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You Tweeted, College Advocates Replied — Your Top Learning Disabilities Questions Answered

You Tweeted, College Advocates Replied — Your Top Learning Disabilities Questions Answered
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Micah Goldfus February 2, 2016

You asked us your top questions about learning disabilities and ADHD in college, and disability-services professionals weighed in. Find out what works best for students at their colleges.

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College students with learning disabilities and ADHD today have access to more resources and advice than ever before — much of it from other students, parents, and professors.

What’s often missing from the conversation are the voices of people on the front lines of <a href="{: target="_blank" } support for students with college and [ADHD](" target="_blank">learning disabilities: the staff members of disability services offices. These professionals not only deliver the tools and resources that students need to do well in school, both academically and socially, but also have deep, firsthand expertise about how to address the many challenges faced by students.

In my role as National Program Director at Eye to Eye, a mentoring organization that mobilizes college students with LD/ADHD, I work directly with dozens of disability services offices around the country. After writing about tips I’d collected from college students with LD/ADHD, I wanted to help to amplify the voices of some of the most passionate and effective disability services professionals I know. These individuals come from a wide variety of schools — from big public universities to small private liberal arts colleges — and share in common a strong dedication to helping college students with LD/ADHD receive the supports they need to succeed in school and beyond.

Rather than asking for general advice, I wanted these professionals to answer tough questions that require insider knowledge. Via Twitter, both Noodle and Eye to Eye put out a request to our followers: What do you really want to know about supporting kids with LD/ADHD in college? What questions do you have for disability services professionals that you’ve been wondering about but never asked?

We received plenty of great questions, and we picked the most thought-provoking of the bunch — and got illuminating answers to share.

# What are the lesser-known accommodations, support structures, and assistive technology options you recommend to students with LD/ADHD?

Many college students with LD/ADHD know about the most common accommodations — extra time on tests and assignments and note-takers — but our respondents wanted to know what other options are out there. However, first we had to shed light on exactly what “accommodations" means in the context of higher education.

“We often describe to students that we don’t exactly have an ‘accommodations buffet’ from which they select the desirable accommodations, or that we are only bound to recommend accommodations from an approved list," says Jonathan Thomas-Stagg, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist within Disability Resource and Education Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I often tell students that we can be creative in the kinds of accommodations that we write. I explain that the accommodation should be an intersection between characteristics of a student’s disability and the specific demands of their classes."

Lisa Morrison-Fronckowiak, Director of Disability Services at Buffalo State, agrees: “It is always important to remember that disability-related academic adjustments are always case-by-case and course-by-course, and there should never simply be a menu of academic adjustments that disability service providers pick from and then offer to students. The most unique accommodations are usually creative solutions that allow the student to participate in the course without altering [its] essential requirements."

With that in mind, the respondents were able to list off a variety of great tools. On the tech side there is the Livescribe Smartpen (which almost everyone I spoke with recommended), Kurzweil, Read&Write Gold, text-to-speech software, and Learning Ally.

In terms of testing environments, there are plenty of stellar options. Heather Lipinski Stelljes, Accommodations Specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, recommends looking into “a small-group testing environment, [with] the ability to take movement breaks, and occasionally access headphones. Tests can be provided in an audio format. Students might also use voice recognition software for essay exams."

Many professionals suggested looking into accommodations that involve in-person training and coaching. They recommended peer mentoring, tutoring, academic coaching, time-management training, and small-group study groups. Sometimes these options are available through disability services({: target="_blank" }, but other offices on campus (academic support, writing center, career services) may offer them, as well.

# How do you recommend building social-emotional intelligence in college students with LD/ADHD?

For students with LD/ADHD, social and emotional skills are often just as critical for success in school as academic skills. Some of the social and emotional skills that Eye to Eye focuses on include self-understanding, self-advocacy, and self-esteem–building. Most of the disability services professionals I spoke with acknowledge that building social-emotional skills is challenging, but they have seen some methods that are more successful than others.

Two ideas were common among the responses.

The first is learning from mistakes and challenges: “Students need to have opportunities to learn and rebound from their mistakes and failures," says Kathy Duggan, the Director of the Connors Family Learning Center at Boston College. “They need to embrace difficult situations, ask appropriate questions, and make decisions for themselves about how to best deal with the situation at hand. Without these opportunities to make mistakes and bounce back, students will not develop resiliency, which is increasingly important."

Sarah Williams, Director of East Carolina University’s STEPP Program (which stands for Supporting Transition and Education Through Planning and Partnerships — an in-depth LD support program), agrees: “Students may need more direct instruction [regarding] how to respond to negative feedback and undesirable results, especially by teaching them that it’s OK to be wrong; you’ll never improve at anything if you don’t get feedback about what to improve, and you have to separate the criticism from the person delivering it."

The second idea about social-emotional development that several professionals touched on is the importance of getting involved in activities on campus. Too often, students with LD/ADHD don't fully participate in campus life due to their focus on schoolwork. This causes them to miss out on opportunities for building social-emotional skills.

Anne Lynch, Disability Specialist at Augsburg College, encourages students with LD/ADHD to “join a club or get involved in campus activities of any kind, and then work in a group to develop the skills needed."

Lisa Morrison-Fronckowiak at Buffalo State emphasizes giving back to the community: “Our campus also provides unique service-learning opportunities that help [students] with both personal and social competence."

# What self-advocacy advice would you give to college students with LD/ADHD? What do you recommend a student do if a professor doesn't seem accommodating?

I’ve heard this concern from college students countless times: What if the professor won’t help? This fear can be so strong that it prevents some students from asking for help in the first place.

Several disability services professionals note that in developing self-advocacy skills, a key first step is cultivating metacognitive skills — that is, strengthening the ability to think about thinking. Once students are able to develop an understanding of how their brains work best, they’ll have a better sense of what supports they need and why.

“Developing self-advocacy skills takes practice," says Lipinski Stelljes from UW–Madison. She adds that this process begins with “reflection on your strengths and needs." Students can talk to disability service staff about developing their own self-understanding and then practice having self-advocacy conversations (often through role-playing).

Almost all of the disability services professionals who responded to these questions reminded me that a professor who doesn’t want to help is the very rare exception to the rule. And typically, as Sarah Williams of East Carolina University points out, a lack of support is a misunderstanding.

“Many instructors are so flooded with requests for ‘exceptions’ or ‘extensions’ or ‘special circumstances,’" she explains, that they may not realize the seriousness of a request. Williams recommends that students with LD/ADHD be proactive rather than reactive in their self-advocacy.

To that end, students should meet with their professors one-on-one early in the semester, read the whole syllabus in advance, and ask questions about what is expected of them. If necessary, students should also visit their schools’ tutoring centers to focus on the skills they’ll need to do well in any classes that they think will be a challenge.

“These kinds of proactive activities put you in partnership with your instructors and can pave the way for more effective and collaborative troubleshooting, should the need arise," Williams says.

Several disability services staff members encourage students not only to explain to professors which accommodations are needed, but also why they’re essential. The distinction is that by explaining the “why," students can provide a clear sense of their individual learning needs.

That said, every so often, a professor isn’t as accommodating as a student would like. In that case, the student should talk to the disability services office. The office can connect with both the student and the professor to determine how to move forward. As Anne Lynch of Augsburg College says, “I think it is the role of the disability office to work with the student and the instructor to help with understanding what the barriers might be."

# How does a college disability services office help students prepare for the professional world?

The disability services professionals I spoke with emphasized the ways in which the skills and support structures that students with LD/ADHD develop in college (with the help of disability services offices) are critical once they hit the working world. “One of the best pieces of advice that I can give is that the world can be more accommodating than you think," says Jonathan Thomas-Stagg of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If a student builds her talents and skills and shows employers why they would benefit from hiring her, then many employers will whole-heartedly accommodate. Our alumni share with us information all the time about their experiences in the workplace and how employers have been accommodating."

But even more than skills, disability services offices help students learn critical skills relating to self-reflection and self-understanding. These are crucial in the transition from school to work. “Disability offices in the postsecondary setting can assist with the development of self," says Heather Stejlles from UW–Madison. “When students begin to really explore who they are, what they need, and how LD/ADHD impacts them, they are more equipped to decide what they are looking for in a profession — as well as what might be necessary in the professional world."

Many college disability services offices also have resources, trainings, and guides on LD/ADHD in the workplace. For example, at Boston College, the disability service office has a strong relationship with career services. It is typical for students to be engaged in “candid discussions around disclosure, interview preparation, workplace politics, and legal rights," says Boston College’s Kathy Duggan, who echoes the thoughts of so many others: “The more comfortable students are with their own disabilities, the more success they will have beyond the walls of the ivory tower."

Follow this link to find more advice about learning disabilities and differences. Looking for a college with a robust disabilities services office? Check out the Noodle college search tool to find the best fit for you.