Preparing Students with Learning Disabilities for College

Independent Schools Help Strengthen Social and Soft Skills to Complement Academic Ability

Students with learning disabilities  are increasingly prepared in high school to complete college coursework, but not all of them attend or graduate from college at the same rate as their peers, according to a study by the National Center for Special Education Research.

Only 15 percent of young adults with learning disabilities enrolled in a four-year institution within six years of leaving high school compared with 37 percent of their peers, the study reports. Students with learning disabilities were more likely than their peers to attend a community college, but their graduation rates overall were lower at 38 percent compared with 51 percent.

Although learning disabilities represent an obstacle, experts say they should not prevent students from attending and completing college. Rather, individuals facing those obstacles need extra help learning soft skills such as time management or self-advocacy to overcome their challenges.

Experts from three independent schools that focus on students with learning disabilities shared their messages for college success.

Brehm Preparatory School
Carbondale, Ill.
At Brehm Preparatory School, a day and boarding school for students with learning disabilities, faculty focus on teaching skills most college attendees take for granted, says Michael Bradley Sims, director of student outcomes.

These skills include learning how to ask for help, organize, plan, and prepare for challenges. Others relate to negotiating social situations and asking for access to resources and support, Sims says.

Brehm’s faculty use a software program Sims created to identify and track student progress. Teachers rate students on a four-point scale for ability in soft skills.

At the start of the academic year, Sims evaluates each child to create a baseline score and identifies two major areas in need of improvement. That assessment helps teachers and residence hall leaders know which areas each person is looking to strengthen. For instance, if a student is working to improve their ability to transition from one situation to another, a teacher might measure how long it takes the student to go from class to class, Sims says.

Brehm offers a semester-long class devoted to college strategies, covering topics such as how to apply for college, using a syllabus to plan, what the expectations are for behavior and performance on campus, and how and when to ask a professor for assistance. “We also help students develop a transition support card, which is a self-awareness rubric that identifies how each student learns and includes an advocacy worksheet that defines the specific supports they can request for their learning difference,” Sims says.

The Franklin Learning Institute
East Haddam, Conn.
The Franklin Learning Institute, a program of the Franklin Academy, offers high school seniors and postgraduates an opportunity to experience secondary education in a supportive environment.

Franklin Academy is a college preparatory boarding school that focuses exclusively on serving children with nonverbal learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Learning Institute focuses on preparing those who need extra support in developing college skills.

With a total enrollment of 88 day and boarding students, Academy classes usually average five to six students, but the Learning Institute classes are larger with 12 to 15 pupils. Larger classes help students transition to the college classroom, says Mary Murphy, director of development.

“Seniors and postgraduates take more responsibility for themselves and their studies in the Institute program,” she says. Much like in college, classes follow a syllabus, faculty have set office hours, counselors require an appointment to be seen, and class periods are longer than in typical high schools. Students also have more free time to manage, are expected to plan ahead, and need to set more frequent deadlines for larger projects.

The Institute offers a seminar to students that provides opportunities to review their progress during the year and ask questions. The original seminar led to the creation of another one that focuses on social activities, Murphy says.

“Students told us that they were unsure about how to manage parties on a college campus, so we developed a two-day seminar on college parties,” she says. Faculty and students talked about how the medications they take interact with alcohol, alcohol’s effect on the brain, and the definition of a serving size.

Approximately 90 percent of Franklin’s students enroll in colleges or universities, Murphy says. “We counsel them to take a reduced class load the first year to give them time to become accustomed to college life,” she says. “We also teach them that college counselors don’t come looking for them. The students are responsible for seeking help and for advocating for themselves, such as asking professors for written lecture notes if their learning difference requires it.”

Darlington School in Rome, Ga.
Darlington School is a co-ed day and boarding school where a special learning center provides individualized assistance to college-bound students.

Of the 400 pupils enrolled in the Upper School, 60 with learning disabilities receive individual academic support through the Teaching and Learning Center. Each is assigned a learning specialist who serves as an academic coach and meet with that person daily, says Scott Greene, EdD, director of the Center.

“Learning specialists assist students in developing goals, identifying action steps and planning for accountability while also helping them become better self-advocates,” Greene says. “Coaching sessions keep students on track and allow them to quickly address obstacles that interfere with progress.”

Learning Center support is especially helpful because the entire Upper School operates on a challenging college-type schedule with three 70-minute classes on some days and two 70-minute classes on others.

“This schedule gives Center students the advantage of having learning specialists who can teach them to evaluate assignments and make the best use of their free time, which often includes sports or after-school activities,” Greene says. “All of our information is online, similar to colleges and universities, so students learn how to find assignments, review grades, and understand a syllabus.”

The Center also addresses the need for self-advocacy with the requirement that these 60 Upper School students visit teachers during their office hours each month to ask questions about classwork or discuss needed accommodations. “This is difficult for most students with learning differences, and we sometimes have to step in and set a schedule for them, but once they start meeting with teachers regularly to discuss their needs, it becomes less awkward,” Greene says. “In fact, we find that once students get in the habit of meeting with teachers, they do so more often than we require because they’ve learned when and how to ask for help or clarification, an important skill that they will need in college.”

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in our Spring 2019 issue.