By Jill Burstein
The world for children with learning disabilities is changing and the news is all good! The American with Disabilities Act has made it possible for kids with learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder to make fantastic educational strides and continue their education in post secondary settings. The technological boom has enabled students to succeed in areas that once were problematic for them. The number of learning disabled students going to college has tripled in the last ten years. The key to a successful post-secondary placement is finding the right match for the your child.
As our kids find more and more success, colleges have come to realize what valuable assets our students can be and have developed programs to help them succeed. They often are housed as separate departments and students have a learning specialist assigned to them to help with their particular needs. There has also been a boom in post secondary settings that are helping students with learning disabilities to live on their own and often, attend college as well. The most important consideration is to remember that our kids are not defined by their learning disabilities. They are people with interests, concerns and wishes about what they want to do during their college years and after. They no longer have to be hampered by poor reading, spelling, or any other low skill. The world is opening for people with disabilities and our children are reaping all the benefits.
The most important word I use when talking about finding an appropriate educational placement is “match”. The school must match all the criteria that will create a positive experience for the student and the family. Size, location, extra curricular activities, social life, and educational opportunities as well as the correct level of services are all vitally important to this success. I never look for the most “prestigious” program that a student can get in, but a placement that fits the needs of the student and family. You must never look at the reputation of a school or the lists that famously come out every year (or week) in various publications. My favorite is the US World and News Report that is published yearly. They rank the colleges in some arbitrary fashion and kids run to get applications from the top ten list. What does it really mean? Is Harvard better than Yale? How can an unknown entity tell you what college is best for your child? I hope you can begin to see what nonsense this really is. A good placement is one where your student is successful educationally and is able to enjoy the college experience.
Parents must also have input during this process. You are a very valuable source of information regarding your children and your comfort level must also be considered. If you need your child to be close to home, that is an important piece of information. It will not be good for your child if your anxieties are not considered as well as theirs. As a parent, make sure the psycho-educational testing is current within three years. Make sure an achievement test, for instance the Woodcock-Johnson, has been done. If your child has Attention Deficit Disorder, you need documentation from an appropriate source. If your child is college bound, be sure accommodations are in place for the ACT or SAT. Now your family is ready to begin the college search.
A typical college has three levels of services. The first we call comprehensive support services. The student can meet with a learning disability specialist between one and five times a week. At some schools the time is set in stone and others are flexible. Most have up-to-date assistive technology. The second type offers coordinated support services. There usually are one or two learning disability specialists that coordinate the students receiving services through peer tutors and labs that are provided for all students. An example would be a writing lab. The third type of program offers accommodations but no special services. They are in compliance with the law but go no further to help their students be successful. The first step is to assess what level of services your child needs.
The next step is to discover what kind of placement would be appropriate. Do they need help in learning daily living skills? Can they live on their own? Can they get up for class by themselves and manage money? It is also important to think about many other factors such as size, price, extracurricular activities, location and religious affiliation. Now a preliminary list of colleges can be made. There are many good sources and a good place to find them is at www.ldonline.org. Go to their bookstore and also look at the many articles they have listed under postsecondary education.
After this first list is made, visiting several placements is essential. Colleges can look one way on paper but you get a very different feel by being there. Talk to the admissions counselor. Ask about criteria for getting in. Ask about class size, who teaches classes and what the students do for fun on the weekends. Large institutions will often have teaching assistants (graduate students) giving undergraduates instruction. There tend to be large lectures in introductory courses.
Smaller schools usually have professors teaching all classes and class size is rarely over thirty. Small classes offer more of an opportunity for projects and class discussion. Make an appointment with the people who will be providing services for your child. Ask about the level of service provided. Do they see a degreed learning disability specialist or are peer tutors used? How many hours a week is help available? What assistive technology do they offer? What does the student do in an emergency situation? Take a tour of the school to see the facilities, dorms and general campus grounds. What is your gut feel as you walk through? Can you envision your child at this school? Trust these feelings. They are a great predictor of a good match.
After several visits, decide where applications will be made. There is no correct number of schools. I always insist upon three. I rarely encourage more than eight. The process is time consuming, draining and most students will not want to put themselves through any more. Pick at least one or two schools for which you know your child qualifies. Apply to several that they have a good chance of admission but are not guaranteed. Lastly, if your student is so inclined, pick a school that is a little out of reach but would be a dream placement. Let me stress that it is not necessary to follow this formula. Each student and family is different and there is no standard way to do this. For example, my son did not want a “reach” school. His learning disability interferes with many areas of school performance and he only wanted a placement where he knew he would not have struggle to keep up. He wanted to be able to enjoy the total experience that college has to offer. Other students find a placement quickly and will apply there and two safety schools. There is no right way as long as the family feels comfortable with the choices of their child.
The application can be done in many ways. There are the standard paper applications that all placements provide. There are often applications provided online at the schools website. The last option is a common application that many schools accept. It provides the student with the ability to fill out one application for many schools. It is up to each family and student to decide which option fits them best. Be sure to provide everything the school requires. Most public high schools have counselors that aid the student in sending in the appropriate material. Transcripts, standardized test scores and teacher recommendations are an example of what the school might have to forward. Private schools should be able to send the same material.
When the acceptances arrive, your child might know exactly what placement he wants to accept or the family may need to sit down and compare the options. Please take the time to examine all the information you have gathered. My best word of advice is to trust your gut feeling. Do not be afraid to seek help for this complicated process. There are counselors at public high schools trained to help with this transition. Talk to professionals who know your student and can recommend what kind of school they feel would be a good match. Spend the time and money to visit schools. It is well worth it!
Lastly, this is the largest investiture of money you will probably spend after the purchase of a house. Do not hesitate to find a private consultant who specializes in placements for students with learning disabilities. The money you spend will be far less than having your child fail and losing that valuable tuition money.
Consultants can be located at http://www.iecaonline.com/ or at (703) 591-4850.
Jill Burstein is an independent educational consultant specializing in placements for students with learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders, with or without hyperactivity. She can be reached at (847) 940-8090 or check her website at College-Finder.org.