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For students with learning differences, time to check in

Jes Colebrook, PhD


“I’m going to fail out of college.”

All college students begin on information overload, and believe they must remember every tiny detail. Before they step foot in a classroom, they may fear the end of their college career is looming.

But the student — let’s call her Meena — who made this particular emphatic declaration has a variety of DSM-5 diagnoses. Anxiety, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Bipolar Disorder Type II and, she suspected, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her brain was operating at an already high level of anxiety due to years of struggling through academics and relationships. It took one week of orientation for her to decide failure was unavoidable.

For students with learning differences, the transition to college is a lot for a developing brain to process while simultaneously managing a complex web of atypical brain chemistry. Their educational experience has been a battle for years. The beginning of the term can be overwhelming. A few weeks pass, and most students get into the rhythm of campus life. They create structure for themselves with studying and activities. Our students, however, are still flailing in the deep end — sometimes with a big smile plastered on their faces while declaring, “I’m fine.”

By week four of the semester, perhaps Meena has realized that her decision to only take her ADHD medication as needed (“needed” being determined by her, and not a licensed professional) has resulted in missed assignments. Or maybe her anxiety has been driving her at full steam ahead, so determined to accomplish all the things that she has forgotten to sleep or eat. Either of these scenarios results in poor brain functioning and inability to focus. For some students, taking a day off may be the solution. For Meena, increased stress levels mean a depressive episode is not far behind, and a manic episode following that.

So, what can the parents of students like Meena do at this point of the term? Quite a bit, actually.

Discuss Accommodations

Meena was granted a list of accommodations through the Disability Services office, including extended time on tests, peer note taker, and alternate format text. She should meet with an Accommodations Specialist to discuss other accommodations to request, such as reasonable extensions on assignments.

Accommodations in higher education will not be as individualized as accommodations in elementary and secondary education, and will vary at every university. The Americans with Disabilities Act is written vaguely on purpose so that universities can accommodate disabilities based on the specific environment of the setting. For example, if the Disability Services testing center is located in a quiet building, they may not offer a distraction-free testing environment as an accommodation.

Students aren’t always aware of what they can and should request, and parents can help them navigate this by assisting with internet research and speaking to professionals. The one thing parents should not do, however, is contact the Disability Services office and make the request on the student’s behalf. All requests must come directly from the student.

Encourage Self-Advocating with Professors

Equally as important as ensuring a student has the right accommodations is the student speaking with their professors about their learning needs. This does not mean that students should disclose their diagnosis. Parents can coach their students on how to verbalize their learning needs without sharing their diagnosis.

One student with ADHD and slow processing speed knew he was terrible on multiple choice tests. There was too much information for him to focus on and process simultaneously. At the beginning of each semester, he went to his professor’s office hours to ask if there was an alternate way they would accept evidence of his understanding the material, such as short answer responses. Some professors were willing to work out a different approach; some refused, as altering course material is not an accommodation. Other students ask for their professors’ notes, or use office hours to increase their participation grade.

Develop a Plan B

Allow me to reassure you that, should your student take one less class their first term in college, they will not delay graduation. Every student must progress through their coursework at a pace that allows them to learn the material AND experience success. College should not be approached as a mad dash to the finish line.

Plan B may be reconsidering their major. A student with dyscalculia who has declared a business major will probably struggle through calculus — perhaps needlessly. There may be a comparable path for this student disguised among other degrees. One example may be an economics major with a business administration minor.

One Plan B that is difficult to discuss with your student is that the current university may simply not be a good fit for their learning style. A student with slow processing speed will struggle in the fast-paced environment of a 10-week quarter system, and may have much more success in a 15-week semester system.

For students who have spent years struggling in traditional academic settings that are not compatible with their cognitive functioning, designing a Plan B can be a relief. College should not feel like a trap, and reassuring your student that they have options outside of their current path may be what leads them to their life’s passion.

Hire an Educational Coach

For many students with disabilities, one of the most important resources in their earlier schooling may have been a close relationship with a school staff member. A teacher, a coach, a counselor or a custodian — someone who the student connected to that encouraged them, challenged them and provided them the mental space to simply be.

There is no reason why your student cannot also find that person on campus. Encourage your student to visit their professors’ office hours or to spend time in the Student Engagement offices with people who are energized about working with college students.

Your student may have a higher level of need for an educational coach. Contact departments on campus that have graduate students interested in such work. Any of the mental health fields or educator training programs would be good places to start. Typically, these graduate students have a passion for helping others, a knowledge base of disabilities, and current experience with specific campus resources.

There will be a cost associated with hiring an educational coach, and the time commitment may vary. Some students may only need one hour a week to work on executive functioning skills, while others may require multiple weekly meetings to help them learn how to balance the demands of college.

Certainly, college is a time for autonomy, self-exploration and identity development — but such expectations are a tall order for 18- and 19-year-olds who carry with them the label of a learning difference. For now, discuss with them their options. Be sure they know they have options. Listen to their concerns, and direct them to the appropriate office on campus, whether it’s the Disability Services office or the dining hall for a protein-packed meal.

Reassure them that the support they received in high school does exist in college — it just may be camouflaged under a different name.

Jes Colebrook, Ph.D. is an Academic Counselor in the Learning Effectiveness Program at the University of Denver and the family liaison for the department. Jes is also a Family-School Partnering consultant with the Colorado Department of Education, specializing in partnering with families of students with learning differences.
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