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by Jimmie Smith, Adult Topics Committee

Matching a student’s specific needs/strengths/struggle areas with the right university and the right support services is critical to a student’s growth, development, health, happiness, and ultimately their ability to persist to graduation. For students who experience a learning disability, ADHD, and/or a history of learning challenges, transitions of any sort may be difficult. They may struggle with connecting to their peers, or they may be so socially adept that they choose to focus on their social life more than their academics.

In high school there tends to be more structure and more help with time management either due to the schedule of the day or to parent intervention. Even the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) provides an outline of support and accommodations that is implemented by teachers in the high school. Accommodations are woven into the school day and week. Students may not have to advocate for themselves to receive the services they require to be successful.

At the college level there is much less structure and support. There can be a lot of time perceived as “free time”. It is up to the student to manage that time. Extra-curricular activities may not continue, which can cause a loss of structure in the student’s life. Students are expected to follow a syllabus, and if they need help, it is up to the student to speak up to the professors. Parents and teachers are no longer a “safety net” or “pre-frontal cortex” to help students identify when they need to ask for assistance. Students have to request and submit their documentation in order to receive accommodations, and then they are responsible for using the accommodations and advocating for themselves.

It is important to be aware of the support services available at the higher education level. Disability Services offices provide reasonable accommodations at no cost to any student who has a documented disability as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The office serves students with a variety of needs (physical, emotional, learning, etc.) Students who have been diagnosed with a learning difference, ADHD, anxiety, depression, or any other diagnosis that causes difficulty with learning may benefit from a comprehensive support program. These programs are not available at all colleges and are generally fee-based. They usually provide one-on-one time with a professional academic counselor/coach to help with navigating the institution and the learning process. Comprehensive programs usually focus on helping students develop self-awareness, self-advocacy, self-determination, and accountability so that the students have the skills and drive to manage their education and life. Comprehensive programs provide additional structure and support while continuing to work with students along a developmental path.

It is very important to find a good fit with both the institution and the support program for student success. Some questions to ask when looking for the right fit are:

  • Does the institution offer the program major and areas of interest that the student thinks he/she may want to study?
  • Does the institution require the student to take core classes or are students allowed to focus solely on their area of interest?
  • Is the institution on a quarter system where classes are condensed into a shorter amount of time or a semester system?
  • What other support or activities does the institution provide to encourage connection and social engagement?
  • Is the size of the institution right for the student?
  • How receptive is the institution to students with learning differences?

If at all possible, visit the campus. Make appointments to talk with the disability services office and with someone in the comprehensive support program. Ask your questions. Before making the final decision, be as sure as possible that the institution is the right fit and that the support services available on campus will meet the needs of the student.

Jimmie Smith is the Director, Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver.

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