ADHD Goes To College — Support to Avoid “The Demon Drop”

how to support college students with ADHD advice for parents from an academic ADHD coach (1)

 

Parents of newly minted college students with ADHD sometimes “hope for the best”. Instead, they might want to “plan for the worst.” So says the author of this guest post below from longtime academic coach Kevin Roberts.

It’s tricky, isn’t it? We want these young adults to feel optimistic as they step out into the world. A false optimism, however, risks serious blows to self-confidence.

The hard truth is, the college environment presents a stark contrast to high school, including:

  • Escalating academic expectations
  • Variations in instructional approaches and evaluation systems
  • Reduced availability of aids and assistance

This and more can swiftly create academic setbacks for students with ADHD.

What’s more, college can be the worst place for kids who cannot self-structure and resist temptation. Some even lose track of getting their ADHD medication prescriptions filled. Do they notice the difference? Sometimes not until too late in the game. (Consider the research: Do Teens with ADHD Notice Medication’s Effect?)

This topic is “evergreen” but it’s especially timely now. Many new high school graduates with ADHD will start college this fall. Returning students might need a better plan than they had last year.

What are the common patterns and what are the preventive strategies—or solutions?

No one’s better equipped to shed light here than my friend and colleague, Kevin Roberts, M.A.. For 20 years, Kevin has coached young people with ADHD not only through high school college but also law school, medical school, and several PhDs. He’s also authored several books, one about excessive videogaming. You’ll find his bio below and link to his website.

college students with ADHD need support in creating structure and routines away from home

By Kevin J. Roberts, M.A.

Children who needed any parental intervention in high school will probably need extra support in tackling the mammoth transition to college.

Why? For one thing, college presents immensely more freedom—with no more backstops.  That is:

  • If your child shuts off the alarm, no one is there to double check.
  • If your child misses an assignment, or a class, there is no longer a teacher to notify you.
  • If your child starts staying up too late with “extra-curricular” activities, who will get them back on track?
  • Absent the threat of a reading quiz the next day, how do students short on consistent motivation and follow-through keep up with the staggering volume of reading?

This newfound freedom can overwhelm anyone — but especially a young adult with ADHD.

As for the parents, their “hope for the best” attitude is understandable.  After working long and hard to support their child through school, they now adopt the “It’s Time to Sink or Swim” attitude. In other words, throw a Hail-Mary pass and hope their child catches it.

The hard truth is, Executive Function deficits are a real consequence of having ADHD. They do not magically disappear when a teen walks across the stage to graduate from high school.

From Roller Coaster to The Demon Drop

Many intelligent high schoolers with ADHD get through with only minor academic scrapes and bruises. Most, though, do experience a roller coaster ride. It’s characterized by falling behind and then exerting what often looks like superhuman focus. This usually allows them to catch up, aided in some cases by 504 and IEP accommodations.

When these students get to college, however, the academic ADHD Roller Coaster can turn into a ride reminiscent of one I experienced as a youth at Cedar Point amusement park: The Demon Drop.

The down-spiral typically starts benignly enough. They miss a class or two. Then they soon they realize: That has put them dangerously behind. Not only is the college material exponentially more challenging, but they also must pack a year’s worth of learning into one semester.

Without a parent hovering in the wings, responsibilities invariably get neglected. The consequences snowball. Playing catch-up now as they did in high school frequently proves impossible. Poor results on the first round of exams damage their already fragile self-esteem and optimism about succeeding in college.

college students with ADHD need more support

The Lure of Enticing On-Campus Distractions

Even if they were still living at home, heightened academic demands would pose challenges. Yet campus distractions can accelerate a precarious academic foothold. For example:

  • Some find the allure of omnipresent partying irresistible—and regular bedtimes illusive.
  • Others languish in their dorm rooms at computer screens.
  • They can quickly become videogame hermits. Yes and even addicts.

For years, frustrated parents have contacted me, desperately hoping that I can help salvage the semester. Sometimes I can. Yet the courses typically build on material previously covered, making it almost impossible to catch up. In such cases, the best option is withdrawal from a course or two.

The Research on ADHD and College

Compared to their peers, research shows that college students with ADHD have lower rates of academic success and higher dropout rates. Contrary to common myth, many individuals do not simply “outgrow” ADHD.

Yet, the published research on this topic is fairly sparse thus far —or at least inconclusive. ADHD is a highly variable syndrome that affects individuals. That makes it difficult to nail down universal findings.

Still, we can glean two clear points, from this 2012 published review of the literature: What Do We Really Know about ADHD in College Students?

1. Numbers of Students with ADHD On the Rise

Even though students with ADHD are less likely than their peers to graduate from high school and attend college, approximately 25 % of college students receiving disabilities services are diagnosed with ADHD. This percentage is on the rise. Thus, it is important to understand how ADHD affects the adjustment to college and how to promote positive college outcomes for these students.

2. Time-Management, Organizational Skills Key

The adverse impact of ADHD throughout the lifespan is well-documented. Therefore, it seems likely that college students with ADHD would also struggle in multiple areas relative to their peers.

For example, success in college requires strong time management and organization skills. Students with ADHD likely struggle in these areas. Parental support tends to be less available than it was during earlier education. Yet, students with ADHD with strong academic track records tend to be better adjusted then the general population of young adults with ADHD. As a result, they may not show the same pattern of difficulties.

College students with ADHD might get more easiliy distracted and fall behind in work

Instead of Waiting to Rescue, Begin with Support

In my long experience, college students with ADHD need support right from the start. Naturally, most resist the idea.

The intense novelty of campus life buoys them with grand visions that they will finally overcome ADHD. Irrational exuberance can crowd out critical reasoning during the crucial first weeks on campus.

Having become well familiar with this phenomenon, I check in with my former students and coaching clients when they start college. In fact, I begin doing this on October 10 every year. The timing is that predictable. Last fall, I held marathon sessions with four such freshmen.

One intelligent young man confessed that he could not study for long periods of time, but he had a major Chemistry exam in three days. He found the myriad distractions overwhelming. Friends in his dorm constantly came by his room to invite him to one activity or another or to play video games.

During my study group sessions that week, I stayed with him via Zoom for 3-4 hours at a stretch, checking in with him every 15-20 minutes. He ended up getting a 78% with the curve. That doesn’t sound great. Prior to my intensive intervention, however, he was headed for a failing grade. Since then, he has still struggled to attend all his classes.

Warning: Students Typically Don’t Ask for Help

Again, trouble often starts in the first few weeks of classes. The tricky part is, your child likely will not tell you. They might fear upsetting or disappointing you. More than anything, most young people I coach have always wanted to be “normal”. That is, to not need extra help or support.

I cannot over-emphasize this point: The intensity of starting college often sends young adults with ADHD into a convenient delusion. “I’ve got this,” they tell themselves. Parents and others tend to encourage “can do” optimism. That is understandable. All the same, it risks fueling the over-confidence delusion.

with the right support college students with adhd can graduate

Five Core Tips to Parents of College Students with ADHD

I see many families drop off their ADHD children at college and hope for the best. I cannot advise you strongly enough: Avoid this course of action. Instead, consider these tips I have honed over years of helping these young adults and their parents:

1. Have a conversation in which you make clear that you want your child to succeed. As part of this, you will need online access to classes and information.

2. Most colleges offer extra support, office hours, and tutoring. Make sure that your child knows they are expected to utilize those resources.

3. Missing class is a sure path to failure. Therefore, skipping class is not an option.

4. Make it clear that not following the above will result in the withdrawal of family financial support.

5. Set up your college-bound child with a mentor, tutor, or coach who not only has solid experience with ADHD but also with the rigors of college.

My Lived Experience

I make these recommendations as an education professional and as the author of two books about electronic addictions: Cyber Junkie and Get Off That Game Now!

[Gina notes: Arthur L. Robin, PhD, and I asked Kevin to contribute a chapter on this topic to our ADHD couple therapy guide, Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions.)

Rounding out my experience: I’m also an adult with ADHD who had extraordinary challenges my first semester at college.

My anxiety skyrocketed, which led to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I struggled to make it to class and to calm my mind enough to keep up with the reading. Like many in my situation, I also failed to ask for help.

I left college for three semesters, during which I worked with a therapist who helped me develop strategies to deal with anxiety. I graduated from the University of Michigan when I was 24. A good part of my passion for making sure that young people get the support they need comes from remembering how little I had then.

To summarize: Send your children to college with plenty of support and make certain they take advantage of it.

About the Author:

college students with ADHD
Author and ADHD Academic Coach Kevin J. Roberts

Kevin Roberts holds a Master’s degree in ADHD Studies. He created this individualized degree with the guidance of Arthur Robin, PhD, of Wayne State University Medical School, in concert with Antioch University.

The author of four books, his most recent title is Schindler’s Gifts: How One Man Harnessed ADHD to Change the World.

Kevin has coached young people with ADHD through high school, college, law school, medical school, and several PhDs.

You can learn more about his work at www.kevinjroberts.net.

Contact Kevin directly.

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