Learning Beyond High School (For Students with Neurobehavioral Disabilities)

By Nancy Winans

How do I help my child make the bridge from high school to college, trade school, or workforce?

Kids with TS or other neurobehavioral conditions can have many challenges in middle school and high school.  Challenges come from several sources:

motor and vocal tics, attention issues, obsessions, compulsive and impulsive behavior,
social/motional issues, or learning issues.
teachers not understanding the disability or even punishing or belittling the child for all of the behaviors listed above
learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and attention issues
social/emotional delays related to their disability
teasing and bullying from classmates and adults
a classroom environment that is not a good match for the student’s learning style and needs
not being allowed their needed accommodations in or beyond the classroom
low self-esteem because of their disabilities or teasing by peers
perfectionism and/or “black and white” (all or nothing) thinking
behavioral issues along with their disability, magnified by puberty and teen social issues
medication adjustments or side effects

These kids need to get a lot of support with all these challenges!  From my experience with my sons and others with TS, ASD, OCD, ADHD, and other neurobehavioral issues, these kids need to feel good about themselves and they need to have your support for insuring they are in the best possible learning environment.  You may set the expectation that your child must attend classes, do their homework and graduate but that may not happen if they don’t feel good about themselves or have learned to dislike school and learning because of past problems.  Most of the kids with neurobehavioral challenges who do well are kids who either have a lot of positive support from their parents, peers, therapists, and school staff or have developed good coping skills and a special area of interest that they have pursued.  Or else they attend a charter, private, alternative or homeschool program, which caters to children with learning differences and challenging behaviors.  To best support your child, first determine what your child’s challenges are, brainstorm ways to meet their needs, choose several possible ways to best meet those needs, and then find the places where they can best get those needs met.  {See Needs Based Model} It might be that they can do this in their public school with resource help, or by getting outside help from an educational therapist or tutor.  Or you may have to find a charter or private school that really teaches to their learning style, has a small class size, or offers instruction in a special skill, talent, or interest they have.  Others have found that an individualized home program (with opportunities to use computers, take community classes, do online courses and activities, and experience hands-on learning) is their child’s best way to learn.  It is not that schools are bad schools but that the school environment can’t offer what these children need (quiet place, less stimulation, one-on-one attention, frequent breaks, as much time as needed for reading or worksheets, as well as time to pursue individual interests.)  If your child is doing fine in a regular day program, that’s great, but if they are struggling, it is up to the parents to think outside the box to help their child. Remember that these kids may develop at different rates than their peers in their social, emotional, or academic skills so allowing them plenty of time to learn and mature in a way that respects that is a gift for them.

The other factor that seems to help these kids get through the high school years is for them to discover at least one thing they are passionate about, talented in, or enjoy doing.  Many of these kids are great at playing an instrument, performing in theater arts, sports, art, building, computers, or science.  Activities like gymnastics, guitar, computers, photography, or construction projects are things they can do on their own.  Those who like the stimulation of a group might like improvisational theater, playing in a band, or team sports. Encourage your child to try out some of their interests. These activities can be their lifesaver!  And their talent may get them motivated toward attending college or trade school, if they see that higher education will actually help in their pursuit of their talent or interest.  Remember: not everyone is cut out to sit in a college classroom 5 days a week, listening to lectures and then doing intensive reading and writing about what they have learned so be open to other ways your child can prepare for an occupation, like volunteering, working with a mentor, taking online classes, attending art or tech school, or finding another place of learning where they can have experiential or hands-on learning.  There are some great colleges that cater to different learning styles, as well as colleges that offer a special program for those with learning challenges, and even private programs that are separate from the college but which offer services like life-skills training, tutoring, organizational help, counseling, and other support – usually for a fee.

So, you may want to do some goal-setting with your teen or pre-teen.  Set a long-term goal (want to work in construction or become a filmmaker, a paramedic, computer programmer, or jazz musician, etc.)  Research what is required for their particular job.  It might be they need only to get an A.A or A. S. at a community college or that they would instead be better off putting in time to hone a talent by lessons or experiences in the community.  Or they may need to get a Bachelors or Masters Degree.  Determine what classes they would have to take to be eligible for the specific college or program they are interested in.  They may not need to take a language or honors math if they are going to a community college or trade school. {See Paths to College.} Make a timeline for their plan and set goals for each year.  If your child has an IEP, work with the transition team and CA Department of Rehabilitation for transition services (like the ‘Workability’ program which offers career exploration and work experiences) as well as for college education or technical training and job readiness (note: tuition, books and materials may be provided by the Department of Rehabilitation regardless of annual income for qualifying disabilities like TS, ADHD, or LD.)

You should also make sure your child receives accommodations in the classroom and for important tests like the CAHSEE, SAT/ACT, and college placement tests.  Be sure to start early (sophomore year) to get accommodations for SAT/ACT tests.  You will need to have a recent psycho-educational evaluation, history of 504 or IEP, history of accommodations used, physician’s or educational specialist’s note confirming and explaining the disability/ies, (have them be specific: “because of a head shaking tic, reading is greatly hampered and so all tests or instructions must be read aloud by a proctor” or “because of poor visual perceptual processing, an index card is to be used to track the correct line of bubbling on the answer sheet”) and plenty of time to apply for accommodations (and time to make any appeals if they don’t grant all requested accommodations!)  It can take up to a year to get all this done and your child may want to take tests multiple times to improve scores so starting early in high school can insure that you will have it all done by the fall of their senior year when they need to apply to college.  It is also important that they take the adult version of the psycho-educational tests within 2-3 years of attending college so they can receive accommodations there (they require the adult version for college) so be sure to request re-testing from your child’s high school psychologist or private psychologist, if necessary.  Note: colleges are not required to offer modifications (like extra time for projects or reduced work) but they do usually offer accommodations for students (extra time on tests, use of a word-processor, testing site alternatives, note-takers, proof-readers, etc.) and often offer peer-tutoring and other services by the Disabled Student Services at the college.  The student is considered to be an adult and is expected to advocate for his/her own needs; parents no longer have the right to make requests, although they can support their child in helping them request services and may attend meetings or counseling appointments if their child agrees. You may also need to be the one who makes sure they meet all deadlines, fills out paperwork, and keeps track of financial aid and other important college related tasks.  It might seem that your child should be in charge of these things but they are too important to leave to someone who struggles with inattention to details or organizational issues.  These are things they may always have to get help with (from a parent, friend, spouse or partner, or paid help) just like someone with a mobility impairment or vision impairment may need to get help with their particular issues.

One other thing to note is that students don’t have to have a stellar GPA or test scores to get into college.  Colleges want to see the student has certain skills needed for college but they also want diversity and will look at things like extracurricular activities, special talents, life circumstances like disability or family challenges, and at whether or not the student has a definite goal for their college study.  Students can easily start at a community college without a high school diploma (they simply have to be age 18, or can be younger, if they have passed the GED or CHSPE) and with participation in the guaranteed transfer program, they can attend most 4-year state colleges or universities or just earn an A.A. or A.S or other certification.   Some private colleges don’t necessarily look at GPA but more at test scores for SAT/ACT or advanced placement classes or tests, along with special talents or goals.  Students can even do an “appeal by exemption” for many colleges, with acceptance based not on testing or GPA but on their unusual circumstances and talents and still be admitted.  Check with the particular school for details.

The main thing is to make sure your child makes it through the teen years with confidence, self-acceptance, and skills so they enter adulthood with a talent and a plan for their life.  And along with your support and the support of educators, disability agencies, therapists, and others, he or she will be able to move forward with a particular goal in mind for their future.