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The Parents’ Role: Learning Differences at College

Of the estimated 15 percent of Americans with learning disabilities, a growing number is enrolling in universities and facing new challenges and complex issues.

“Through high school, the school system is responsible for identifying students with disabilities, and parents often are active advocates in getting their students services and accommodations,” says Rebecca Marin, director of Services for Students with Disabilities at SMU. “At the college level, however, students who seek such services must advocate for themselves. This takes a considerable amount of organizational skill, time management and responsibility.”

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 35 percent of students with learning disabilities are attending colleges and universities, up from 15 percent in 1987. Many parents are wondering what role they need to play in helping students with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and other learning differences find success in college.

Addressing that question below are members of Southern Methodist University’s Students for New Learning, a chartered organization for students with learning differences; experts Rebecca Marin and Alexa Taylor, Learning and Attention Disorders Counselor; and Stuart Robinson, lecturer in psychology. Dallas psychiatrist Victoria Martin also participated in the q-and-a.

What signs should parents watch for?

We see a late diagnosis more often when students have high IQs, which have enabled them to compensate for their differences in school up to that point.

Work in college usually requires skills besides intellect. The reading load often is much greater, and writing expectations can be more intense. Both tap into common areas of difficulty for people with learning differences.

Time management and organization also are key skills in college, and students with ADHD have a much harder time than the average student does in mastering them.

Stuart Robinson, who teaches psychology at SMU, suggests that parents “look at your son’s or daughter’s notes. Poor note-taking or a disorganized desk area could mean attention-deficit problems. So would explanations about poor performance that ‘instructions were not clear,’ or ‘deadlines were changed.’ ”

According to Victoria Martin, a Dallas psychiatrist, “The most common sign is difficulty in school accompanied by a genuine effort, especially if the student is extremely frustrated with lack of success. When someone has good intelligence and is putting forth effort but still unable to produce results, the first thing to suspect is a learning difference.”

What should parents do if they think their student is struggling?

Robinson suggests intervening as soon as possible, but doing so with as much empathy and support as possible. Parents should encourage the student to contact a professional, either on campus or privately, to discuss being tested. The student’s adviser also would benefit from knowing about any academic problems. He or she often can point the student in the right direction for support.

At SMU, students can speak about their options to a counselor at Counseling and Psychiatric Services (214-768-2277), SMU’s director of Services for Students with Disabilities (214-768-4557) or SMU’s Learning and Attention Disorders Counselor (214-768-1918).

Jayme, an art history major and member of Students for New Learning, says her family’s involvement early on made a big difference:

“Being diagnosed when I was 6, my parents’ moral support helped me find a school that could fit my needs and gave me the tools I needed. I learned at a very young age that I was the only one who was going to help me make it through school. I think it’s also important for parents to understand their child’s learning disability so they can identify with their child and not beat themselves up about things that are just a part of learning differences.”

Matt, a recent anthropology and advertising graduate, shares a different perspective:

“College marks a transition for students and their parents. For the last 18 years or so, the parents have been there to help and guide their children. In college, students want their parents to be supportive of their choices and help them when they ask for it. Any more than this is too much. Parents should let their children know that they are there for them and that they can help, but they should not try to do more than this, like they might have back in high school.”

What role do parents play in the screening and testing process?

Parents often initiate testing with younger children, but in college the student must take control of this process, says Alexa Taylor. Parents may offer encouragement and sometimes help identify an evaluator, but should let their student coordinate testing with a professional.

In a comprehensive evaluation, the evaluator may interview parents or have them fill out questionnaires to help establish a history of academic difficulties. Parents sometimes remember more details about teachers’ comments during their children’s elementary and middle school years.

How should parents be involved?

“This will vary depending on the doctor,” says Martin. “Some believe parents should insist on the student taking full responsibility for finding a solution. I am in the camp that believes that most people with ADHD and other learning differences take much longer to mature and therefore require much more support from parents and the educational system than their peers.”

Often students need their parents’ involvement if they take medication for their learning issues, such as medication for ADHD. Getting prescriptions filled, working with insurance and knowing when they are running low are details that can slip by a student and lead to stress. This can be prevented if parents ask questions and keep tabs on the issue.

“Parents contribute more to a son’s or daughter’s self-esteem than any other source of support,” says Robinson. “Their support needs to be unconditional positive regard. Parents should avoid aligning their love, emotional support or financial support to high achievement. Achieving is great, but overachieving is unhealthy, maladaptive and eventually leads to distress.”

Can parents be informed and involved if their student is using campus support services?

Yes, if a student gives written permission to SMU to communicate with his or her parents, it’s permissible and sometimes very helpful for parents to be informed and involved. However, the student is ultimately responsible for utilizing support and communicating with the support staff.

Parents can help by sharing useful information and encouraging their students to follow through.

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