High School

How to Prepare Your ADHD Teen for College, According to Research

Organization and coping skills are put to the test in college. But where, exactly, should your teen train their focus? College students with ADHD and learning disabilities report that these strategies are the most helpful for addressing time-related and productivity challenges.

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The stellar self-management and organization skills needed to navigate college do not sprout overnight. Teens with ADHD, especially, must begin laying the groundwork of executive function months or years before they arrive on campus. How? Begin by focusing your time and energy on the following skills shown to ease the transition to college and lead to positive outcomes.

Common Challenges for College Students with ADHD

University students with ADHD consistently report difficulties in these areas1:

  • Maintaining a daily routine
  • Achieving satisfactory academic performance
  • Establishing balanced interpersonal relationships
  • Overcoming continuous worry

Likewise, parents of teens with ADHD worry about the college transition. In a 2018 study, parents of students with ADHD reported concerns along these four themes2:

  • Abrupt shifts in responsibility and self-management in college
  • Doubts about student self-management and functioning, only exacerbated by privacy laws and an unexpected lack of communication
  • Medication adherence influenced by side effects, career goals, and other factors
  • The complicated process of obtaining academic accommodations

The strategies and interventions outlined below target these common concerns, and more.

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How to Prepare for College: Solutions for Students with ADHD

Communicate Openly

Begin the conversation about college early to allow your child time to voice any concerns (and to hear yours) regarding the transition, and to find solutions before they become independent in college. These early and frequent discussions will also provide valuable insight into what they know about the college experience and how to address any gaps in their knowledge. Validate your child’s fears and concerns as they share, without shame or judgement.

Encourage Independence

High school is the time to progressively teach your child key self-management skills like taking and refiling medications and managing schedules (as recommended by parents of college students with ADHD2. Explain each skill’s importance and model it for your child. Supervise as they perform the skill and correct as needed.

Teens gain independence by steadily building resilience — that is, experiencing stress and working through frustrations on their own. It won’t serve them well, especially in college, if someone else has acted as their frontal lobe and shielded them from difficulty and stress all this time.

Helicopter Parenting — the Right Way

Helicopter parenting may seem like a contradictory strategy (and it generally is) if the goal is to increase your child’s independence. But there’s one aspect of helicopter parenting that may benefit your child.

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Researchers view helicopter parenting as a collection of behaviors that include

  • seeking information (asking for daily updates, grades, and whereabouts, being involved in decisions, knowing school schedules, etc.)
  • managing academic/personal affairs (e.g. helping with homework and projects, rewriting papers, creating and managing schedules)
  • intervening directly (e.g. parental involvement in a child’s friendships, romantic and professional relationships)
  • limiting autonomy (e.g. structuring and controlling the child’s life)

According to a recent study3, the information-seeking domain of helicopter parenting is actually associated with better decision-making and academic functioning — but only in the absence of the other listed domains.

This means that being inquisitive, guiding your child in their decision-making, and keeping in touch about grades and daily affairs may be appropriate supports that facilitate the college transition.

Boost Organizational and Coping Skills

Organization and coping skills are put to the test in college. But where, exactly, should your teen train their focus? College students with ADHD and learning disabilities report that these strategies are the most helpful for addressing time-related and productivity challenges4:

Habits and routines

  • structured, productive morning routines (mostly centered on daily tasks for healthy living)
  • strong, reliable planning systems (planners, calendars, written plans)
  • prioritization skills (task urgency and decision-making)
  • reminder systems (checklists, mobile apps)

Cognitive reframing (redefining challenging or frustrating experiences)

  • self-evaluation of strengths and challenges; learning styles; goals
  • reframing internally and to others (for effective self-advocacy)

Symptom-specific solutions (to combat mental fatigue, executive function challenges, etc.)

  • activity breaks/switching
  • recognizing and heeding environmental cues
  • keeping stress to a minimum

Work with your teen’s ADHD care team to strengthen these skills and implement these strategies before college. A trained provider can teach cognitive reframing techniques through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Your child might see this same therapy in college if there’s an available program.

More Helpful College Tips

1. Do your research. Contact colleges to learn about available programs for students with disabilities, including pre-college or summer programs. Ask about upcoming information meetings and orientations.

Go beyond academic accommodations in your research. Ask about interventions, services, treatments, coaching, skills-based groups, counseling, and other supports available to students. Verify what type of documentation health services will need to prescribe ADHD medication and treat students.

2. Accommodations can be handled after acceptance. Your teen’s college application need not mention their ADHD. While it’s good to do behind-the-scenes work to verify the types of services a college provides, I advise teens to start asking for resources after they have accepted admittance. Be sure to check with the college’s office of disability resources on documentation and evaluation guidelines.

3. IEPs and 504 Plans do not transfer to college… but copies and documentation usually help speed up the eligibility process for accommodations. Be sure to have these on hand for the certification process with the college’s office of disability resources.

 The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Help for College Students with ADHD: A Parent’s Guide to Improving Outcomes” [Video Replay & Podcast #371] with Kevin Antshel, Ph.D.,which was broadcast live on September 9, 2021.

How to Prepare for College with ADHD: Next Steps

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View Article Sources

1Kwon, S. J., Kim, Y., & Kwak, Y. (2018). Difficulties faced by university students with self-reported symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: a qualitative study. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health, 12, 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-018-0218-3

2Schaefer, M. R., Wagoner, S. T., Young, M. E., Kavookjian, J., Shapiro, S. K., & Gray, W. N. (2018). Parent Perceptions of Their College Students’ Self-Management of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 63(5), 636–642. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.05.033

3Luebbe, A. M., Mancini, K. J., Kiel, E. J., Spangler, B. R., Semlak, J. L., & Fussner, L. M. (2018). Dimensionality of Helicopter Parenting and Relations to Emotional, Decision-Making, and Academic Functioning in Emerging Adults. Assessment, 25(7), 841–857. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191116665907

4Kreider, C. M., Medina, S., & Slamka, M. R. (2019). Strategies for Coping with Time-Related and Productivity Challenges of Young People with Learning Disabilities and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 6(2), 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/children6020028