Children's Voice September/October 2008

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

By Ellen Notbohm

Gauging Your Teen's College Readiness

The path from high school graduation often leads to a four-year college, but not all students are ready or willing.

On the day my son accepted his high school diploma, the school newspaper reported that somewhere between 50% and 60% of his fellow graduates were headed to a four-year college. The rest were not. My son was one of them.

The four-year college education isn't for everyone, and for students with learning differences it presents additional challenges. Is your child truly ready for the experience? Here are some areas to consider.

Basic Skills
College placement exams given during the admissions process will determine whether your child has sufficient reading, writing, and math skills to pass college-level coursework. If testing indicates inadequate skills, your child will be required to take pre-college level coursework. These classes will have numbers below 100, such as Math 060 or Writing 080. Their focus is purely on the core skill. In a writing class, the students do nothing but write, as opposed to the more typical English class, which is usually a combination of literature reading, discussion, and analysis with some writing component included. Students earn credit for these classes, but those credits may not be applicable to a four-year degree.

The college that accepts your child wants him or her to succeed; "finish" statistics are part of a school's profile. College campuses are rich in resources to help students, from counseling and student services offices to special needs support groups. But to take advantage of this help, a student must take the initiative to seek out resources. Students challenged by learning disabilities must know how to self-advocate. David Pontious, assistant director of Thomas A. Edison High School for different learners in Portland, Oregon, says, "We see so many students not doing well in college because they are not requesting services. At a minimum, they need to be able to walk into a student services office and say, 'I need help and I don't know what to do.' Even better if they can say, 'I have trouble with X, Y, and Z. Here's how it affects my learning and here's what I need to be successful.'"

Is your teen's motivation for going to college 1) intrinsic--she's really excited about it, 2) a default position--it's the next thing he's supposed to do, or 3) external--it's what you want her to do? If the internal motivation is not there, rethink your child's readiness.

Many teens have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning. If living away from home, will he be able to take care of his own hygiene, nutrition, and laundry without supervision? If she becomes ill, will she know when and how to seek a doctor? Is he able to handle a credit or debit card responsibly? Balance a checkbook?

Executive Skills
Many learning disabilities are characterized by weak executive skills--such as organization and time management--so critical in the goal-oriented college environment. Does your student:
  • have sound study skills?
  • make use of a planner?
  • know how to organize a long-term project and see it through to completion?
  • know how to prioritize and strike a balance between academic obligations, organized extracurricular pursuits, and social life?
General Maturity Level
Does your child accept responsibility for his own behavior? Does he respect authority, and is he able to work within prescribed rules and boundaries? Can he problem-solve situations, both academic and interpersonal?

Should you or your child decide that he or she is not ready for the four-year college experience, what then become the options? Will it be community college, full-time work, military service, marriage, or a combination of options?

"Two words: informed choice," Pontious says. "We need to say: Here are all the things that are available to you. What are your interests? What are your abilities and strengths? Encourage them to explore their community, looking to see what might be a good fit." Pontious adds that allowing young people informed choice includes allowing for some trial and error. A student who professes to want to be an accountant even though he hates math should be allowed to sample the coursework or work in an accounting-related job. "Let him explore," Pontious says. "Try it for a year. If it doesn't work out, that's okay. That he discovered it on his own is going to be so much more powerful than some test score--or parent--saying 'you are not good at math.'"

And that is exactly what happened for our son, who chose a combination of community college and work. No one was more stunned than he to discover that the major he had wanted to pursue since middle school was not a good fit. No one was more stunned than we, his parents, when his part-time job revealed impressive gifts we never knew he possessed. The day may yet come when he feels ready for that four-year college. In the meantime, he gets validation that his informed choices have brought growth and opportunity, and the confidence that comes with knowing that he has the power to choose wisely from his life's menu of options.

Author and columnist Ellen Notbohm is a three-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist, and a contributor to numerous publications and websites around the world. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit

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