Post high school education can be challenging for students transitioning to college with learning disabilities, but for those with little or no transition planning or for students who have mild learning challenges that received no services in high school the transition to college can seem insurmountable.   Concerns about self-care, class preparation, and social interactions are ever-present for all freshmen. However, for students with mild learning challenges or for those who received poor transition planning, navigating the college campus independently without adult intervention can be devastating.  Some of the questions parents may find themselves wondering about the first semester may include:

  • Is my child using college learning support services?
  • Has the teacher provided them with their accommodations? If not has my child asked for them?
  • Is my child effectively managing their time or are they hanging out with “friends”  and videos instead of doing their school work?
  • How is my child doing with self-care to keep up with the demands of college?

All freshmen encounter life skills challenges in college but for students with mild learning impairments those with ADHD, on the autism spectrum,  or with other learning disabilities being prepared for independence before college can be the difference between success and failure.

Transitioning to college with learning disabilities

If students entering college with learning disabilities don’t understand the nature of their disability, moving from high school to college is difficult. They need to understand their strengths and weakness well enough to explain to others and advocate for their needs.   Prior to middle and high school transition planning are part of the education process to prepare teens to navigate the higher education landscape if they have been diagnosed with a learning disability.. When entering college, students must know how to discuss their disability, request services, and be aware of the strategies and supports they need to succeed in school.

In college,  students are required to self-advocate.  They manage their own schedules and recognize when to seek out additional support. In addition, they schedule appointments such as tutoring, writing support, and seek out professors to answer questions and make a special request as needed.  Weak self-evaluation, initiation, planning, and time management skills can make these tasks overwhelming. It’s important to start working on self-advocacy skills in high school.

Colleges and universities, work with students with special needs differently than high school special education department.  Colleges provide accommodations but expect students  to access and advocate for services independently. High schools provide all the services a student needs in a classroom setting. Teachers and assistants anticipate student’s needs and recognize, at least to some degree, how to manage those needs. Students aren’t required to understand their disabilities at the high school level.  However, in college, professors may understand little about working with students with disabilities and may not understand when extra time on tests, the use of special programs for reading text, or specialized programs that create music notation are required.

Case Study: It takes a village including the student

A student with written language challenges attended college. His parents spoke with the school and provided all the necessary paperwork.   However,  the student did not receive the necessary accommodations.  Only after failing classes, did he learn that he was eligible to use a special program?  He did not ask the teacher for other accommodations and was never informed that he was eligible. The program was not revealed by the school until a crisis, a letter sent home stating he was suspended from school.  After many calls and reminders to the school about his accommodations, he was allowed to retake the classes over the summer using the notation program. He passed.

Most colleges and universities have writing centers, tutors,  special programs, and specialists, but students need to know what they need, when to request it and how.  In high school, during the last year, students should be relatively independent in requesting support and accommodations. Good transition planning should target and facilitate the development of strong self-advocacy skills.