Tips to Help Teens with ADHD Prepare for College
Having a child with ADHD requires patience, a unique understanding of how their brain works, and empathy. As the mother of a child with combined presentation ADHD, I work on all three of those traits daily. Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or attention deficit disorder (ADD) have brains that function differently from a neurotypical brain.
Signs and Symptoms of ADHD
According to the CDC, there are three types of ADHD:
- Predominantly Inattentive Presentation: It is hard for the individual to organize or finish a task, pay attention to details, or follow instructions or conversations. The person is easily distracted or forgets details of daily routines.
- Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation: The person fidgets and talks a lot. It is hard to sit still for a meal or while doing homework. Smaller children may run, jump or climb. The individual feels restless and has trouble with impulsivity. Someone may interrupt others, grab things from people, or speak at inappropriate times. A person with impulsiveness may have more accidents and injuries than others.
- Combined Presentation: Symptoms of the above two types are equally present in the person.
Like most learning disabilities, an ADHD diagnosis often occurs in elementary school. However, some teens and adults struggle for years and may not receive a diagnosis until high school or even until they are college students.
With mental health coming to the forefront of the national conversation, executive function disorders like ADHD are getting more spotlight and a deeper understanding. Children with ADHD have been viewed in the past as disruptive, loud, obnoxious, rude, and troublesome; put simply, they were the “bad” kids. These children often struggled, and many still do, in school and, as a result, displayed poor academic performance, not from lack of intelligence but lack of proper aid and skills.
An ADHD diagnosis does not excuse a child or adolescent’s behavior, as it is our job as parents and educators to teach respect, kindness, responsibility, and independence. However, they must also be equipped with the right tools, such as appropriate study skills, life skills, time management skills, and so on, to succeed.
ADHD Accommodations and Interventions
ADHD falls under special education, so children with a diagnosis from a medical professional are eligible to receive a 504 or possibly an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees them specific accommodations for schooling.
ADHD Accommodation May Look Like This:
- Extra time to complete tests or in-class work
- Sensory stimulation
- Fidget toys
- Weighted vests
- Bouncy band or stability cushion
- A standing desk
- Freedom to move around
- Movement breaks
- Assistive technology
- Specialized organization tools
- Tailored assignments
- Environmental changes
- Positive reinforcement
IEPs and 504 plans are eligible for elementary, middle, and high school students as long as they meet the criteria.
College is a somewhat trickier issue. Colleges do have to honor the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 but not specifically the 504 or IEP interventions a child had while in high school. However, to receive aid in college, students must still meet the criteria to receive special accommodations.
If your child no longer meets the criteria, they should be encouraged to approach their professors and seek informal accommodations as needed. Professors may offer more test time, for example, if asked ahead of time and the situation is explained.
Tips to Prep Your ADHD Teen for College
College life comes with a lot of freedoms, and young adults are often on their own for the first time in their lives. And as a college freshman, your teen with ADHD may need additional support from you and the school to navigate all that freedom and have a successful first year.
Research Available Support Services
Before your child even applies to various colleges, research available support services for students with ADHD on campus. Try to find and talk to students who currently attend or recently attended the school that has ADHD and ask about their college experience.
Establish Good Study Habits
Nothing can tank a first semester faster than poor study skills, so establish good study habits early. A child with ADHD already struggles with focus and distractions, so create study habits they can take with them.
Scout out the campus and look for quiet study spots. The library is always a good choice. In addition, look for a local or on-campus coffee shop with a quiet nook. Parks offer a quiet respite for nature lovers, and department lounges or computer labs are also options. If you are struggling to find a place, consider asking your advisor if there is an empty office or space you can use.
Look Into Behavioral Therapy
Most insurance companies cover children on their parent’s plans until their 20s, so if your child is currently enrolled in behavioral therapy or talk therapy, look for an office near the campus they can continue to attend. In addition, many campuses offer free on-site sessions at the health center for talk therapy.
An ADHD coach is another option. Again, the ADHD Coaching Organization is a great place to get started. On their website, you can search for coaches that specialize in working with specific groups of people: for example, teens or college students.
You’ll probably be doing this anyway during your child’s freshman year, particularly if they aren’t living at home. But regular check-ins let your kid know you care about them and are there to listen when needed.
Leading up to their departure for college, talk to them about any anxiety or fears they have. Boost their self-esteem by reminding them of all they’ve accomplished, and that learning differences are just that, differences, and they can achieve anything anyone else can. They might just have to go about it a different way.
Create a Routine
If you have a child or teen with ADD/ADHD, you likely have a routine in place already; but if not, now is the time to start. Routines help your child know what to expect and set them up for success.
Routines also keep your child organized and focused on short-term goals. All that freedom can be overwhelming when you’re on your own for the first time. However, sitting down with your teen ahead of their first semester and creating a schedule incorporating study time, meals, and extracurricular activities sets them off on the right foot.
Schedules can also include reminders to take and refill their ADHD medication, make or attend appointments, and call home!
Make Your Child A Self-Advocate
For most of your child’s school career, they’ve had you in their corner to advocate for them. When they reach college, they need to learn self-advocacy; to make sure they receive any accommodations their due and because it is a valuable life-skill.
Self-advocacy teaches your child to stand up for themselves when they feel they need something or were wrongly denied something. However, it doesn't give your child permission to use ADHD as a crutch and not do their work or be disrespectful in class and then say they weren’t unfairly.
Teaching self-advocacy allows your child to recognize moments when they need to be open and honest about how ADHD affects their ability to learn and ask for accommodations or interventions when needed. And in instances where promised or legally required accommodations that are part of their education program were denied to stand up for themselves.
Preparing a child for college is no simple feat, and a teen with ADHD presents a unique set of considerations. However, a child with ADHD, no matter the severity, who has self-determination and an adequately filled toolbox can achieve their college goals the same as any other.
For more information about raising children and teens with ADHD and ADD check out our list of ADHD Resources for Parents.
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