Preparing Students with Disabilities for College

by Patricia S. Lemer, M.Ed., NCC

Last November, my friend Dr. Ilene Henry Director of Muskingum College’s STEP Program, invited me to address some prospective parents and students. I had previously visited the school and was impressed by the dedication of the tutors, assigned to students with AD(H)D, Asperger syndrome and learning disabilities. They were interested in how to empower their charges with self-regulation, - organization and –advocacy. The ultimate goal: academic and social independence. My November talk grew out of their questions about what actions the STEP team could ask parents, students, teachers and counselors to take in high school to maximize students’ chances for success in college.

Thinking Has Changed

When I attended college in the sixties I recall few students with obvious disabilities. Those with attention deficits and learning disabilities received no accommodations, and when they failed, they simply dropped out. Today, laws mandate that students with disabilities receive support services in educational programs at all levels. While most colleges offer accommodations, they are simply not prepared to tailor services to students with a variety of special needs. Even when schools screen for those who they can serve best, placement in a program such as STEP does not guarantee a student’s success. Triumph over adversity depends strongly upon a strong, well-conceived transition program.

Preparation is a Team Effort

IDEA requires that teachers, counselors, parents, and yes, students, think about "what’s next" starting at the beginning of high school. Students’Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), must include clear transition goals and objectives. The team must decide upon what type of diploma or certificate a student will receive, based on academic performance in the lower grades. Course choices for high school will limit or broaden post-secondary school options. Those considering programs such as Muskingum’s must meet minimum high school requirements in science, mathematics and a foreign language.

Students who receive test accommodations, such as extended time, face the decision of whether to request special considerations when applying to college. They may need to append their applications with a battery of individually administered aptitude and achievement tests. The latter is more likely to show a student’s potential than a group administered standardized test such as the SAT. Sometimes I recommend that a student first take SATs under standardized conditions to establish a baseline. Significantly higher scores with accommodations then make a larger impression.

Why Students Fail in College

Actions taken to support students in secondary school can sometimes backfire in college. While accommodations and support at home and school are helpful, the result can be lack of independence, organizational strategies and study habits, and delayed social skills. In high school, it is common for parents and teachers of students with disabilities to take on the student’s worries about homework, deadlines and dates. In college, students must learn to put these concerns on their own mechanical organizers. Whereas in high school, parents usually take care of meals, laundry and finances, these too become the student’s responsibility in college. How does a student learn to juggle everything while trying to make new friends, contend with homesickness and pass new courses?

Transition to College

As students enter high school, parents need to:

Students need to know:

Teachers and counselors must:

What Are the Results?

Successful, independent students. Happy, functional families and satisfied counselors & teachers who are not burned out.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 9, Number 2 - Winter, 2003-2004]

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