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ADHD Goes to College

Planning for freshman year and what it means to live on their own with ADHD is probably the last thing a graduating senior wants to focus on right now. As a parent, though, worry about how your child with ADHD will fare in college may be already filling your mind.
05/11/2016 02:03pm ET | Updated May 12, 2017
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It's spring and senior year of high school is wrapping up. Many students are discovering where they are going to college. Planning for freshman year and what it means to live on their own with ADHD is probably the last thing a graduating senior wants to focus on right now. As a parent, though, worry about how your child with ADHD will fare in college may be already filling your mind.

Teens will be teens, even when leaving home. Summer first. They want to hit the ground running and define their (almost) adult lives. They don't want to feel different than their peers (except in the exact ways they choose), so they often avoid whatever they perceive may set them apart. But even as your relationship shifts to more long-distance guidance, your ongoing involvement can be vital.

ADHD undermines life management abilities called executive function, so the college transition creates unique challenges. When management skills lag, consistency and organization in any area of life becomes more challenging. Leaving home, dorm life is new, as is being fully responsible for daily life skills and academics. ADHD impacts how students manage time, prioritize, write, study, and coordinate projects. Research suggests college students with ADHD are less likely to use effective study habits and tend to seek academic support only after trouble sets in.

As with any choices affected by ADHD, we need to focus on actual skills and not chronological age. An eighteen-year-old with ADHD may be several years behind in anything related to executive function. So in anticipation of college, how can a parent best set a child up for academic success?

1. Recreate high school supports: "Accommodations have been found to significantly help college students with ADHD not only in improving grades, but also increasing the chances of overall college success," says Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, author of Making the Grade with ADD. Take a few minutes and brainstorm what was most useful academically through high school, on your own and with your child. Consider both the official academic plan and informal supports provided by you, teachers, or professionals outside of school. Some details, perhaps, can be dropped or are no longer possible at a university level. What might best continue moving forward?

2. Identify local resources: One of the greatest challenges to parenting ADHD is this: ADHD is a planning disorder. Because of that, expecting a teen to plan around ADHD on their own is rarely the best option right up until they've shown themselves ready to address it independently. Vital skills such as breaking down projects and studying into manageable pieces often aren't instinctual. Nor is knowing when to get extra help. As an aspiring star athlete needs a coach, an aspiring student with ADHD may rely on someone else to sustain and build academic skills. Before the year starts aim to connect your child with an academic center or ADHD professional, either on or off campus, to provide guidance.

3. Organize early:
One significant change transitioning out of high school is the lack of structured time. College classes may only represent a small part of the week, with an expectation that academic hours are instead spent independently. Most likely, work will not be supervised as closely, creating a particular challenge around larger tests and long-term projects. It's hard enough for students with ADHD to stick to a plan when they have one, much less when they do not, so encourage a written strategy for juggling school and social life. Partnering with a peer or a professional helps ensure students stick to the blueprint and reinforce it into habit too.

4. Define clear academic expectations: Encourage your teen to consult with professors during the first weeks of any new class; students with ADHD cannot always see the best way to study and also easily fall behind. The goal is to confirm their expectations about class are on target, and to create a checklist of exactly what's required for each class. Continued visits through the semester, either to their professor or through an academic support center, will sustain their progress too.

5. Manage medication: The shift from high school to college lengthens the active part of the day for students, so adjustments may be required around ADHD medication. Some are logistical; whenever possible, study hours should fall during times when medication is effective. And of course, medication influences for the better eating habits, driving, and late-night decision making, so fine tuning can have a huge impact outside of academics too.

6. Monitor the big picture of ADHD: ADHD often bites its own tail - much of what helps manage ADHD is harder to do when you have ADHD. Exercise, quality sleep, and healthy eating habits impact life with ADHD, but require planning or scheduling to make it all happen. Mindfulness or similar approaches to stress management and self-care require sustained effort also. Prioritizing those routines starts before life gets too stressful - anticipating, planning, and then adapting to whatever happens in the real world. Again, through discussion and guided questions, encourage your child to lay out how they hope to take care of themselves in college.

A teen's push for independence is a healthy and appropriate developmental step. Collaboration is now the goal, often guided by listening first and then prompting a targeted discussion. Being too assertive can cause strain, but parents monitoring the plan often remains vital. As children become adults we can only do our best to offer advice and encourage healthy choices - while recognizing that with ADHD the continued involvement of adults may have benefit far longer than expected.

Of course, many college students are long past wanting to discuss school with their parents. For some, the easiest path forward is encouraging coordination with someone outside the family who understands ADHD. For others, a more direct negotiation may be required, potentially tied to any financial support you're providing - we'll help out, but you need to stay connected to an academic support center for now. In either case, encourage an actual plan, instead of a teen's choice to wait and see, whenever possible.

ADHD doesn't change who someone is, or how capable they are in life. It does affect behavior and academics in countless ways when under-addressed. Yet with the proper interventions, college students with ADHD can and should thrive.