Selecting a College for your Child with ADHD

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ADHD does not have to be a barrier to college success, but finding the right fit for your child’s needs is important. As a parent, you want your child to succeed in high school so she can get into a “good” college. Naturally, you have helped your child get the best grades possible because that is what society considers success. However, you might be concerned that she won’t find the same assistance in college that you have been able to provide in high school, and that she won’t be able to achieve the same grades. You are right to be concerned. 

In my experience, the students who are successful in college are able to manage their time well, are self-starters, can follow through with responsibilities, and are willing to seek help. For students with ADHD, academic ability is rarely the challenge. Many students do not realize the amount of scaffolding that has been constructed to help them earn good grades. In many cases, the parent has provided a great deal of support, but has not helped her child develop the all-important executive functioning skills needed to succeed independently.   

So, what to do? Fortunately, there are several valuable options. 

The Gap Year 

If you believe your child is somewhat immature, has not sufficiently developed his executive functioning skills, or is just not ready for the independence of college life, you might consider a gap year program. The purpose of a gap year is to further develop your child’s executive skills and help him gain confidence in his abilities. There are a handful of programs that provide the structure to accomplish this, so do your research and ask questions. A good source of information is  

Options for Colleges with Support 

A second option is to seek out a college that offers a strong level of support for students with ADHD, but keep in mind that not all colleges offer the same level or type of support. Well-meaning friends might suggest a specific college that they heard was “good for students with learning differences.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that this college will have the best support for your child. A college with excellent support for students with dyslexia, for example, might not offer the best support for a student who is an excellent reader but has difficulty completing assignments. This is not a one-size-fits-all process.  

Here are some guidelines to help in your child’s selection process. 

  • Learning Support System: One of the most important considerations is whether the college offers a weekly check-in with a learning specialist, so your son can stay current with his work and develop better study habits and time management skills. This coaching (or mentoring) model of support has been used successfully with many students who struggle with executive functioning deficits; the key factor is the student’s willingness to attend weekly appointments, because the student is responsible for showing up each week. Coaching is part of the learning support system at many colleges, and the number of colleges implementing this support is growing each year.  
  • Comprehensive Learning Support: If your son or daughter is not yet a strong self-advocate, you might consider a college with a comprehensive support program, somewhat similar to a resource room in high school. Your child will have mandatory scheduled meetings one or more times per week throughout the semester with a professional learning specialist who will assist with time management, organization, study skills, academic issues, interpersonal issues, and most importantly, self-advocacy training. These are fee-based programs that limit the number of students accepted in order to maintain a small staff to student ratio.  
  • Non Traditional Schools: There are a variety of non-traditional college options to fit the needs of students who learn differently. Many students with ADHD do much better when they are interested in the subject being taught or the manner in which it is being taught. In addition to direct learning support, some colleges offer an “upside-down curriculum,” where students can jump right into their intended area of study, rather than gradually completing core requirements. Many colleges also provide an experiential environment so students can learn by doing, either through projects or internships and co-op experiences. Parents should look for colleges that encourage innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. 

The key is to start early in high school by identifying your child’s learning style and beginning to research which colleges offer the type of support and learning environment your child will need. If you know what to look for, and what questions to ask, you will help your child find the right fit for long term success. 

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