It's no secret that our students with social learning challenges (Autism Spectrum Disorders; ADHD, NVLD, undiagnosed murky kid...) struggle through various aspects of their education. Whether their struggles are due to difficulties establishing peer-based social relationships, completing academic assignments or both, our kids have not had it easy. We all have to think out of the box to develop lessons/opportunities for learning explicitly what neurotypical students learn implicitly (e.g., social thinking and related social skills, executive function skills, inferencing and synthesizing information, etc.). It's not "easy" for our kids with social learning challenges, nor is it easy for their parents or their teachers.
I have seen too many "bright" kids with Asperger Syndrome, high functioning ASD and ADHD (or with no diagnosis) march off to college programs only to fall apart and drop out. Stewing in anxiety and depression, a number of our students don't take steps to progress in their learning and independence. Instead, they slip into dysfunction with few safety nets to catch them.
I think a lot about how to avoid this descent for those who experience it.
I've learned so much from years of working with teens who are transitioning to adulthood and adults who are trying to increase their social/executive functioning abilities to maintain employment or make friends. Here are some of my lessons:
Many of our "bright" folks with social learning challenges need to work at developing motivation to help themselves, while in the K-12 school years and certainly into their adult years. By accident, the IEP process often makes it appear that it is a teacher/ parent problem if a student is unable to learn a set of skills. Why? We expect adults to adapt a curriculum to meet a student's learning abilities, but this is far from the "real world" of what awaits our students once they step a foot outside of high school and into college or work environments. To truly help our students means to guide them to find the motivation to take "ownership" of what they need to do to help themselves succeed as early as upper elementary, certainly by middle school and at the latest by high school. This entire process of shifting from dependency to independence must begin much earlier than high school graduation day. Some of the most important people to help make this shift happen are the parents. Parents need to move from depending on a team of adults to figure out how to help their child succeed to having the individual learn how to help him or herself. However, this can be impossible for some when we load our them up with so many assignments, honors, and AP classes that they can't see straight. Of course, to help them find their motivation we also have to talk to them about what they want for themselves in the future. Some of our kids have never enjoyed the school process (in fact, expressed disgust and anger), but are routinely sent straight into college/university programs because they are "smart." College is just one more school setting with demands to produce, interpret and perform academically. Does this make sense?
Recently I read an excellent book written for professionals who work with our students at the college level, Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel, (2009). I highly recommend it not only for persons working in higher education, but also parents/caregivers and counselors of middle and high school students who are considering junior college, college/university learning experience for their students. There is also a guide written specifically for parents and teachers of secondary aged students by the same authors. Both books explore what is expected in higher education critical to success that go far beyond a student's natural intelligence. Some of the aspects they review include executive functioning, written expression, reading comprehension and social relationship challenges for actively participating in academics. Furthermore, they review aspects needed to succeed in the "co-curricular" elements of a college campus life, including living with roommates, eating soundly, managing free time/leisure time, developing healthy relationships, and managing anxiety. The reality is that the majority of the concepts in this book should be addressed in middle and high school, if not before. If we wait until college to teach responsibility for workloads, organizational skills, and establishing social relatedness, we have waited too long. To teach all these concepts while a student is facing the least amount of direct support in his or her life can be truly overwhelming.
This blog is written to encourage us to think about ways we can put our students into situations where they can succeed post high school, rather than default to the "norm" that all bright or "fully mainstreamed" students should find their way onto a college campus as the next step in their lives. Quite frankly, we see way too many smart and talented kids, as well as those with serious cognitive learning challenges being sent into higher education only to fail. The lesson is that being smart or talented or fully mainstreamed may be desirable, but not sufficient for success in a college environment. In fact, a student who has strong skills, but weak motivation to learn new social and organizational adaptations, will likely fair far worse that a student with weaker skills but high motivation!
Motivation to keep working (persistence) and problem solving are both key components for success. In fact, I've worked with students with serious social thinking learning challenges but their motivation to help themselves was so high, they did graduate from college. I have also worked with many, many students with very high academic skills and very poor persistence and motivation. The majority in this group have either struggled tremendously or dropped out of college life altogether. On a basic level, the "system" may have failed these individuals by not giving them alternatives to consider or ways to better navigate the larger world.
Some final thoughts on addressing these concepts prior to graduation:
- The IEP team (parents and professionals alike) should realize that when the "entitlements" of public law are carried too far, we teach our students to become less independent. In a way, we've added a deeper level to their disability - lack of independence. While we can easily insist on providing full-time paraprofessionals and close teacher/parent monitoring until graduation day, this in no way encourages accountability for his or her own decision making and problem solving. To allow our students to learn responsibility before they graduate, we have to create IEPs to encourage students to accept responsibility for their education and apply the lessons they are learning as part of developing social relationships and self-advocating. This means that both parents and professionals need to allow students to experience their own outcomes for their decision-making. If a student is a junior in high school and he/she is planning on going onto college but isn't turning in homework assignments, it needs to become the student's responsibility. For example, if teachers make accommodations for a college bound student by asking him for his assignments rather than help the student develop his own strategy for remembering to turn it in, then how are we preparing this student for increasing independence? How do we teach him to "own" his decisions and realize the natural consequences? How will this student know how to turn in an assignment in college if he never had to turn one in on his own in high school? If a student is supported by a 1:1 aide through his senior year and then sent to college the next year, then we've most likely guaranteed his failure once out of our structured environment. Even if the student doesn't have a 1:1 aide but still has parents/resource teachers monitoring assignments and providing assistance any time she experiences anxiety, we once again have failed in preparing her for the huge leap post graduation. To summarize, just because a student of 16, 17 or 18 may be legally entitled to ongoing and intensive monitoring until he graduates, is it really in his best interest?
- Parents will need to learn to adjust to the idea that "less can be more" in order to allow for a shift from adult-centered responsibility for education and social accomplishments to student centered responsibility. This may mean discontinuing some of the direct monitoring systems in place as discussed above. At other times "less is more" means that we need to put less on their plates to allow the students to feel the accomplishment of doing the work for themselves. A negative side effect from No Child Left Behind and the Common Core State Standards is the heavy push for all students to remain age-based learners. Many of our students are born to serious learning disabilities; they can't all keep pace with academic and social learning of their neurotypically developing peers. Our response is too often to artificially keep our students afloat. We then continue to attempt to keep them on pace by sending them into college programs. If they fail or drop out, then one of their first lessons in young adulthood is that they have failed, or worse, are failures. We see this too often and then mental health problems related to anxiety and/or depression are part of the equation. It is important to keep in mind that our students' failures in young adulthood don't look like an "Asperger melt-down"; they look like a mental illness break. They stop functioning. They become more dependent on adult support. If our students end up with mental-health breakdowns because they were pushed into an environment they could not handle post graduation, then we've taken several steps backwards on the path to independence and life.
- We also need to be thoughtful about transition planning in high school. The process of involving a student in his/her own future planning is a good idea in theory. However, how can students plan for their own lives if they don't know what they can personally, realistically accomplish, given the amount IEP/505 accommodations, modifications, and/or supports? How can they decide what is realistic if they have limited understanding of their true level of independence and possible other options available to them? Keep in mind that many of our students are not abstract learners; they may be good at fact-based information, but not abstract information. These individuals only know education as a fully structured school day. So upon graduation, the only thing they know is the routine of attending classes. Some high schools have started to provide other experiences (work-based, vocational) and we applaud this effort! It's in the best interest for all students to understand that college is not the only option post high school and is certainly not the best choice for all.
- A parent's ability to financially provide a college education for their child does not mean that it's always a good choice. All too often, students send very clear messages to professionals/parents that they aren't able to deal with the academic or social burdens. Yet we, as the adults, have our sights set on what constitutes success given how bright or gifted they seem. All this being said, there are students who make it through college and some go on to get advanced degrees. But these are typically those who have a solid level of independence combined with persistence, motivation, and skills to push through the personal and academic challenges.
- In terms of families, many of us need to set aside our own family expectations of a college education and look closely at the student during sophomore and junior years to evaluate self-learning and self-motivation to engage in a college prep curriculum - meaning they will still have to take many classes that are not geared towards their strengths. Ultimately, college students can specialize in an area of high interest, but must first take general education classes that may be of no interest. To get through these classes, it requires grit and resilience - something many of our students lack at 15 or even 23 years old.
Other options that should be part of the discussion:
Vocational programs Explore this option, if available in high school and certainly post graduation, for those who struggle with the academic learning environment - even if they are measured to be "bright." Help students explore what type of learning captures their attention best. Not all of our bright students enjoy book learning. Many are hands-on learners and will be far more successful (and happy) applying themselves into the community workforce rather than academic classrooms. Vocational options should be considered for our cognitively gifted kids too!
Job/workforce: Many of our students are loathe to listen to professionals tell them about why they should shower, acknowledge others, take the time to consider someone else's needs until these skills are required for them to keep receiving a paycheck. Some individuals may be eventually destined for college, but need to take a pit-stop in exploring the real world experience of holding a job and being accountable to someone other than a parent, teacher or other professional. Others may feel successful and content simply holding a job and feeling they are doing something for themselves for the first time in their life. They may have no desire to continue with college in the immediate future. This means parents need to adjust their own cultural/family expectations just as much as they expected their students to adapt to the social communication expectations over the years. It is difficult to keep in mind, at times, that the real goal for our students/children is to have them feel good about themselves and to work towards establishing and maintaining as much independence as they can handle.
In part two of this blog I will pose 13 questions to explore to consider for the student you are thinking about.