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The Invisible Minority on College Campuses

College-bound students with ADHD represent a growing yet still often overlooked population in higher education. Almost 9% of children in the US have ADHD¹, and 30% to 45% of children with ADHD also have a learning disability². As we counsel more families with ADHD and other learning differences, helping them build a foundation of support before they ever set foot onto a college campus is critical to ensuring a successful transition to higher education. We cannot assume that current high school 504/IEP documents and college resources alone will set our students up for success. It is up to us to help them identify and develop the skills necessary to thrive in college and beyond.

The Importance of Self-Advocacy 

In high school, many parents are still the ones advocating for their students. In fact, oftentimes, students aren’t taken seriously if they encounter a problem concerning their disability and communicate it themselves. Such a system perpetuates the need to rely on parents or guardians for help. As we guide our students through the college planning process, it is crucial to build steps into our programs to allow students to be their own effective advocates. So how do we accomplish this task?

As counselors, we need both qualitative and quantitative data to help us become more familiar with our clients’ learning challenges, successes, and preferences. In addition to reviewing neuropsych testing results and IEP/504 Plans, request that the family connect you with the student’s teachers, tutors, educational coaches, and high school counselors in case it is necessary to gain more insight into how the student learns.

Before a student can learn the power of self-advocacy, we must provide a safe space for them to develop such skills through role-playing. Familiarize them with the four steps of self-advocacy so they understand the goal. The four steps of self-advocacy include:

  1. Know your strengths
  2. Be aware of your weaknesses
  3. Identify strategies to overcome those weaknesses
  4. Effectively communicate those needs to others

Ask the student to review their testing and documentation. Have them speak with their therapists, specialists, etc., about the specific findings and how those things may impact the student directly and indirectly. Since there will be times when the student will be required to educate others about their learning differences, the more knowledgeable they are, the more effective they will be at communicating them when the time comes. 

Empowering a student with ADHD to self-advocate in high school will develop skills necessary for success in learning and life. Encourage them to regularly reflect on what’s going well and what isn’t, as well as what action needs to be taken. 

Time Management & Organizational Strategies

The unofficial adage of ADHD time management is, “By the time you feel it, it’s too late.” Since ADHD is mostly about executive dysfunction, those deficits explain why people with ADHD struggle as they do. Many students with ADHD are stuck in the present and are challenged to complete tasks that may benefit them later. Therefore, looking at ADHD as being about the use of time may change how you can help your student manage their time more effectively.

Some practical ways to help the ADHD brain see time can be as simple as filling your area with clocks. Analog clocks work best because they SHOW the passage of time. Also, before each meeting, spend time setting priorities for the session as well as establishing the student’s homework assignments. Suggest that your student use an alarm to indicate how much time they should spend on each task. And finally, reduce external distractions by asking parents to limit internet and screen use during dedicated work time. 

Helping to Manage Stress

Applying to college can be stressful even for neurotypical students; oftentimes the mere thought of college can trigger stress for kids with ADHD. Researchers note that since stress affects the prefrontal cortex, the same location of the brain affected by ADHD, it is magnified significantly, impacting all aspects of an individual living with ADHD’s life. Overscheduling a student with ADHD can also raise their stress. A balance between activity and relaxation is critical for their mental health.

There are many tips you can recommend to your students with ADHD to help them manage their stressors. The most important thing is to recognize the true culprit. Since ADHD is neurobiological, symptoms will not lessen without treatment. Exercise is one of the most effective stress-reducers. Since the brain’s serotonin levels increase during physical activity, it combats cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.

Oftentimes, when students with ADHD begin to make progress, they abandon the strategies that helped them get there in the first place. So it is important to be vigilant to maintain our students’ progress. 

Assessing College Readiness

Landmark College has been educating students exclusively with learning differences for nearly 40 years, and they have identified five core foundations essential to assessing college readiness in students with ADHD and other LDs³

  • Academic Skills
  • Self-Understanding (Metacognition)
  • Self-Advocacy
  • Executive Function
  • Motivation and Confidence

If it is determined that further development and support are needed before heading off to college, there are many post-secondary options for students with learning differences that may help them prepare for college, including:

  • Postgraduate Year
  • Gap Year
  • Alternative Programs
  • Special Focus Schools/Programs

If you think one of these options might be helpful for a student, you can engage with another consultant who specializes in this area for a team approach.

Finally, it is important to note that not all skills develop at the same time, and each child has their own journey toward college success. As counselors and advisors, it is important to not only help students with planning for the application process but also prepare them to flourish once they arrive on campus.

Jodi L.G. Glou, MA, is the owner & founder of Custom College Consulting based in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. As an Independent Educational Consultant, Jodi incorporates a variety of strategies tailored to each individual student. Ultimately, this helps her clients improve their writing, time management, and other executive functioning skills. Jodi’s motivation is to provide students of varying levels the necessary confidence to achieve their academic and personal goals. She loves working with the neurodiverse community to find the “right fit” post-secondary path to help them succeed in whatever direction they may take.

¹Melissa L. Danielson, Rebecca H. Bitsko, Reem M. Ghandour, Joseph R. Holbrook, Michael D. Kogan & Stephen J. Blumberg (2018) Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2016, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47:2, 199-212, DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860

² DuPaul G. J., Gormley M. J., Laracy S. D. (2013). Comorbidity of LD and ADHD: implications of DSM-5 for assessment and treatment. J. Learn. Disabil. 46, 43–51. 10.1177/0022219412464351

³ Landmark College (2009). “A Guide to Assessing College Readiness For Parents of College-Bound Children with Learning Disabilities or AD/HD.”

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