Increased awareness of learning challenges such as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder, together with improved diagnosis and treatment, has helped millions of students improve their academic performance. But, as they enter their senior year of high school and begin the college admissions process, they face a whole new set of challenges. Now is the time to begin preparing to meet them.

Here are seven things parents of college-bound students with learning challenges should start doing right away:

1) Update diagnostic testing results

In order to obtain supporting services from a college, learning challenges need to be documented via accepted diagnostic testing. These tests should begin as early as possible and continue at least through the senior year of high school. Additional testing can further refine a diagnosis or uncover other issues that may affect academic performance.

2) Consider requesting special accommodations for standardized tests

Certain learning challenges can affect a student’s ability to take standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT.  Upon proof of a learning challenge, test administrators may allow extended time for taking tests, the use of computers for essay questions or screens to block distractions.  Especially if test scores to date are unsatisfactory, consider requesting such special accommodations for a re-take.

3) Prepare to disclose learning challenges

Parents need not worry about their children being branded with the scarlet letters “ADD,” or other conditions. Apart from legal bars against discrimination such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, most colleges have a progressive attitude towards learning challenges. In fact, acknowledgment of these issues can help with admissions by explaining any performance gaps. It also ensures that students can obtain the supporting services they need to succeed once admitted.

4) Begin establishing independence early

Coping with new found freedom can be hard for any student, much less one who uses a highly structured system to manage a learning challenge. The time to deal with this is not the freshman year of college, or even during a stressful senior year of high school. Begin helping to establish self-reliance during the more relaxed days of summer, so the students can assume responsibility for taking their own medication, renewing prescriptions, adhering to a schedule, etc.

5) Ask what services prospective colleges offer

Many colleges have services to assist students with learning challenges, including specialized advising and counseling, professional tutoring and academic assistance and new learning technologies. However, such services typically are less comprehensive than those offered in high school. Find out which are available, which are professional or provided by peers and whether additional costs apply.

6) Find out about classroom accommodations for learning challenges

Many, if not most, colleges now try to sensitize faculty members to learning challenges among students. As a result, many professors are willing to accommodate requests for allowing lectures to be recorded, scribes and note-takers and extra time for test-taking. Check the reputation of prospective colleges and academic departments for such flexibility before applying. And, since most faculty members will not know a student’s individual circumstances unless told, students will need to be proactive about informing their teachers.

7) Explore whether a college offers suitable living and studying alternatives

For many students, especially those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, distractions can be highly disruptive. A student who is used to closing her door to study may have trouble shutting out the cacophony in a suite with several roommates. See whether appropriate arrangements are available, including single dorm rooms or private study carrels.

Managed properly, the college admissions process, and the transition from high school to college, can be seamless for students with learning challenges. But success won’t come without effort, and the time for students and their parents to begin making that effort is now.

By Paula M. Rooney, president of Dean College in Massachusetts

Paula M. Rooney has served as the president of Dean College since 1995. Founded in 1865, Dean is a private residential college in Franklin, Mass., midway between Boston and Providence. With 950 full-time students and 500 part-time students, Dean offers baccalaureate and associate degree programs in disciplines such as liberal studies, business and the arts. It is the only college in the Northeast to offer both A.A. and B.A. degrees in dance.

From The Washington Post, August 25, 2010

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