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What is a Parent to Do? The Parents' Roles in College Planning for Children with Learning Disabilities

Leslie S. Goldberg, M.Ed., CEP

Excerpted from Transitional Skills for Post Secondary Success: Reflections for Students with Learning Disabilities.

As parents, we have always tried to advise, encourage and help our children the very best we could. Parents of children with learning disabilities have historically gone above and beyond others, feeling that their children needed more support. Very often this, in fact, has been true. There comes a time, however, when that help can be counterproductive. As students approach the time to prepare for college or other post-secondary options, they need to learn how to become independent, since parents are not with them in college. In addition, children and adolescents often develop a learned helplessness when parents continue to do too much for them. It is almost as if you are telling him he doesn't have the ability himself. Think carefully about this. How will he ever learn to be independent? If a child has to encounter difficulty, it is better to have it happen now when he is under your roof! He will learn, even through trial and error, to stand on his own two feet! His self-esteem will grow by leaps and bounds because he is actually doing this on his own, without you, the parent, as a crutch!

What does that mean for parents? How do we step back in a way that our children won't fall on their faces?

  • First, parents need to begin a positive feedback and encouragement campaign. A pat on the back accompanied by a "You can do it!" often works wonders for self-esteem and motivation.

  • If you have been in the habit of helping with homework, it is time to stop. Yes, stop! Right now! If s/he needs assistance, extra help is always available after school; a tutor may be hired; another student in the class might offer to help; or more help from an aide in the classroom might be available. Never, never, never do your child's homework for him! How will he perform on a test in class without you there?

  • Brainstorming with the child about how best to do an assignment or how to come up with a topic for a research paper is appropriate support. Doing it for him is not.

  • Allowing the student to do his own work doesn't eliminate you from the education loop. It is a good idea to tell the teachers, guidance counselor and special education director that you are backing off in order to strengthen your child's independence, but need to be informed when things are not going well before it is too late to bring up a low grade!

  • Weekly or biweekly reports might be a good idea so that the parent is on top of what is happening (or not happening) in school. This also helps the student have a good idea of how he is doing so there won't be any surprises at the end of the term.

  • Pretend you are at an expensive boarding school, with quiet study halls from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday nights. Do not allow phone calls, music, television, Internet or computer games during that time.

In addition to the parents' backing off, the students need to learn how to become more independent. Teach your child to become a strong self-advocate and to be assertive without acting entitled or demanding.

  • Have the student practice explaining his particular type of learning disability and learning style in his own words. If he doesn't have a clue what "auditory processing" means, have him practice stating that he has a hard time taking notes in a lecture or remembering assignments given verbally, for example.

  • The student should meet with the teachers one-on-one at the beginning of each term or semester so that they will understand what he may need in the way of accommodations. Even teachers who mean well can forget such things from time to time and a meeting can help alleviate any problems or misunderstandings later on.

  • Make sure that the testing (psychoeducational or neuropsychological) is up to date so that accommodations are clearly spelled out. The tests must be done within two years of application and should include a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales III, a Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test-Revised, and any other instruments suggested by the examiner. The Wechsler should be the adult version, and can be done only after the student is about sixteen and one-half years old.

  • The testing should clearly explain any strategies and/or accommodations so that colleges will know easily if they can offer appropriate support. This also helps the student know what he should have available to him at the high school and the college level.

Although by law (current at the time of the writing of this article*) all colleges accepting federal funds must accommodate students with special needs so that there is a level playing field for all students, not all colleges or universities do this well. It is up to the student to interview the support staff to find out if the accommodations suggested in his testing will be available at a particular institution. Then if he is accepted and matriculates at the college or university, he must self-advocate for these accommodations. No one will come after him! This is why students must be such strong self-advocates before they leave for college.

It is also important to self-disclose in the college admissions process, if the student was identified in the high school setting. If he does not and later needs accommodations, it is more difficult to accomplish after the fact. Furthermore, if any testing is required for competency exams for a particular major, no accommodations will be allowed unless the student has self-identified as learning disabled.

If there is a question as to whether or not the college will accept the student if he self-discloses as learning disabled, just ask yourself the question: If they don't accept me because I have a learning disability, why on earth would I want to be there in the first place? How uncomfortable would it be if they did not accommodate students with learning disabilities, and I was a student there?

Independence must be practiced in the living skills as well. Adolescents who have had their clothes picked up from the floor, been given money as needed, and told what to eat and when to eat it should begin practicing some of these skills in addition to then others:

  • Have the student get a part-time job. This will help with time management and responsibility.

  • Start a checking account for the student. He will need to learn how to budget and pay bills. At least this way you can make sure of his skills before he is entirely on his own.

  • Have your student do his own laundry, at least the underwear, T-shirts and jeans. If the underwear turns pink or gray a few times, the expensive stuff is less likely to get ruined.

  • Give your student some responsibility with selecting, shopping for and preparing meals. He will be thankful when he is on his own in college. Students in this day and age usually eat college food only their first year or two.

  • If possible give your student a credit card with a small limit on it. Students are bombarded with credit card offers in college and many get themselves very heavily into debt. If they have some experience with paying bills and understanding what can happen with high interest building up, they will be safer later on.

  • Parents should be sure that their children are extremely well versed and comfortable with computers. Not only will they need to do word processing, but many professors post their messages to the students by e-mail or on the college's web site. If the student has no clue about computers (hard to believe in this day and age, but possible) get some very good instruction quickly!

  • Parents might want to invest in a study skills course during the high school years. Students who can't manage their time or take good notes will be lost in college.

College is expensive, and most parents want their children to be prepared for the world of work when they graduate. It is therefore a good idea to plan ahead for career choices and the realities of the job market while still in high school.

  • Having your student take a Myers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory is a good idea to see what kind of job might fit his personality. It is not only fun to do, but it is also an eye-opener for parents who have felt their children should fit a certain mold. A full-blown career inventory isn't necessary at this point in time, but the MBTI is worth considering.

  • See if your high school offers a shadowing or mentoring program for various kinds of careers. If they do, encourage your children to take part, because only after following someone around for a day or a week can one actually see what a specific job entails.

  • If your high school doesn't offer such a program, try to start one or find a friend in a job that your child indicates an interest in and ask if he might shadow the friend. Why go for a four-year degree in a major the student ends up disliking due to the type of everyday work?

  • The shadowing experience should allow the student to see the good, the bad and the ugly about the job. If an exciting picture is portrayed, and reality is very different day-to-day, he will be disappointed and not last in that career.

Parents should encourage their children to challenge themselves in areas other than just academics. If they have gifts or talents in the arts or in athletics, these students should try to attain some leadership positions if at all possible during high school. This will lay the groundwork for both college and life and naturally build self-confidence.

Extracurricular activities as well as courses should demonstrate depth and breadth, and should enable the students to become passionate about some part of their high school careers. Parents should oversee that this is possible.

As much as the parents should let go of some of the academic issues, it is the their responsibility to oversee their children's college admission and application process. This does not happen on its own. If you leave this up to the adolescent, who in most cases will put his head in the sand until the tide washes over it, he will not have the options he might otherwise have. Start the process early enough that you have a handle on what you are doing; this is perhaps one of the most important decisions your child will make.

As early as ninth grade parents should encourage the most challenging courses (as long as there are no final grades of C or below!) and a selection of activities that will span the four years of high school. This will fulfill the "depth and breadth" mentioned previously in this chapter. "Well-rounded" isn't the phrase of choice in the 21st century college admissions. Rather, the colleges like to see passion about a few interests and great depth.

Course selection is very important because the range of college options will be impacted if the following courses are not taken when considering competitive four-year colleges and universities:

  • 4 years of English

  • minimum 3 years of math (4 is better)

  • 3 years of science (4 is better)

  • 3 years of history or social sciences (4 is better)

  • minimum 3 years of foreign language (4/5 is better) If the foreign language has been waived due to the learning disability, either sign language or a culture course or an immersion program would be recommended.

  • computer course

  • performing or visual arts

If the student is not considering a competitive four-year college or university and opts instead to go to a community or two-year college, these are not as important. If the disability is in the math area, and only three years of math is possible, it is important (even if tutoring is necessary) to at least try to get to Algebra II.

In addition to the course selection and levels, summers should be well planned. Many students have to work; yet even with a full time job, a course in an area of strength can be taken at a local community college. If the student has an area of weakness (e.g., foreign language) this is also a good time to take a course because it is only one course at a time, without the distractions of several other courses.

If the student doesn't have to work the whole summer, he can select a summer enrichment program at a school or college campus. This option would offer an opportunity to take courses in the academic arena or in the arts. In addition, there are wonderful opportunities for community service projects. These are not just to fill in the college applications, but to allow adolescents to feel really good about helping others less advantaged than they. Some students select travel programs or outdoor leadership treks. Since most programs offer scholarships, there are few reasons not to consider some of these options.

School vacations, as early as ninth grade, are a great time on a family vacation for students and parents to tour colleges. It is then, before the time pressure is looming, when the family can leisurely get a feel for large or small, urban or rural, research university or liberal arts college. Do not just do "drive-throughs," however. Take the real tour through the admissions office, calling ahead to find out when they are offered, and fill out the information card in the office. This will automatically place the student on a mailing list and the appropriate materials will be sent in a timely manner. As a matter of fact, between junior and senior year, you'd better get a very large mailbox!

After getting a feel for the type of campus at which the student feels most comfortable, it is time to get some help from the guidance counselor or the educational consultant to put together a reasonable list of about twenty colleges or universities to start visiting and interviewing. This should happen during the second half of the junior year, after the PSAT scores have been received, and after most of the college applications for the seniors have been submitted and some decisions already made. Certainly, if an early action or early decision application is to be considered, the family must have done its homework before the senior year begins. These applications are submitted by November of the senior year and the decisions are sent by mid-December. Early action is not binding, and early decision is binding, meaning that if one is accepted at an early decision college or university the student is morally and ethically bound to attend.

"Interviewing?" you ask. "I thought they don't interview any more." Well, even if the college doesn't officially offer interviews, it is your job to find out as much as you can from not only the admissions officers, but from the learning disabilities support staff (if there are some) and from professors or heads of departments. It is therefore quite important to interview the colleges you are most serious about. They aren't just interviewing the student; the student is interviewing them to make sure that the fit is right.

Post-secondary institutions offer various levels of support in their LD programs. Some are full, comprehensive programs and include a director as well as specially trained master's level instructors. Others have smaller supportive programs with tutors without special education training. Still others offer support and accommodations only. It is the job and responsibility of the parents to determine that the support is appropriate for their children. Once the student matriculates at his choice institution it is then the responsibility of the student to self-advocate to ensure that this continues.

Do not think even for a minute that you can simply go to a college guide for students with learning disabilities and select your colleges that way. By the time the guides are in print, two years have gone by, and the information most likely is no longer accurate. It might be a good starting point, but then at the very least, go to the colleges' web sites and do more research there. At least the information is current. The web sites as well as the view books, are marketing tools, and are designed to attract your interest, not to enable your student to be admitted or thrive! The only way to do this is to actually pound the pavement at each college, do your due diligence, or caveat emptor (buyer beware.)

Would you ever consider buying a car without test-driving it? This is a more expensive item than a car and certainly has more impact on the student's life. You absolutely, positively must visit! An article by Richard Gustafson in the Boston Globe (March 26, 2000) titled "Don't choose a college without kicking the tires first" offered the same advice, suggesting strongly that parents do their "due diligence."

  • Make sure that you plan enough time on each campus, at least two to three hours, depending on how many people you have made appointments with.

  • Most admissions interviews last 30-45 minutes, and most tours last an hour.

  • Leave time to grab a snack in the campus hangout or dining hall so that you can observe the student in what could be his home for four or five years.

  • Do these students look like they could be my child's friends? Does he look comfortable here?

  • A really good indication of comfort is if the child leaves the parents staring at each other while he takes off around the campus! Don't worry; he'll be back.

  • Check out the library. Is it being used? Are students studying or simply hanging out? Very often, the first floor allows talking, but higher floors don't, so don't judge by just the first floor. Are small study rooms available, or study carrels (desks with distraction-free panels on three sides) available?

  • What is the town like surrounding the campus? Is it safe? Are there things to do? Does it appear that the locals resent the students? (This is often referred to as "town-gown relations.")

  • You may have always dreamed of your child at a rah-rah football type of university, yet that might not be what feels best to him. Remember who is going to college -- not you!

  • You might feel the college is run-down, too modern or too old fashioned. Once again, you aren't the one going this time around (although personally, as I tour one magnificent campus after another, I often wish I could be in college now, there is so much to offer!)

  • Around campus, make sure you check out the bulletin boards. These are a great indicator of what is going on around campus socially and politically. You will know very quickly if the campus is conservative or liberal by checking these out.

  • Bulletin boards also usually have a ride board so you can see where the students come from and where they are traveling.

  • Look also at the career planning and placement office bulletin board for internships and job offers. You can easily see how available these will be when the time comes for your child.

  • Look around to see if students are talking with professors, or meeting with them in offices.

  • Do the professors seem approachable? Students with learning disabilities need accessible professors.

  • What about a learning center where non-standard tests are to be taken?

  • Is there a learning center where help is readily available? Is it a user-friendly place, or is it cold and unapproachable? Are students looking happy and comfortable as they walk in and out? Are students looking stressed and unhappy?

Does the college enable students with learning disabilities to pre-register? Many colleges and universities allow their students with disabilities to register before anyone else to get the courses that they need. If not, how easy is it to get the courses the students would like? As it is, many students need to take a reduced course load, and graduating in five years instead of four is more the norm. If, in addition to a lighter course load, the student can't get the courses he needs, the parents may be looking at more than five years of tuition! Be aware!

We have just gone through the bare minimum of what we, as parents, need to consider as our children head toward college and independence. No one ever said that parenting was going to be easy; after all, children didn't come with a set of instructions! Nevertheless, one of the most difficult tasks is beginning now, as you read this chapter: letting go. I highly recommend a book of the same title written by Karen Coburn from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. We have nurtured, watched, taught, and loved these precious children, and now it is time to give them their wings.

The following is a poem given to me in graduate school. Keep this in mind as you "launch" your college-bound children!


To laugh is to risk appearing the fool 
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental 
To reach out is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self 
To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk their love 
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying 
To hope is to risk despair 
To try is to risk failure
But the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing
The one who risks nothing does nothing
and has nothing and finally is nothing
He may avoid sufferings and sorrow,
But he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow, or love.
Chained by his certitude, he is a slave; he has forfeited freedom
Only one who risks is free!
--- Author Unknown

You have come to the point in your adolescent's life when it is time to let go. Give your child the confidence to take risks and fly, and you both will reap the rewards.

*For the most up-to-date information, check with the Association for Higher Education and Disability in Boston.


Leslie S. Goldberg, M.Ed., CEP is an educational consultant with a private practice in Massachusetts.

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