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Transitioning to college: 3 signs your student with ADHD is struggling (and how to help)  

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Could a student who earned honors in high school fail one (or more) classes in their first semester of college?


Or could they drop most of their classes and end up on academic probation (even when both parents have Doctorate degrees)?


Yes.


And it happens all the time.


Because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), unless a college student allows their parents to see their grades and records, the only thing parents are getting from the school is a bill.


As a parent of a college student with ADHD, keep your eyes peeled for these three signs when your student transitions to college.


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College student with ADHD is struggle with executive dysfunction and requires executive function coaching
3 signs your college student with ADHD is struggling

Sign #1: They say everything is “great”

Everyday on campuses throughout the United States, freshmen struggle to make sense of the massive transition from high school.


Being away from the security and support of home is filled with stress inducing conditions that include:

  • Long distance from family and friends

  • Being a freshman surrounded by more experienced college students

  • Intimidating professors and large lecture halls

  • Difficulties with sleep due to sharing a room with a stranger

For example, in the first year of college, one of my executive functioning coaching clients convinced her parents everything was "fine" for a full semester until the parents received notice that she was on academic probation and would be dropped from the school if her grades did not improve.


Deeply concerned, they returned to the neuropsychologist who had previously assessed and diagnosed her dyslexia and ADHD and asked what they could do. He recommended executive functioning coaching and referred them to me.


Within the first session, it was evident the most pressing obstacle to her academic success was her inability to login to her school email.


"What happened?" I asked?


"Well, after a few unsuccessful attempts to access my email, I got locked out and then it said I had to contact IT. I didn't know how to find IT, so I just forgot about it," she shared.


"But since I couldn't get into my email, I didn't receive class updates and I just lost track of what I was supposed to be doing. I was so embarrassed and didn't want to ask for help."


Because she was in a new state without friends or knowledge of how to access mental health supports on campus, she started relieve the pressure of not being "successful" through partying and sleeping in.


BUT, within that first session, we were able to gain access to her email and begin the process of addressing the missing assignments and emails that she had lost track of.


One of her classes was unsalvageable, but by writing to her professors she was able to schedule one to one meetings during their office hours that helped her pass the remaining classes.


Additionally, she started to take advantage of the peer counseling resources that the school provided and get tips on how to select classes that would be manageable for the following semester.


After meeting weekly for months, she executively decided (and informed her parents during a Family Team Meeting) that attending a nearby community college was a better option for her in order to transition to college life.


Through her work with the peer counselor, she learned that if she remained enrolled in one course on the large campus, she could play intramural sports.


While freshman year was an extremely rocky experience for this student, by accepting a little help from an executive function coach, she was able to regain her footing on the college experience and eventually transferred back to her original university.


I am proud to say she decided to major in special education and graduated with...honors!


So what is the moral of the story?


When your college student with ADHD tells you everything is "fine," probe further, get details and make yourself available to support them.


Here are a few tips to learn more about their experience:


1. Ask open ended questions

What are you enjoying about your freshman year? What is challenging about the college transition?


2. Focus on facts, not judgements

I noticed you didn't respond to my last email about working with a tutor. Why was that?


3. Open up about yourself

When I transitioned from high school to college it was so hard to be away from home, cooking all my own meals and being in the snow. How are you doing with the transition to college?

3 Tips for talking to your student with ADHD about their college experience

Sign #2: They don’t connect with the Disability Resource Department

Many students with ADHD have a 504 plan or IEP in high school, but then forget (or don’t know) they can access accommodations and supports through the disability resource department at their university or community college.


This department has different names at different schools including:

  • Student accessibility services

  • Accessibility Centre

These departments are KEY for students with disabilities and can be the grease on the wheel for an effective transition from high school.


For many students with ADHD or other disabilities, accessibility services will not only provide accommodations and supports to make school work more accessible and manageable, but they also improve the college experience in other ways including:

  • Guidance on courses and professors that are disability friendly

  • Access to healthy opportunities to socialize through a peer support group

  • Offering specialized academic tutoring for exams and challenging assignments

  • Opportunities to get involved with extracurricular pursuits

  • Reviewing papers and other writing students need to submit

  • Early registration options

In my experience, a good student accessibility services department and counselor can be the difference between a disorientated freshman staying enrolled in college after a challenging transition and a student that drops out and returns home.


Before working with me, one of my students had tried community college without accessing the disability resource department and had dropped out of school.

Without a solid plan for the future, he soon experienced increased anxiety and depression while living at home, which was very concerning to his parents.


He began meeting with a therapist, who recommend he try working with an executive functioning coach and we were connected.


After we began working together, he soon decided he wanted to re-enroll in community college to become a registered automative technician.


Upon enrolling, I also encouraged him to provide his previous assessments to the disability resource department so they could create a personalized accommodation plan for him.


He made it through his first semester without much difficulty, but when he entered his second semester, he was required to enroll in a course with a teacher who made accessing accommodations very challenging.


Each time my student attempted to leverage an accommodations, the teacher would have a response for why he couldn't allow it, usually in the name of "fairness to others".


Repeatedly, my student attempted to email the teacher to problem solve and utilize his extended time accommodation (and others), but was met with push back.


Eventually, my client had a failing grade in the class even though he was spending hours every week working on the material! I encouraged him to file a complaint against the teacher for not granting him the use of his legal accommodations.


He brought this issue to his disability resource counselor, who then elevated it to the department head. The department head listened to his concerns, reviewed the email attempts he had made to problem solve with the teacher, and met with the teacher to discuss the issue.


This process led to my client being able to submit ALL the work he had completed that was revoked, which allowed him to pass the class with full credit!


The confidence he gained from this experience was remarkable and he went from living at home and not attending school, to moving out of state, completing his vocational training and obtaining a job in his desired field.


As a parent, you can help your college student by ensuring they have access to accessibility services and guiding them through the process.


When touring schools with your student, ensure the school has a robust accessibility service offering.


Since every student accessibility services department is different, do not assume one will be appropriate for your student without a comprehensive review of their offerings, first.

7 things to know about college disability services

Sign #3: They enroll too many classes

Many students with ADHD are incredibly hard on themselves because for most of their student experience they have been told they are not adequate in some form or another.


Sometimes this manifests in school avoidance, but other times it shows up as them wanting to prove they can take on any challenge, such as taking all AP classes or engaging in multiple extracurricular activities, even to the point of burn out.


Remember, perfectionism is just a pretty word for procrastination.


So these students enroll in classes based on their IDEAL self, but not what they can actually manage.


As an executive function coach, much of my work is helping college students see that it is ok to take the RIGHT amount of classes, rather than what they think they SHOULD be doing.


As a parent, validate your student for taking whatever amount of classes is appropriate for them during their first semester of college.


The transition to college requires adjusting to many new things which may include:

  • Learning time management without Mom or Dad reminding them of where to be at what time

  • Taking care of their own health

  • Meeting new people and discovering new interests

  • Having to prepare their own meals, every day

  • Budgeting their money

  • Working part-time

Do you remember what it was like in your first year of college? Did you have it all figured out? I was a bundle of nerves, indecision and a desperate desire to prove myself to the world.


In fact, I remember having TWO sprained ankles and hobbling through the New York City subways on my way to classes, because I was juggling playing college basketball, working part-time and taking six classes.


I was doing the most 😝


Recall that feeling of adjusting to your freshman year of college, and do your best to help your student be successful with the amount of classes they can comfortably handle.


How can executive functioning coaching help students with ADHD in their transition to college?

It can be hard to stay in the loop with your young adult as they make the leap to college.


If you have history of helicoptering (being overly involved), bull dozing (knocking obstacles out of their way and thus reducing their independence), or being a Tiger parent (rigidly expecting obedience), it may be hard for your child to connect with you now that they have flown the nest.


If you think this is the case, consider using the expertise of an executive functioning coach to act as a bridge between your goals and the support your student is willing to accept.


Many executive function coaches are also former teachers who have expertise in working with students with learning disabilities.


Some executive function coaches are also former special education instructors who have expertise in case management and know how to help students access the accommodations and supports that colleges offer, but may not publicize widely.

7 benefits of executive function coaching for college students with ADHD

When looking for a coach, seek one who can conduct Family Team Meetings so you can stay in the loop and provide input, while also helping your student strengthen their executive skills.


Remember, as a parent, you don't want a student who blindly follows your directions. You want a student who knows who how to:

  • Advocate for their preferences and needs

  • Communicating their decisions to family and friends in an assertive and thoughtful manner

  • Plan out their goals for college along with what they will do over breaks and summer

  • Organize a pathway to graduation based on their long-term goals

  • Complete a time audit of their daily activities to gain self-awareness around how they spend their time

Executive functioning coaches focus on teaching the skills above, while helping students who are transitioning to college make sense of the new challenges they are facing.


To learn more about how to find the right executive function coach, read the article, Executive function coaching: The definitive guide.


If you are currently seeking an executive functioning coach for your college student, here are some questions you can ask a prospective coach:

  • What experience do you have supporting college students?

  • What would you do if our student was not responsive to your outreach? If they missed a meeting?

  • How do you know a student is being honest with you about their grades and assignments?

  • How would you keep us (the parents) engaged while supporting our student?

  • What is your experience working with students with ADHD or (other disability)?

  • How would you go about ensuring my student has access to appropriate accommodations and supports in college?

Conclusion

Did I miss any of the tell-tale signs of struggle for students with ADHD who are entering college?


What have been your greatest struggles as a parent of a college student with ADHD?


Let me know in the comments below! I respond to every one.


About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business which guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.


Sean is regularly featured across media channels for his expertise on executive function, ADHD and special education.

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Executive Functions, Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Some of the links in this post may be Amazon.com affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, Executive Functions, Inc. will earn a commission. However, we only promote products we actually use or those which have been vetted by the greater community of families and professionals who support individuals with diverse learning needs.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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