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3 Steps to Help Your ADHD Student At College

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College student carrying boxes into dorm with dad in background.

All teens who head off to college do so with some anticipation, anxiety and fear of the unknown, along with excitement about the freedom this new environment has to offer.

But students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, often experience more stress and have more academic difficulties than other students, according to Children and Adults Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a nonprofit that provides facts and information about ADHD.

If you are the parent of a child with ADHD, you probably began preparing for college when your child started kindergarten. You made sure they took everything they needed for the day at school, double-checked backpacks before they left for school and when they got home.

You also helped them with executive functions, the skills that enable us “to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks, successfully,” in the words of The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Every day you repeated, reminded, scheduled, comforted, consoled and helped them get up and start over, again.

As they progressed through the years, you tried to encourage them to become more independent academically and socially. They had a team – you, teachers, school nurses, perhaps a tutor or coach – all helping them navigate the challenges of ADHD.

So now what can you do to help with the transition to college?

Step 1: Make a plan for managing any ADHD or other medications at college.

It is imperative students understand the importance of being responsible for their medications. That means keeping them in a safe place and continuing to take them. There is a big risk of others stealing these medications for their own use or to sell. Students need to understand that sharing or selling prescribed ADHD or other medications is against the law and can result in serious consequences.

“The number of children who take ADHD medication and are approached with requests for their medication is extremely high,” said Dr. Martin L. Kutscher, PLLC, a pediatric behavioral neurologist in Rye Brook, N.Y., who is a specialist in the field of ADHD. “That happens in high school and certainly in college. I tell all my patients not to tell anyone they have these medications, and I also point out it’s a federal offense to give a controlled medication to a peer. It’s just as illegal as selling it to a stranger, for both parties.”

Step 2: Have a strategy for time management.

Among the other changes your teen can experience at college is the amount of free time; that can be a real challenge.

“When they get to college, they lose a lot of supervisory skills from the parents and the teachers,” said Kutscher. “They have a whole lot of free time, and when they have free time, they feel they have nothing to do.”

Without any backup, students with ADHD have problems with organization in college, Kutscher said.

“They don’t realize that they have a paper due in three weeks or three months and may also have finals the same week. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and they should be doing some work on their paper, but they don’t have mom asking about the paper or reminding them when it is due.”

At home, practice college-readiness skills such as self-management, communication, setting personal goals and problem-solving, the National Resource Center on ADHD recommends. Research apps and other tools can help with organization and time management.

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Step 3: Consider an organizational coach, also known as executive function coach or ADHD coach.

Start by making sure your student knows how to get help at college, from an ADHD coach or a learning center.

“Colleges are very much into self-advocacy, and the teen needs to learn to advocate for themselves,” said Kutscher. “The coaches not only teach the teen skills but they supervise how they are doing. ADHD is a disability, and it doesn’t go away overnight when you learn the skills. You have to be supervised to keep doing them.”

If your teen already has a coach at home, Kutscher recommends asking the coach to check in during the semester. If your student doesn’t have a coach, a connection should be made with a college coach before the start of the first semester. This can usually be done through the college’s learning center, which is available to all students.

Kutscher also recommends teens sign a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) waiver giving parents access to their academic records. When teens turn 18, they are considered adults. Post-secondary schools are only permitted to give out educational information such as grades, grade point average, academic transcript, academic warning, academic probation or discipline records to the student, not the parents. If your teen is willing to sign the waiver, then you will have access to this information.

If your student plans to request accommodations from the disabilities office, help them get comfortable talking about their issues, and make sure they understand the documentation, the National Resource Center on ADHD recommends.

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Roberta  Cannon-profile-picture

Roberta Cannon began her writing career as a general assignments reporter for a Cape Cod weekly newspaper. Even while working as a registered nurse, she continued to freelance and write for Cape Cod weeklies, including a column on history for the Mashpee Enterprise. She has also written for MD News and PrimeTime magazines. She currently writes for OneCapeHealth News, an online medical news website.

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