ADHD in College

My Child Is Going to College! How Can We Make Sure He Stays There?

Online learning will continue — at least in part — at many colleges this Fall, requiring students with ADHD and learning disabilities to utilize Disability Services offices in a totally new way — with virtual or hybrid classes in mind. Here are eight absolute musts for college students with learning challenges — in the Fall of 2020, and beyond.

Empty college auditorium
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Q: “I have a 2020 high school graduate, and I am beyond proud of his accomplishments. With an IEP since kindergarten, and ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia diagnoses, nothing about school came easy for my son. We weren’t sure what the future would hold for him, but through his determination, he is off to college.

“Looking back now, getting into college was the easy part. His college has indicated that classes will take a hybrid approach of in-person and online classes. And, like many universities, the last few classes of the semester and finals will be online. He will also receive accommodations through the university’s office of disability services.

“I know my son is not the only student with learning disabilities about to face this type of learning environment. What advice can you give our college students and what additional resources should he be seeking? But how can we help him stay in college?”


A: Congratulations! Research shows that students who are successful typically have supportive parents, so I suspect you should take a little bit of the credit for your son’s accomplishment!

Register Now with the College Disabilities Office

It’s great that you’re already thinking about what he can do once school starts to make sure he stays on track in college. And you’ve touched on the first thing I would suggest: that he register for accommodations for his ADHD and learning disabilities.

[Click to Read: How College Accommodations Are Unlike High School Accommodations]

Be aware that, if he hasn’t done so already, he can register now; he doesn’t have to wait until he arrives on campus to do so. That is actually what I suggest to students – that they complete as much of the disability services registration process as possible before they arrive on campus. This will increase their odds of having college-level accommodations in place when classes start. (It can take a few weeks for the process to be completed, especially if they wait until they get to school. Offices are often flooded with registrations at that time.)

The hybrid model that you’re describing is a new one for many colleges, so we’re all learning along the way. The details of how your son’s college is operating may affect how he can use strategies to stay on track.

Block Out Weekly Times for Classes and Course Work

For many college students, particularly ones with ADHD, time management is often the primary challenge. Setting up a weekly routine can help.

The typical foundation for students’ schedule is class times. If online classes are being held live, students won’t have to think about when to attend. But if they’re recorded for students to view at any time before the next week, students should choose the same time each week to watch the videos and block that time into their schedule. They should be strategic – if they need a few days to complete follow-up questions or write a response to the lecture, they shouldn’t leave those viewings for the day before the work is due.

[Read: 13 Survival Tips from College Graduates with ADHD]

Once they block in their classes, students should schedule time to work on assignments for each class at a specific hour on a specific day each week. That way, they aren’t constantly making decisions about what to do next.

Common advice tells students to plan to spend 6 hours a week working on assignments and readings for each class. I tell them to try 6 hours in the first week and then adjust if needed. Some classes may require more, some fewer. But they need a number to get started.

Be Realistic About Time of Day and Duration of Work

Students should be strategic about the times they choose to tackle course work. If they do better work at night, they should plan around that. Or if they don’t want to take their medication at night because it interferes with sleep, they need to plan work sessions for earlier in the day.

They should also be strategic about the length of time they will spend studying. Do they prefer to do an hour a day for each class each week, or concentrate the work into longer blocks on one or two days?

They should schedule breaks between classes and study blocks. Science can’t tell students how long they can study before needing a break, but I recommend trying two hours at a time with a half hour-break in between. I also recommend spreading out “academic time” over several days. If some days are heavy on class time, they may only want to do one study block on those days and schedule the others on days when they have fewer classes.

Treat Study Time Like a Work Shift

To make study blocks effective, students will need to reduce distractions. This is where the environment of each school will have an influence. Students who have a single dorm room should plan to close their door and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign up while they’re doing their planned study blocks. Those who are sharing a room may find it better to go to the library or a study lounge for study blocks. But they really need to treat those study blocks like commitments to work. Creating a list of the work to be done each week and checking it off can help them to be goal-oriented and feel satisfaction when work is done.

Create Accountability

Finding a study buddy can be helpful, too. Meeting someone at a set time creates a sense of obligation to actually show up and get the work done. If the library or campus study lounges are open, students can meet for study blocks but sit away from each other to reduce the temptation to talk. (They can take turns being the “study hall monitor” to keep a group on task.) If students aren’t able to be physically near each other, they can try body doubling. (Parents can also serve this function.)

Anticipate Distractions and Turn Off Devices

Whether they work alone or with a friend, students will have to reduce distractions from their devices. Phones should be off or at least on mute and notifications turned off on both phones and computers, too. If they have to use the Internet for schoolwork, there are plenty of programs and browser extensions that will block distracting sites.

Experiment with Different Learning Strategies

Students who are successful at college report using various learning strategies. Reading assignments can be challenging, as they tend to be long, and professors may not provide comprehension questions to help students figure out what they should know at the end. Also, reading is a really passive activity, which presents challenges for the ADHD mind. SQ3R is a technique that might help with all of these challenges. Preparing for exams can also be daunting. Research suggests it should be an ongoing process that utilizes a few strategies.

List All Academic Supports Available — and Use Them

When they are struggling, students should take advantage of the help offered. Whether delivered in person or online, tutoring supports should be available by appointment or during drop-in hours. Professors and TAs should also have office hours, and those can be good times to ask questions about the material covered in class or an aspect of the homework or reading that was challenging. If their college offers such a service (not all do), it’s a great idea to make an appointment with a learning specialist at the disability services office to see what kinds of supports they provide.

Some students may be hesitant to seek help at college, thinking that doing so is a sign that they aren’t cut out for college. They should be aware that colleges expect students to be challenged — that’s why they offer these supports.

Some students also don’t want anything to do with special education after high school. They should know that the Disability Services office will not be monitoring them – it’s there only to provide accommodations. And the students with ADHD who are successful are typically the ones who do ask for help when they need it.

If your son tries to be strategic about what he’s doing at college, I’m sure he’ll find success!

[Read This Next: Less Handholding, More Independence for College Students with ADHD]


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Updated on July 1, 2020

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