Preparing for Independence: Learning Differences and The Transition to College

The differences between high school and college are tremendous, and even more so for a student with learning differences. Expert Michael Riendeau explains the steps toward independence students must take before making this major transition.

Once it has been recognized that a student is struggling academically, who is responsible to ensure that the child receives the best education possible? The teacher? The director of the special education program? The parent? All of the above?

In the context of elementary and secondary education, we might answer those questions in a variety of ways depending upon the student’s individual needs and circumstances. The one response that is unlikely to occur to us, however, is that the student is the person most responsible for her educational outcomes. There are many — and many good — reasons we don’t place this onus solely or primarily on students who are in need of special education services. Most secondary students, for example, are ill-prepared to know what educational options are available, and often, they have not acquired the skill set to be assertive with educational leaders and their parents. While students are still developing these skills, parents usually step in to take responsibility.

Empower special needs students to self-advocacy

Too often, however, we tend to completely usurp the autonomy of students in the context of special education. Often this seems — or is — a necessity at the point at which a student enters the special education system. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that we never relinquish that usurped authority and return it to students. The catastrophic consequence of this situation is that many special education students never even begin to develop a sense of self-reliance, autonomy, and the attendant self-advocacy skills that are arguably the most important qualities in the context of the college classroom. Because students will be required to advocate for themselves once they enroll in college where the provisions of IDEA no longer pertain, it is imperative that we find ways to nurture these personal qualities.

Students with disabilities are covered by ADA which puts greater responsibility on the student. Similarly, FERPA laws do not allow colleges to speak with parents — even if they pay the bill — unless students grant permission. Strong self-advocacy skills are one of the most important traits students will need to have developed prior to entering college. Students must be able and willing to demand the appropriate accommodations to facilitate their success. They must feel confident in seeking out assistance when they struggle to understand a concept. They must be able to assert themselves when they have a problem with a roommate.

Teach self-advocacy to students with learning disabilities starts before college

The differences between high school and college are tremendous. Teachers’ expectations, grading policies, and assignments are just a few of the significant changes that students will experience. A major change includes independence and responsibility. In high school, the teacher has the primary responsibility for a student’s education. In general, the ratio of classroom instruction to independent work in high school is about 3:1. That ratio is turned on its head when students enter a college classroom. There, they are expected to be in class perhaps 12 or 15 hours per week, but expected to do upwards of 40 hours of independent work during that same week.

How parents of students with learning disabilities can help

So what can students and parents do in high school to begin taking greater responsibility for their education? They should attend IEP meetings, do homework without supervision, and talk with their teachers about the accommodations that they need. Most importantly, we need to expect and allow students to make decisions for themselves and to navigate the outcomes of those decisions. Educators and parents must resist the impulse to work things out for our children — our students — and instead offer assistance that students are genuinely empowered to accept or reject.

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