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Preparing Students with Learning Differences for Future Success

The transition to college, which is challenging for all young adults, has additional layers for students with learning differences.

One change that may take families by surprise is that the support for learning differences is defined by different federal laws beginning at the college level. From Kindergarten through 12th grade, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to offer students with disabilities educational opportunities that are on par with those available to students without disabilities. This means that grammar and secondary schools must identify students with disabilities and provide them with programs, specialized instruction, and other services to meet their needs. Once students have graduated from high school, however, education is no longer an entitlement. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges must provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities, but there is no guarantee that a student’s individual needs be met.

This shift results in the wide range of support that is found at different colleges and universities. Additional time for taking tests is one of the most common accommodations, but extended deadlines for writing papers is rare. Many colleges offer peer tutoring centers that are available to all students; such generalized support, however, may not incorporate expertise in specific learning styles. Meanwhile, some colleges do offer specialized programs to support learning differences. Even so, the responsibility for identifying what students need and ensuring that they get it falls squarely on the students’ own shoulders.

Suddenly, what may have seemed like an abstract difference in federal law becomes concrete: Throughout most of a child’s school experience, the specifics of learning plans are negotiated, coordinated, and implemented by parents and educators who try to seamlessly pave the way for a student’s learning. Then in college, young adults must identify and remove their own barriers to learning. For students with learning differences, mastering this skill is one more rite of passage into adulthood—just like doing their own laundry or cooking a meal. This transition weighs heavily on both parents and teens because navigating a learning difference into adulthood is so much more complicated than learning how to scramble eggs.

To lay the foundation for success, young adults must first learn how to articulate their needs. For starters, they should be able to name their disability, describe it, and specifically state how it affects learning. Students should also be able to answer the following questions: What are my academic strengths? How do I learn best? What strategies do I need to help me learn? What facilities may I need? What accommodations help me now with my specific disability?

During the later years of high school, parents can look to the future by involving students directly in discussions relating to their own learning. Specifically, students should join parents in meetings with current learning specialists to discuss how current supports can translate to what colleges can provide. For example, students who have a scribe in the classroom may start exploring speech-to-text software. If students have not already done so, then they should take ownership over their academic progress, by tracking their own grades throughout the term. Students also should take advantage of the high school supports to build their own systems for organizing priorities and managing time, because support for those vital skills is less available in college.

The good news is that because of increased awareness about learning differences, students have more opportunities for success in college than ever before. Parents play a critical role in this transition—by helping their young adults gain the tools and confidence to become their own self-advocates. With planning, dedication, and support, many students are achieving their dreams.

Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at deena@thebertramgroup.com