This is the second part of a three-part blog. Please click here to read Part 1
The following is a list of questions to explore when students are in middle-high school to help consider realistic options post-graduation. Rarely have the students whom I've observed "pulled it together" in their junior/senior years of high school, given the tremendous increasing pressures they feel as they realize they will be graduating. While we want to include the student in transition discussions, we also have to realize that many of our students cannot imagine something they have not experienced. Many assure their parents they will "figure it all out" once they go to college. We call this talking the talk. However, until they demonstrate they can understand and demonstrate action plans to walk the walk, it is overly optimistic to they will know how to problem solve independence post graduation. We should never discount what the student says he/she wants to do after graduation, but we also need to expose the student to all post-high school options and take the time to consider what s/he is ready to pursue!
Consider these questions:
- Does he keep track of his own homework assignments?
- Does she create and implement plans that are reasonable for working through short term and long term homework assignments?
- Does he know how to ask for help?
- Does she understand how to manage her anxiety when dealing with a stressful day? Or does she require adult intervention for her to implement self-calming strategies?
- Does he have 1-2 friends he seeks out to maintain a friendship?
- Can she do homework assignments for language arts/written expression without regular adult assistance?
- Can he make basic inferences, summarize stories, and understand there is a main idea?
- Does she have an idea of maintaining her hygiene without constant reminders?
- Does he understand the need to help at home even if he doesn't want to?
- Can she find intrinsic motivation to push to do things she doesn't enjoy?
- Does he or she demonstrate a significant attention span and willingness to learn/participate at harder tasks when doing specific visual-motor or technical tasks (electronics, mechanics, technology, etc.)?
- Does she say she hates school and struggles (or is completely unable) to wake up in the morning to go to school without parent intervention?
- Is he asking to get a job in the community (e.g., Retail, food services, social services) in lieu of going to college?
If the majority of answers to questions 1-10 were NO, then the student is at great risk for not making it - even in the most understanding and helpful college programs. College transition programs do not "entitle" success; a student needs to be able to learn the basic concepts of the college courses and demonstrate knowledge with only the accommodations available and appropriate to the type of disability.
If the answers to 11, 12 and 13 are mostly YES, the individual needs choices towards his or her own success outside of the traditional school or college experience.
High school offers a highly structured day. College life, even when commuting from home, is not routine and erratic in structure. There are large gaps in the middle of the day where students do not have classes and they are expected to work on assignments. Many of our students do not know how to make productive use of all the down time and may see it as free time or gaming time.
In terms of social demands, a K-12 setting provides opportunities for our students to be surrounded by peers; even if they don't have a lot of friends. Other students typically know who they are and notice when they are not present. Students are also told what classes to go to, attendance is monitored, students are accounted for, and so on. There is no such accountability system in a college program. Students decide whether they want to attend classes and adults don't follow up (usually) if they fail to attend. Others in college may not notice our students or care if s/he doesn't go to class. The same goes for doing homework. The shift of responsibility takes a dramatic turn from parent/teacher oversight to the individual student, almost overnight! Communication with personnel at the college from parents who want to stay involved with their student's workload is not only discouraged, but prohibited without student permission.
So what to do, given this information?
Parents of upper elementary school and early middle school students who believe their child is college bound should read the book, Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel, (2009). It is a very friendly read and provides further insights into the real demands of succeeding in this environment post high school. An honest assessment of your child/student should ensue. If the team feels it appropriate to move forward with planning to attend some form of college, begin to address goals towards helping to shift responsibility and accountability to the student. Parents will need to slowly begin to retreat from being the organizers of all information for a student and let him take on more decision-making and problem solving in high school. If a student is overwhelmed in her classes, consider having her take an easier class where she feels she can succeed with less assistance rather than push teachers to find ways to help her pass with a decent grade. This is the less is more philosophy.
It may also be a good idea during the student's senior year of high school to enroll in a college class on a college campus so they can get an idea of how to move around campus. This will also help them to see what it is like to sit in a larger lecture hall, how assignments are submitted, how to organize study off a syllabus, etc. However if you do this, then make sure the team does not support in the same way they do with high school classes. It's okay to orient the student to how to use a syllabus, where they can study at school, but avoid the helicopter hand over hand assistance. See how your student feels working with this level of freedom. Some of our students love it and are more "able" when placed in an environment that encourages them to be more self-reliant; but many of our students struggle. This practice run gives the student as well as the family, a sense of this transition and whether going to a college setting is the right choice for that time in development.
Also, don't minimize the importance of developing social networking skills such as clubs, sports, and events while in high school. Sometimes families (and the students themselves) place so much emphasis on pushing academics that when the time comes to develop their own social networks post high school- they are lost with little to no experience. Avoid, thinking that social learning and related social skills should not interfere with academic lessons. These skills, along with grit and tenacity, are the most important predictors of adult success! Social media, too, is a critical type of communication for high school, college and young adults. It's the way in which valuable information is shared, both academic and social. However, as we all know social media is not without dangers. Help your student learn the hidden rules.
All this being said, there are programs on college campuses cropping up everywhere for students with social learning challenges. Some of these are tutorial based that also offer some social skills training, while others are private programs that help teach students life skills along with academic and vocational learning. However, if you answered "no" to most of the questions 1-10, it is very likely these programs may still not be enough to help your child graduate college.
To sum this up:
Start early! Help students to learn new and expanded skills sets, find motivation, and "own" what they need to work on. Parents may also have to learn to change their own parenting strategy. "Less is more" applies to parents as much as it applies to the student. Parents and teachers need to catch themselves from placing students in programs where they cannot do their own work and still feel okay about the work they are doing. A bird that does not grow wings cannot fly.
Go on to part 3 of this blog, which addresses one parent's dilemma and puts a very real human face on this topic