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Supporting postsecondary success for teens with learning differences

Gayle Bell Director of the College Achievement Program The College Achievement Program at Denver Academy

For students with learning differences (LD), college can be a very challenging place. Less than a quarter attend a 4-year postsecondary institution, and less than half of those complete a degree within 8 years. However, students with LD can be successful with a strong support system. This article provides advice for supporting students with LD in their postsecondary pursuits. Follow these tips to find a program that fits your student--and to ensure ongoing and effective support.


Do ask questions about the services available to students

When considering postsecondary programs, meet with the disability services office. Ask about the availability of staff and accommodations, and find out who is responsible for initiating support. Does the student need to seek out support or do staff people reach out to the student? If you know older students with learning differences, ask them about their experience with the disability services office. Ask about the process of applying for and receiving accommodations. Find out if the school does any training with the faculty around working with students with learning differences. If it seems like the disability services are lacking, understaffed or reluctant to help, you may want to consider looking elsewhere or enrolling in a third-party support program.

Do disclose the disability

Be sure to disclose your child’s disability to the school--and to your child. In college, students must disclose a disability in order to access accommodations. This typically requires meeting with someone in the disability services office and providing documentation of the disability. Documentation may include a 504 plan, an IEP or a psychoeducational evaluation. Most schools require testing within the past 3 years.

If you have not already discussed your student’s disability with your student, do so before beginning the postsecondary search. Students will be largely responsible for seeking out accommodations and support, so it is important they have a strong understanding of the disability and how it affects learning. Give your student opportunities to practice advocating by describing how they learn best. This could be with a teacher or guidance counselor, or even just describing it to you.

Do encourage student independence

During the final years of high school, allow your student to take over some responsibilities. Perhaps she can begin scheduling her own doctor appointments or can be responsible for ensuring her cell phone bill is paid. If you expect her to handle these types of things on her own in college, give her opportunities to practice now.

If your student is having difficulty with something, help guide her through the problem solving rather than just taking care of it for her. Guide your student to resources other than you to help her figure out how to troubleshoot a roadblock. When it comes time to register for classes and buy books/supplies, involve your student in the process. Let her be in the driver’s seat while you coach her through it.

Do understand your student’s rights and responsibilities

It is illegal to discriminate based on a disability. Schools are legally required to offer curriculum in a manner that is accessible to students with learning differences, but this does not mean a “free” pass. Students are responsible for disclosing the disability and requesting accommodations. This usually means meeting with the disability services office each semester and informing instructors of the approved accommodations. In some cases, students must fill out an alternate exam request form for each exam on which they hope to use accommodations.

Students actually have quite a bit of responsibility in ensuring they get what they need to be successful. At the same time, your student has a right to an accessible education, such as access to audio books if he is unable to visually read texts or extended time on tests if needed to accurately exhibit knowledge of the content. Most schools clearly outline the rights and responsibilities of students. Be sure to ask to see this information.

Do be aware of growing pains

Remember when your child was a toddler, and he would insist on independence one day and then insist that you do everything for him the next? Your child was testing independence then--and he’s testing out even greater independence now. Expect that your student may want you to back off sometimes and then swoop in and help at other times. This is normal. Continue to support, while also encouraging independence.


Do not assume college will be like high school

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for students entering college is time management. In high school, kids are in classes close to 7 hours a day and then have 2 to 3 hours of homework each night. In college, students are in classes for only a handful of hours each day, but are expected to be completing 2 to 3 hours of work on their own for every hour they are in class. So, for a typical 12-credit schedule, a student will have about 24 to 36 hours of homework over the course of a week. Students need to prepare for this shift by establishing a routine for managing their own time to complete work.

Another important difference to grasp is the difference between modifications and accommodations. Modifications include changing content or requirements for a student, such as shortening the length of a test or excusing a student from a math requirement. Accommodations focus on making content accessible to all students, which include extended time on tests or providing content in both audio and visual formats. Though your student may have received modifications in high school, they are not typically granted at the collegiate level. Instead, colleges offer accommodations.

Do not expect different results from the same actions

Well-intentioned students may vow to themselves and to others that they will be more organized this year and will get their work turned in on time this semester. While these vows are often sincere, they typically don’t work without a specific plan in place to help the student achieve these goals. If a student has been using a paper planner for years and still forgets assignments on a regular basis, it is time to try a new system. Try switching to an online calendar that synchronizes across devices and has alarms. If an online calendar has not been working, consider trying a large wall calendar. There is no magic system for all students. The important thing is to have an actionable plan, which is different than what has been tried and failed. If your student has found a system that works, stick with it and adapt it to the college setting.

Do not create a plan without student buy-in

All of the structures, systems, organization and support won’t do much of anything if the student is not invested. Talk to your student about his postsecondary hopes and give him the freedom to choose a path that best fits, even if it is not a traditional path. Discuss what supports your student is currently using and how they are helping--or not helping--so that you can build a support plan together. Just because a support is available, does not mean your student will use it. Make sure the support plan in place is one that both the student and parents are comfortable with.

Do not wait to seek support

Expect the best and prepare for the worst. Your student may arrive on the college campus and feel that she has finally found her place in the world and everything clicks. That is great. But for many students, this is not the case. If your student struggled in high school, these struggles will likely continue in college, and maybe even to a greater degree. It is important to set students up for success by equipping them with all the tools they may need and then slowly removing them as they are found to be unnecessary. Nothing is more stressful than realizing halfway through the semester that you are not doing as well as you would like--and you have no idea how to find help. If math has traditionally been a struggle, identify a math tutor before the semester begins and schedule regular appointments. As time goes by, your student may find he no longer needs a math tutor after all, but do not eliminate the support before then.

Be sure to consider all of the areas in which your student may need support: Academic tutoring, organization and time management, physical health and medication management, mental health, disability services, life skills management/training or career planning. Identify a contact for each area of support. For some students, one person may serve many roles. For others, there will be a unique contact for each area of needed support. Be sure your student knows who to contact and how for each area.

Do not delay registration

One important way to set a student up for success is to build a schedule around his prime times for learning. Waiting until the last minute to register may mean your student is stuck with classes at inconvenient times or without the ability to sign up for a needed class. Some schools will allow students who have registered with disability services to have priority registration, allowing them to select their classes before the rest of the student body. If this is available, be sure to take advantage of it. You can start by reviewing the available courses and times before registration is even open. Be sure to check for any registration holds on the account and take care of those early. Help your student build a schedule that he is comfortable with and select a back-up plan or two. When it is time to actually register, your student will be ready and the process will go more smoothly if he already knows what classes and times he wants. After a schedule is set, meet with the disability services office to get the letter of accommodations taken care of, so your student has this in hand the first week of school.

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Embarking on a postsecondary pursuit can be an intimidating venture--for both the student and the parent. Students with learning differences will continue to require support through their postsecondary path, but with a strong plan in place, they can successfully complete a college degree.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: classroom work by Elmira College via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Gayle BellDirector of the College Achievement Program

Gayle Bell has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver. She has over ten years experience in education and has worked with students with learning disabilities for the past 5 years. Her work with students with...

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