Preparing your ADHD/LD Student for the First Year of College


I am delighted to have as one of my 2017 College Series’ guest bloggers, Theresa Maitland, PhD.  Dr. Maitland is a Senior Learning Specialist and Academic Coach at UNC’s Learning Center. She has co-authored three books and engages in training and consulting with educational institutions.

Q: When you think of students you’ve seen at the Learning Center at UNC, what sets apart those who seem to have successfully navigated that first year of college? 

This is the exact question I asked myself a number of years ago when my research on this topic began.   I also talked with students to get their take on things.  All the students I meet—those who don’t endure as well as those that do and succeed—say that the transition to college is extremely challenging and not for the faint-of-heart.  What I think separates the two groups is that those who endure and succeed are willing to face their differences and admit that their strategies aren’t working. More successful students make a conscious choice to seek help, open up to resources and learn more effective strategies…either before they experience a problem or afterwards. They understand the value of creating a support network and eventually accept and sometimes even appreciate their differences.

Those who don’t endure seem unable or unwilling to accept their differences and use resources.  They may have a great deal of shame and embarrassment.  They may worry about revealing their struggles openly in a competitive college environment.  This desire for secrecy and acting as a “lone ranger” keeps backfiring, but for some reason they may not be ready yet to face themselves head on.

It’s important to note that students in both groups can also have additional psychological issues like depression, anxiety, serious sleep problems as well.   Many successful students have complex situations and require therapy, use medications and must develop a host of coping skills.  Yet despite this, some embrace the gift hidden in their many challenges.  Sometimes these students are transformed and become leaders making a difference in the lives of others on campus or in their future careers.

For parents who care about your college-bound teens who have learning, attentional and emotional challenges, it needs to be your mission to help them develop a healthy understanding and appreciation of their differences early on. You need to ensure that your students are able to independently talk about these differences and ask for help before they leave for college.

Q: If you were talking to a parent of a middle schooler or high schooler with ADHD/LD, what would you like to share about their role in ensuring a smooth transition to college?

I would want parents to know that there is a lot that they can do to prepare their teen for the world ahead and it is never too early to start! The more successful students have parents who gradually helped (or even forced) them to own their differences, be their own advocates, and, to use an analogy from my book, Ready for Take-Off, “fly the plane.” During the time in high school, adults can gradually “get out of the cockpit” and let teens have a practice run before they are expected to navigate life on their own.

Forward-thinking parents begin talking with and deliberately involving their teens in every meeting at school so they could become informed and effective advocates. Because these students typically struggle with organizational and time management skills, many parents tell me they were on alert to not to do too much or be too protective.  In fact, some fought the urge to intervene and allowed their teens to experience failure and the consequences of their actions.  Like letting them get a bad grade when they left a paper on the kitchen table rather than run it to the school.  They chose to coach their teens to learn from mistakes rather than expended energy to prevent them.

On the other hand, the parents of those students who floundered in college, didn’t seem to see the future coming.  Sometimes the ways that parents are intimately involved in their students’ success are hidden and don’t show up until the teen is on their own.  Like students I meet who have no experience waking themselves up for school and have relied on parents to call out or even shake them awake.  These students are stunned when they are marked down for being late in their 8: 00 am classes or sleep through an early morning exam.  When these non-productive patterns are in place, such parents and teens can be “blindsided” by all the independence that college requires.

Q: Are there any red flags a parent should watch out for that first year of college?  And, if one of these pop up, how should a parent engage the student?

This is a great question that parents and teens should talk about openly before college starts and have some agreements for how to handle if and when things get rocky. Be proactive. Teens can have fears about this transition and these conversations can also allow you to communicate what you want your teen to do if they are struggling or have gotten into some personal or social difficulty. Your teen might even share some warning signs that they want you to be on the lookout for.

In our age of “helicopter parenting” patterns, I have heard stories of parents who called the campus police frantic when their teen didn’t respond within a day to a series of calls or texts. Sometimes these lapses in communication are simply examples of a teen transitioning to independence. Define your expectations for communication and articulate the warning signs or conditions that could move you to action. Here’s an example: “If I talk with you and you don’t sound like yourself and I don’t see this changing, know that I will call you dorm resident assistant and ask them to check on you.” Or, “If I haven’t heard from you in ___days, I will be worried and will contact your dorm resident assistant, so please, if you are busy, just text and say you’re ok but busy!”

Ultimately, you have to be the judge of when your gut is speaking to you.   I have met students who were relieved that their parents drove to campus to discover a son or daughter on a downward spiral of depression.  Parents have connected despairing students to campus resources and have identified options for handling a crisis that the student might perceive has no solution. New student orientation programs and new parent websites offer a host of resources and supports about how to navigate such tough situations.

Experience has taught me that the attitude we hold when such crises happen can actually turn these into an opportunity for teens to learn and grow.  As crazy as it sounds, I have seen the worst scenarios—getting on probation, having an honor code violation, getting cited for underage drinking—become the event that sparks a dramatic turning point in a young adult’s life opening them up to facing themselves, using resources, and being transformed.

Additional Resource:


About Author

Page Cvelich

College/Teen Program Manager

Page Cvelich has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Work/Life Center from prior experience as a high school guidance counselor and parent education coordinator. Page has been responsible for setting up a high school college and career center, designing a career exploration program for teens and serving as a counselor at a backpacking camp in the Rockies. In her role as Teen/College Program Manager, Page enjoys interacting with small groups of parents and teens, as well as consulting one-on-one with parents and referring them to resources so that they are better able to provide the support and encouragement their kids need.

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