College

Less Handholding, More Independence

Worried about your child making the transition from high school to college? Keep him from drifting into academic free-fall with these tips for planning ahead, choosing courses, and encouraging self-advocacy.

ADHD students in college study on campus
ADHD students in college study on campus

Many students with ADHD do well in high school, but struggle with grades and being on their own in college. Parents send their son off to his dream college, having every reason to believe he will excel, only to have him flunk out in the first semester. Students whose parents and teachers coddle them in high school are especially prone to failure. In fact, too much parental hand-holding in the junior and senior years, say experts, is a warning sign that the student may have trouble in college.

“Many parents control their children’s lives,” says Carl Thum, Ph.D., director of the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. “When the student enters college, he can’t manage the newfound freedom without his parents’ daily guidance.” As if that weren’t enough, college rarely provides the same level of support and one-on-one attention that high-school special-ed programs do.

The bottom line? The student drifts into academic free-fall.

To help students with ADHD successfully move from high school to college, experts recommend that parents use the following strategies before heading off to campus:

Plan Ahead

“Poor time management trips up many students with ADHD in college,” says Jodi Sleeper-Triplett, an ADHD coach based in Virginia, who works with kids, teens, and college students. “Have your student choose a planner – whether it’s an online version, a smartphone, or a traditional paper format – and practice scheduling her day before she heads off to college.”

It’s vital that students be able to schedule – and execute – daily activities on their own, says Patricia Quinn, M.D., a developmental pediatrician, who specializes in kids and teens with ADHD, and author of ADD and the College Student. “Have your student pay attention to managing time around life activities, such as socializing and extracurriculars, not just around academics,” says Quinn. Because parents often do a lot for their kids – grocery shopping, laundry – students aren’t aware of how time-consuming managing day-to-day necessities can be.

Find a Point Person

“When you research prospective colleges, find out if there is enough on-campus support to help your student with the transition,” advises Thum. “Be sure that a dean, a counselor, an ADHD coach, or someone in the disabilities office is tuned in to the problems that students with ADHD face,” he says. The student, not the parent, should contact this point person during the junior or senior year of high school.

Before starting the first semester, your son should talk with the contact person about the accommodations he will need – and the backup documentation that is required to get them. Thum also advises students to “find someone in the campus infirmary or health clinic who can meet with him once or more a semester to do a med check.” Students who continue taking ADHD medication in college need to adjust the dosage to accommodate new academic demands – two-hour-long lecture classes, for instance.

Encourage Self-Advocacy

Students should practice advocating for themselves – approaching teachers to ask for extended time on tests, say, or for permission to record lectures — before the first day of classes. Says Quinn: “Starting in the eighth grade, talk with your son about how his ADHD affects him, socially and academically. Be sure he is aware of his academic strengths and weaknesses.” Quinn suggests that ADHD students know their learning style – visual, auditory, or kinesthetic – and have suitable study techniques to prepare for tests. Students should also have a feel for which courses play to their strengths and which ones will be a problem.

Mix It Up in the Classroom

“Half of doing well at college is course choice,” says Thum. “Students with ADHD shouldn’t dumb things down, but they shouldn’t overextend themselves either.” Thum advises that students not load up on lecture classes, a poor fit for a kid who is easily distracted. Smaller classes or courses that require doing projects are better.

Selecting the right courses can be tough during the first semester or two, because students don’t know what they are interested in,” Thum says. “They need to seek the advice of a dean or special-ed counselor, who can guide them. Poor course selection is a key reason some students with ADHD get into academic trouble.”

Stay Involved

Parents play an important role in a child’s college success, but it is different from the one they played in high school. “Support your child,” says coach Sleeper-Triplett, “but don’t jump in to fix problems. If your son doesn’t get along with his roommate, be a sounding board, not a problem-solver. Ask him to come up with potential solutions, and subtly steer him toward the most effective option. If your child is in a real bind, step up your involvement: Don’t solve the problem for him, but be supportive and available to talk it over. You might also call your child’s advisor, in confidence, and suggest that he have a one-on-one with him.”

A friend of mine was glad she encouraged her son’s independence in high school. “In freshman year, I would sit by him late into the night when he wrote papers,” she says. “But I did less and less as time went on. By the time senior year came around, I did hardly any handholding.” Now that her son is in college, she answers questions and gives guidance without doing his work. He is flourishing.

Taking a Break

If your child leaves college for a semester or two because of poor grades, try the following tips to get her back on academic track when she returns:

  • Debrief without shame and blame “Have someone who is objective debrief the situation,” advises ADHD coach Jodi Sleeper-Triplett. It could be a psychologist, clergy member, or a trusted family friend who can review what the student did-and did not do-in college. Be sure the person talks with your student about forms of support she will need when she returns. “It’s important that the student be encouraged to figure out what worked well at school and what didn’t-and to get through this often-painful process without harsh judgment.”
  • Stay active Students should spend their time away from college working at a job, traveling, or engaging in self-study, suggests Carl Thum of Dartmouth’s Academic Skills Center. “Have them do something productive – not just play video games,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time, students are more focused after a year of doing something meaningful.” The benefit of staying active is that the student can regain the self-confidence she lost.
  • Seek more support Experts advise students to return to campus with a proactive approach to getting help. “In almost every case, students who had to leave college for some time didn’t take advantage of support while they were there,” Thum says. “When they get back, they need to talk with their professors and deans, and find out about-and learn to use-supports at college.”

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