What parents can do when bright kids are not ready for life after high school

Many of the students we work with at Center for ADHD present with strong academic ability yet struggle with their social cognitive skills, self-regulation, executive functioning and age-expected independence. 

Our educational system is designed for students to finish their education at the end of 12th grade, regardless of their level of social and emotional readiness to enter post-secondary education, work or vocational training.    It should come as no surprise that many students diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s or higher-verbal autism are initially unsuccessful in college and have statistically lower graduation rates than their neurotypical peers.  An 8-year study involving college students diagnosed with ASD showed that less than 20% had graduated or were on track to graduate.  The statistics for students diagnosed with ADHD were slightly better than the ASD population.

Many students who receive support services through an IEP or 504 plan are often “propped up” meaning that their school has created a support system that ensures they are handing in their work, meeting deadlines, etc.  When these students graduate from high school I refer to this as “having the chair kicked out from underneath them”.   Suddenly, these students whose social and emotional maturity is delayed are expected to be able to function independently yet they have not been taught the skills and strategies needed to be successful in college or their post high school endeavors.  Ideally, all schools would be teaching students the skills and strategies needed to be independent instead of propping them up with supports which will be unavailable after high school.

Each year, around December or January I receive multiple phone calls from parents of first year college students who needed to leave their respective college or university during or at the end of their first semester.  For these students, their unsuccessful attempt at college has nothing to do with their academic potential, rather it is due to their lack of social cognitive skills, level of independence and executive functioning challenges.   I have worked with several students who have been unsuccessful at two or more colleges because they are unable to manage their screen time and sleep hygiene due to their compulsive video game use.

Research has shown than starting at a community college, being a part-time student and initially living at home are all factors that contribute to academic success for students diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s or higher-verbal ASD.  When young people with neurodevelopmental differences are given time to mature while learning the skills they need to be successful their potential for success increases.

What Parents Can Do

  1. Look at your child from a developmental perspective, rather than basing readiness on grades and test scores.

The best indicators of future success in life are not grades or test scores, rather it is the ability to form social relationships, regulate one’s emotions and solve problems independently.  If these skills are underdeveloped due to social learning and executive functioning challenges getting help as soon as possible can help facilitate this process.  The help should focus on skill-based instruction to help the student develop the skills they have not developed intuitively.

  1. Know your rights and do your homework about post-high school options.

Any student who receives services through an IEP does not need to graduate at the end of 12th grade. Students who receive support through an IEP may postpone graduation until the year of their twenty-first birthday.  This does not mean that the student needs to remain in their high school.  Depending on the school district and geographical location there are options for students who need a transition program, however they can be difficult to find.     My son, who finished 12th grade last year attends a vocational program for carpentry in the morning and in the afternoon attends a transition program in which he is at a job site two days per week and spends the three other days working on independent skills such as money management, career readiness and using public transportation.   It can take a great deal of research to find an appropriate program and it is essential to know what questions to ask.   Center for ADHD offers transition planning services, please visit our website for more information.  

  1. Do not mistake intelligence for emotional maturity.

Because many adolescents diagnosed with ADHD or Asperger’s are articulate and highly skilled at arguing many parents mistake their child’s intellect and ability to articulate themselves as a sign of maturity. This often leads to the young adult being unsuccessful because they were not socially and emotionally ready to be independent students and/or live away with home.  Academic success in high school is not an accurate predictor of academic success in college for students with neurodevelopmental challenges.

4. Accurately assess your child’s age in terms of their social and emotional development and plan based on that age, not chronological age or grade.

If your child is chronologically 18 but socially and emotional around 13 the question you should ask is-would you send a 13-year-old away to college?  The answer is no, you would have them attend college while living at home so you can provide a level of supervision and continue to provide them with the structure and support necessary to help them build the social, executive functioning and independent skills they need to be successful.

Thinking about life after graduation can be anxiety producing for many parents, often because they know their son or daughter may be significantly behind their peers in their social and emotional development.  Through being proactive and understanding the need to base planning on a student’s social and emotional maturity parents can help put their child on a path towards success after high school.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LSW, CAS is the Director of Center for ADHD in Bryn Mawr, PA.  Center for ADHD provides social skills programs, therapy, transition planning services, a summer program and executive function treatment.  Visit our website or Summer Travel Program website.

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