Categories: 2011, August
“TRADITIONAL COLLEGE IS
NOT THE PATH FOR ALL STUDENTS,” says Arlyn Roffman, PhD.
“Many youth don’t feel ready to continue learning
immediately after high school. Some just do not feel motivated to move
on to higher education; some are unprepared to face the academic demands
or the social pressures of postsecondary settings; some are reluctant to
return to the vulnerable position of being in the student role again in
a new learning environment.”
A professor of education at Lesley University, Roffman is also the
founder and former director of Threshold, a groundbreaking transition
program for young adults with learning disabilities. She is the author
of Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities: Navigating the
Transition from High School to Adulthood (Random House, 2007) and
Meeting the Challenge of Learning Disabilities in Adulthood
“Every child has the potential to continue learning at
some level after high school,” Roffman stresses. “Parents
and teachers alike must convey the message that lifelong learning is a
realistic and desirable goal. The critical goal is to find the right
match of learning opportunities to fit the student’s interests,
aptitudes, personal objectives, and budget.”
Roffman recently participated in an online chat sponsored by the
National Resource Center on ADHD, taking questions from parents eager to
discuss alternatives to college. CHADD members may access the full chat
transcript on the CHADD website; an edited version follows.
I would like to learn what options may
exist in a few years for my sixth-grader, who has ADHD inattentive type
and a couple of specific learning disabilities. He's exceptionally
bright in many ways, with the vocabulary of an eighteen-year-old.
You're wise to be thinking of this already. There will
be lots of postsecondary options for your son, depending on his
interests and capabilities.
It’s important to realize that the path of continued learning
after high school is unique to each student. It may consist of study at
four-year colleges, two-year junior or community colleges,
vocational-technological schools, non-degree transition-focused
programs, or adult education centers. The trick will be to find the best
postsecondary option for his unique constellation of strengths and
There are increasing numbers of colleges and universities with services
and programs to support diverse learning needs. You can learn about them
in some of the college guides targeted to students with disabilities,
such as the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning
Disabilities, published by Princeton Review.
For many students with ADHD or LD, starting their postsecondary
experience at a community college is a good option to consider. One
reason is that community colleges have an open admissions policy,
meaning a high school diploma or a GED is all that is necessary for
admission, and admissions criteria are more “forgiving” of
high school records that may reflect learning problems. In addition,
class size tends to be smaller at community colleges than at large
universities, tuition is usually lower, and they offer a wide range of
vocational, remedial and developmental courses. Students may choose the
intensity of study that fits their needs and interests: They may start
slow and take just a few courses in areas of interest, enroll in a
certificate training program toward particular employment goals (e.g.
dental assistant), or choose to matriculate in an associate’s
degree program with the intention of later transferring to a four-year
Beyond the financial and academic advantages, community college is a
popular option for psychological reasons too—since all students
are commuters, students can “try out” the college experience
close to home, near family and friends.
For highly motivated students with more severe learning disabilities
and/or ADHD who might be too challenged by traditional degree programs,
there is the option to enroll in a campus-based life skills-oriented
transition program. Courses are very practical and often
community-based, focusing on vocational training, development of daily
living skills, and social skills training. Many offer continued
transition support as graduates move from the campus into apartments and
In addition, there are transition programs that primarily center on
independent living and are not based on college campuses. Participants
in these programs usually live in apartments with supervision and work
locally as they develop the daily living skills to assume more
independence. Some of these programs work collaboratively with nearby
community colleges, and residents can take courses if they choose to do
There are many options ahead for your son. In the meantime, make sure he
gets the help he requires over the next six years to manage the symptoms
of his ADHD, to develop effective study skills, and to learn about any
accommodations he might need to perform to his potential in whichever
postsecondary setting he selects.
What other options are out there when
your child tried community college and that didn't work? He tried Job
Corps and finished, but he's now working part-time as a bagger in a
There are a number of other learning options beyond community
college. As technology advances and distance learning becomes more
commonplace, online courses and programs are becoming more popular.
Online learning is a particularly appealing option for students who have
strong computer skills and need or prefer a flexible class schedule to
fit around home or work responsibilities. Online learning is also an
attractive alternative for students who have trouble sitting still for
long lectures. A word of caution, though—attention can wander even
online, and this learning format isn’t for everyone.
Students with ADHD seeking careers in technical areas that are more
hands-on may want to look into tech-prep programs. These often involve a
partnership between secondary vocational technical schools and community
colleges. If a student is clearly directed toward a career in
mathematics, science, or engineering, a technical college curriculum is
Technical schools provide students an education that concentrates on
their particular career choice in trades such as carpentry, cosmetology,
or secretarial skills. Technical schools allow students to focus
directly on areas of strength and interest and often enable them to
skirt around academic areas that have been their nemesis in high
Some youth choose to hire on with a skilled tradesman as an apprentice,
where they are paid an hourly wage and are taught the skills of that
trade on the job. Yet another option that warrants mentioning is
career colleges, which prepare students for such jobs as massage
therapist, computer technician, acupuncturist, and the like.
Do you have any
recommendations for career or interest inventories that students have
found relevant or especially helpful in beginning to chart a course for
themselves and their future plans?
I don't have specific recommendations, but high school guidance
counselors have loads of resources at their disposal that can help
students start to chart their vocational course. The Office of
Vocational Rehabilitation, which is in every state, has counselors who
can test your child.
One important step you can take is talk with your child about work and
encourage him or her to learn about the different kinds of jobs that are
out there. Young kids can start learning about what their parents and
neighbors do; older students can write research papers on careers of
interest to them. As they become more informed, they can see if they
find an appealing option to consider investigating in more depth. They
may even shadow someone in fields of interest to see how the jobs that
interest them actually look and feel and then look into the educational
requirements for those positions.
Schools are mandated to work with transition-aged students to identify
their vision for their own future and to help them begin working toward
their vocational goals. A vocational assessment should be part of the
evaluation process for all students on IEPs once they reach age sixteen.
Actually working in the community, in real jobs, is an important way to
expose youth to what it means to work and what each position entails.
Research tells us that working during high school highly correlates with
employment beyond high school, so it’s critical to get our youth
out there in paid or volunteer jobs during their secondary school
Are there any types of jobs that are more
suitable (or more accommodating) to someone with ADHD if college is not
an option? My son has ADHD impulsive type, and I just don't know how to
What you’re talking about is finding the right vocational match,
or what Gerber et al. call “goodness of fit.” While one
person with ADHD may make a terrible accountant, another person with the
same disability may be well suited to that field; career matching really
depends on each individual’s unique set of interests, strengths,
and challenges. There are professionals who are able to help students
identify their assets and interests and find jobs and settings that
capitalize on their stronger areas and allow them to work around their
weaknesses. Vocational counselors or vocational rehabilitation personnel
can be a big help in determining what the right employment avenue might
be for your son. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment,
and Training Administration, CareerOneStop.org is a good place to start the
job search process.
Are vocational or technical schools
supportive? Are they good choices for students with learning
Vocational or technical schools can be a great option
for students with ADHD, but each is different, so it’s important
to check with the special education team to discern the culture of the
particular school you're interested in and the level of services
provided for students with disabilities. Talk with current students on
IEPs and their parents to get their perspective.
Sadly, in these days of No Child Left Behind, when academic achievement
is the ultimate goal of too many schools, practical training in the
trades has been less funded than in the past. I certainly believe we
need good tradespeople and hope this avenue will remain an option for
We have to eliminate stigma associated with technical, vocational, and
hands-on training programs. They are a valid educational option and
provide excellent practical training in vocational areas that are
essential to our society.
Beyond vocational schools, trades may also be learned through
apprenticeships. Still considered by many as an old-fashioned notion,
apprenticeships can be invaluable for our students who learn best by
watching and doing.
As the mother of a bright kid with ADHD
I feel pretty strongly that we parents need to remember that not every
child—ADHD or not—should be headed to college. I'm raising
my son in a part of the country (suburban Washington, DC) where folks
tend to way overvalue pure academics. Sure, we need good doctors and
lawyers and MBAs. We will also always need good carpenters and
mechanics. So far, my boy (he's thirteen) consistently shows signs of
being happier when he's producing something, whether it be building a
canoe or creating an animation on the computer. Do you think I'm wrong
to not push, push, push academics?
I'm with you that not all students should be pushed toward
college. For many positions college degrees aren’t essential.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the thirty jobs
projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United
States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree.
In many communities, the only socially acceptable path beyond high
school is college. This places tremendous pressure on students who
really don't wish to pursue that route in life. Students who
aren’t college-bound often feel awkward and stressed during the
period of high school when peers are taking PSATs and SATs, going on
college tours, filling out applications, asking teachers for letters of
recommendation, hearing whether they’ve been admitted, and
deciding which colleges they will attend. If your son chooses not to
continue learning immediately after high school, he will need some
prepared responses to the questions about where he’s planning to
apply. I recommend directly responding, “I’m going to take a
little time off” or “I’ve decided to take a job for
now” to fend off further questioning.
That said, without knowing your child, I can't say whether or not you
and he should be considering college. It's great that you've noticed his
sense of fulfillment in using his hands. There are certainly many
careers that could call upon his pleasure and skill in hands-on work.
Some of those careers may require postsecondary training or a college
degree. There are many studies that suggest that earning power increases
with the amount of education an individual achieves. For that
reason I'd suggest sitting with your son’s counselor to discuss
potential vocational avenues as well as the feasibility of his taking
college prep courses. If there no barriers to his doing so, I suggest
enrolling him in college prep courses for freshman year and then
reevaluating this direction based upon his comfort level and
achievement. Taking this path will keep his options open for applying to
college if that seems desirable after all by the end of high school or
later in life.
My son will be a young high school
grad. I am interested in exploring the possibility of a gap year for
him, but I'm afraid that if he takes a year “off” from
school he may not want to go back. What is your experience with kids
with ADHD and gap years?
I don't have statistics on this, but I think a lot of kids who
struggle with school are exhausted and dispirited by the end of twelfth
grade. They've too often met with frustration, and many can benefit from
an organized gap year.
The key here is that it must be organized! A year "off" holds little
advantage for someone who needs structure in his or her life. But a year
doing something purposeful, where he or she can build confidence and
learn lessons about the ways of the world can be highly beneficial.
There are organizations that set up gap-year experiences, though
families can also do the planning themselves. However, just as it's
essential to choose the right postsecondary program or work experience,
finding a good match is key to making this a positive experience. Try
conducting an Internet search for “Alternatives to College”
to access a variety of websites that will help you consider options such
as community service programs, leadership training programs, and
Regardless of the direction of the gap year, your planning should
include a discussion of what happens after it’s over. Applying to
college before the gap year and then deferring admission can be an
effective way to keep your child from becoming detached from an
I have heard wonderful things about the
Threshold Program at Lesley University. Are there any resources to learn
of other schools that may offer similar programs?
Well, as the founder of Threshold, I'm certainly happy to hear
these complimentary words! For those unfamiliar with the program, it was
the first comprehensive campus-based transition program in the country
for students with significant disabilities. It's thirty years old now,
and it's still thriving, with excellent outcomes for its students. I
will refer you to the website at lesley.edu/threshold. This is a
non-degree program that helps students learn vocational skills, social
skills, independent living skills, and leisure time skills, all to
prepare for independent adulthood. And it’s true—it’s
a wonderful program!
There is a handful of like-minded campus-based life skills-oriented
transition programs, which all tend to be designed to serve highly
motivated students who might be too challenged by traditional degree
programs but are very interested in continuing to learn, experience
college life, and become independent adults. Courses are very practical
and often community-based, focusing on vocational training, development
of daily living skills, and social skills training. Many, like
Threshold, offer continued transition support as graduates move from the
campus into apartments and jobs.
In addition, there are transition programs not based on college campuses
that primarily center on independent living. Participants in these
programs usually live in apartments with supervision and work locally as
they develop the daily living skills to assume more independence. Some
of these programs work collaboratively with nearby community colleges,
and residents can take courses if they choose to.
The Heath Resource Center, heath.gwu.edu, is a rich resource for information
about the range of postsecondary options, including alternative programs
such as Threshold. Thinkcollege.com is a resource for
students with cognitive impairments who are interested in postsecondary
I have a rising high school junior.
This is the year we'd be visiting colleges, preparing for SATs, and
figuring out which schools to apply to. I think that community college
is a better approach for him, but do we go through the motions to make
him feel like he's had the opportunity? How do we go about transition
Ah, the all-important question about transition planning! Your IEP team
should work together to come up with a plan based upon your son's
interests and strengths and vision for his future. His voice MUST be
heard in the process. My book, Guiding Teens with Learning
Disabilities: Navigating the Transition to From High School to
Adulthood, describes the transition process in general, with
specifics about getting ready for work and community life as well as
college. I think you'll find it very applicable to ADHD as well.
Engaging your son in exploring educational options is
important—looking at what's out there will help him feel part of
the process and will help him see that he has choices. Many high schools
have special education (SPED) college fairs where postsecondary
representatives come to share their offerings. It'll be important to
talk with the disability service providers to find out how
disability-friendly each place is.
I'd take him scouting to a few schools that are within his academic
range. His guidance counselor should be able to advise you regarding
appropriate options. Allowing him to make the final choice from among
these schools will build self-determination, which is essential for all
our youth with disabilities.
One tool that I think is essential for every high school student on an
IEP is a Transition Planning Portfolio, a personal file of all
transition-related documents, for eventual use in application to college
or employment.The Transition Planning Portfolio can be developed and
maintained in a variety of formats—as a hard copy in a binder,
file box or accordion file; as an “e-portfolio,” a series of
electronic file folders; or as a URL on a personal website. The key is
for the student to have sections that organize materials needed in the
One section should contain school records: copies of past and present
IEPs, high school transcripts, and a one-page summary of extracurricular
One section should contain disability documentation, including the most
recent psycho-educational evaluation with specific diagnostic
information; a listing of all approved accommodations from high school;
and a copy of ACT and/or SAT scores.
One section could contain college-specific information, questions to ask
during the admissions interview, an extra copy of a completed Common
Application form, an updated resume, a personal essay describing the
learning disability, and nonconfidential letters of recommendation.
Other sections should be dedicated to employment, including a resume,
sample cover letter, and names of references.
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