get started on a paper, or organize her thoughts. If she alerts support services that she’s feeling overwhelmed, they can direct her to the counseling center to sign on for stress-management workshops.

If your child says she’s struggling in a particular subject, learning support can hook her up with a tutor. (Incidentally, it’s a good idea for your child to personally alert her professors about her ADHD in the fall.) Perhaps a coach, offered by the school or hired privately, would be helpful. At NYU, Aaron Wolf meets with a coach weekly. “I bring my planner and get my week organized.”

Lakshmi Clark works with Wolf and many others. With her students, she maps out daily and weekly schedules, planning in increments as small as 15- and 30-minute intervals. Time is set aside for study and for going to the drugstore to buy shampoo. “I find that students enjoy the sessions,” says Clark. “Most come regularly and find it helpful — even if only to check in and show they’ve completed their assignments.”

Summer Lessons

While many graduating seniors see the summer before college as their last great vacation, one last chance to live it up, experts suggest that students with ADHD spend the summer pretending that freshman year has already begun. “When structure falls away, it’s hard for students with ADHD to think about what’s keeping them on track,” says Catherine Axe, coordinator of disability support services at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. So parents and students should address what’s going to happen in the coming months, now.

Discuss with your child the habits he’ll need at school in the fall, for example, waking up without help from Mom or Dad. “If somebody needs six alarms to get up, this is the time to practice,” stresses Vickie Ball, an ADHD coach in Providence, Rhode Island. Figure out how much sleep your child needs and what works to get him to sleep (earplugs) and get him up (a loud alarm clock).

Does your child know how to do laundry? You’d be surprised at how many high school seniors are clueless about washing clothes. Summer’s a great time to walk your child through it. Break down the steps — get the laundry bag, separate clothes, select detergent — and make a list of them.

How does your child handle money? Practice budgeting on a weekly or biweekly allowance, to help your child cut down on impulse spending. Use a color-coded system — red for transportation, blue for entertainment, green for toiletries, and so on — to track where his money goes.

What kind of time-management system works best for your child? Some students prefer printed calendars or day planners, while others turn to digital assistants like cell phones. Have your teen download and practice using calendar and reminder apps over the summer.

College is an extremely competitive scene, one where even the “smart kids” from high school often feel inadequate. Summer courses can give a student with ADHD an edge. He’ll have the opportunity to see what class rhythm is really like, and what he’s up against come fall. This intro to academic life can help him plan a realistic course load — and the transferable credits give him some wiggle room, should he find his schedule too heavy.

Most importantly, remind your child that you won’t be there with him in school. Talk about his strengths and weaknesses. Identify his potential trouble spots now, and brainstorm how he should handle them. Take note of how many daily promptings you give him — “Billy, it’s time to take your medication” — and discuss how he can get by on his own.

What’s a Parent to Do?

A parent’s role changes enormously as a child makes this life shift. The adjustment can be particularly wrenching if your child has ADHD, because you’ve pretty much been his eyes and ears for 18 or so years. But as your child enters college, you need to let him find his own way.

“It’s not that your parental responsibilities lessen,” says Manhattan College’s Pollack, “but they morph into a different type of responsibility.”

Sure, you can stay involved — just make sure your youngster has the tools to help himself. It’s OK to be inquisitive — in fact, it’s mandatory. Ask your child about his schedule and his syllabus, and explore ways to support him from home. Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your child is the best way — perhaps the only way — to find out how he’s doing. Unlike in high school, your child doesn’t have to let you in on his school life — even if you’re footing the bill. Adult students are protected by privacy laws, and your child must grant permission for any information about him to be released. Even his grades are considered privileged. However, if your child signs an academic release or privacy waiver — a good idea, says Pollack — teachers can speak about him.

So even as you allow your child to solve his own problems, don’t be afraid to check in. “If youngsters have always had support from their parents,” says Weyandt, “they will continue to need it.” Maybe now in a different way, but adjusting to the needs of your child is what parenting’s all about.

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