Ask the Experts

Q: How Do I Know If My Teen Is Really Ready for College?

Your teen with ADHD has his heart set on a four-year college far from home. How do you know if he’s really ready and able to live independently while also managing a challenging college course load? The answer is rarely clear cut, but here is a plan for defining markers, gauging progress, and making a decision.

Q: “My son will be starting his freshman year of college in the fall. He is still struggling to manage his time and homework workload senior year and I’m worried about how he will do on his own without our support. How do you know if your child with ADHD is really ready for college?” — Momof3boys

A: Knowing when a teen with ADHD is ready for college is never clear-cut. A number of factors go into this decision and, given the global pandemic raging right now, it can be extra complicated to figure this out. It is tough to determine a teen’s college readiness when they’re stuck at home 24/7 and can’t exercise maturity in typical ways. That being said, let’s look at how you can gauge his readiness and plan for this next phase of his life.

Going to college and living away from home merge two big challenges for young adults with ADHD: independent living and accelerated academic demands. College students have to manage self-care (personal hygiene, regular meals, doing laundry, and adequate sleep) while juggling school (going to classes, turning in assignments, getting academic support, and staying on top of their work). This requires engaging many executive functioning skills simultaneously.

They have to be able to plan and prioritize, budget their time, organize their belongings, remember tasks, control impulses for gaming or socializing, adapt to living with other people, stick with projects and goals until completion, and develop the self-awareness to make good choices and ask for assistance when they need it. It’s a tall order for most teens and, of course, ADHD brains naturally take longer to develop.

Most kids, though, have enough of these skills to launch but still require scaffolding from you and the college. I’ve rarely seen kids with ADHD go to college and make it successfully without assistance from home and from academic services. This doesn’t mean being a helicopter mom or a snowplow dad. What matters is helping your teen set up the necessary supports early on and fostering a routine that makes sense so your child will actually use them. He’s got to be included in creating these contacts and building a structure so that following through becomes second nature. To stay on track, he needs a collaboratively built safety net with clear markers for accountability.

[Does Your Teen Daughter Have ADHD? Take This Test To Find Out]

You mention that your son struggles to manage his workload and other senior-year responsibilities. I’m wondering what he does take care of regularly. Is he able to get up and leave for school, sports, or a job on his own or with minimal reminders? Does he go to bed at a reasonable time when he has something the next day? Is he motivated to do things that matter to him? How well does he execute his personal hygiene? The answers to these questions will start to lead you toward assessing his college readiness. By the time a teen leaves for college, they should be able to execute these basic skills most of the time.

It’s also crucial that he attend a college that fits him the best and offers the services he needs. For kids like your son who are demonstrating the need for continued academic and life support, it may make the most sense for him to go somewhere that’s within driving distance from your home in case he struggles with this big transition. While some kids benefit from deferring college for a year and doing a gap year or other interim experience, others find going to community college for a year helpful. It sounds like your son doesn’t want to stay home next year and is interested in beginning the independent college experience. For kids like him with ADHD, this desire is particularly meaningful since they’re more motivated to start and follow through on the things that personally interest them,

You’ve got to assess your son’s readiness for college with him. Follow these steps to create a meaningful collaborative plan that assesses his capabilities and allows him to show you his maturity:

  1. Set up a weekly meeting to check in: When you have a consistent time and place to discuss issues related to school and college, teens don’t feel ‘picked on’ all week. Pick a time and place that works for both of you where you can talk for not more than 30 minutes. Some families benefit from having these check-ins twice a week. You want to use this time to discuss your plan and also ask him how he thinks he’s doing with it. This helps build the self-awareness he’ll need for college.
  2. Explore your son’s goals and share your own: Clarify everyone’s hopes and desires for next year. It’s tough to make a map of your journey without this. Ask your son what’s important to him about going to college, what he envisions it to be like, and what he expects from himself when he’s there. Then share some of your ideas. Notice where you overlap and write these down.
  3. Identify areas of success and challenge: Notice what daily living skills your son is managing on his own and where he needs support. Ask him to reflect first and then add your observations. Offer praise for skills that he’s accomplishing before sharing your concerns. I imagine that your son, like most kids with ADHD, will ignore the positive and focus on the negative. To combat that, reframe what he’s not yet doing consistently as areas of growth rather than as flaws. Agree which of these challenges are most important to to demonstrate his readiness for independent living and write these down. You can refer to these notes later.
  4. Establish concrete markers for improvement: Pick one or two challenges for concerted work. Decide how you will convey your feedback when he’s making progress or when he’s falling short. You don’t want to be a reminder machine and he doesn’t want to be nagged. What types of cues have been successful in the past? Consider texting, setting phone alerts or alarms, using Post-Its, writing a note, as well as sharing verbal statements. Say something positive when you see him making efforts to do something differently. Change takes time and effort, so he’ll need your encouragement.
  5. Decide on a process for making the decision about college: Rather than forcing him to have it all together by a specific date, mutually agree about signs that indicate that he’s moving toward readiness. You want him to be as involved as possible in this decision so he doesn’t feel like you are taking something away from him. Let him know the financial aspects of enrolling in college in terms of deposits, tuition costs, etc. matter-of-factly. We don’t want guilt or shame to factor into the choice you are making as a family.

Kids grow up so much during senior year and the summer before college. Help him assess his capabilities realistically based on your agreements so that, whatever decision you make, it is one that everybody can embrace.

[Click to Read: Should My Child Attend A College With An ADHD Program?]