Bonni Alpert, Ed.D.
Assistant Dean, Office of Student Disability Services
Western New England University
As students eagerly anticipate the ‘independence’ that awaits them, as they embark on this new life phase in a post-secondary world, parents are often left wondering, “how do I let go, give my child space, and also help my child learn how to navigate this new, and sometimes daunting, experience?” This can be compounded for parents of students with disabilities. One reason for this is that, while many of these parents may have attended college themselves, they have never attended college as a student with a disability. And, because of this, it is much more difficult to know first-hand what their child is experiencing, and then to help them navigate, from what may seem to be a very foreign vantage point. Another reason for this is the fact that many of these parents have spent the last 18 years advocating on behalf of their child to make sure that he/she is supported and able to successfully transition through the K-12 educational system, in hopes that they will do what most students do – go on to college. It is difficult to let go of a job you’ve been doing for so long – especially when there is so much love invested and the stakes are so high.
In my 25+ years of supporting/ensuring access to students with disabilities in higher education, I have witnessed, hundreds of times over, how well-meaning parents have unintentionally sabotaged their child’s success in their college and vocational pursuits, just because they weren’t aware of the following key points:
- Students should know their rights and responsibilities. For example, a school may not discriminate on the basis of disability. It must ensure that the programs it offers, including extracurricular activities, are accessible to students with disabilities. Postsecondary institutions can do this in a number of ways: by providing architectural access, providing aids and services necessary for effective communication, and by modifying policies, practices and procedures. If your child does not require any accommodations, she can choose to keep this information private. If accommodations are needed because of a disability, however, your child must disclose in order to receive them. A school cannot provide any service, modification or accommodation when it does not know one is required. It is your child's responsibility to make her needs known in advance. This process is often facilitated by an office for Students with Disabilities. It is then the school's responsibility to work with your child to make reasonable modifications or provide appropriate services in a timely wayStudents should be working on developing strong organization, time-management, planning and independent living skills while they are home and still in high school (while the stakes are relatively low). While all young people may struggle in these areas to some degree, students with certain disabilities may be impacted significantly. With all of the transition issues associated with the first year of college (new people, experiences, expectations, etc.), it is an unrealistic expectation that your child will be able work on developing these skills, while also managing a substantial course load. Elizabeth Hamblet, an Educational Consultant, shares “8 Simple Ways that Parents Can Teach Kids to Get Organized”: http://time.com/4208279/8-simple-ways-parents-can-teach-kids-to-get-organized/?p=4208279?xid=tcoshare.
- All people NEED to experience failure, before they can truly know how to succeed. Based on my 25+ years in this field, and my own experience as a parent, I know that many parents will do almost anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment. Unfortunately, however, the result is that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong. Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. He believes that if children don’t have the opportunity to experience painful and uncomfortable feelings, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.” I’ve observed, for instance, students becoming despondent over something as easy to resolve as not understanding an assignment, without ever having considered the notion of contacting the professor for some answers. In addition, research shows that predictors of life fulfillment and success are perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing. These are qualities that people need so they can navigate the day-to-day of school, work and life in general. Successful students/workers/people have a realistic understanding of the areas in which they excel, as well as the areas in which they are likely to struggle and may need help.
- Some students are just not ready for college, and that is okay! A post-secondary education is a huge investment of time and money. It is, therefore, so important that you really listen to your child, both his words and the messages she may be sending you. Does she understand what it takes to do well in college level classes? Is he equipped with the necessary skills to survive in a college environment? Has she exhibited a commitment to achieving a college education? Does he want to be at the college or university to which you are sending him? Does she want to pursue the major she’s in, or is this your dream for her? The students who struggle the most are often apathetic regarding their academic performance, maybe because they are in college because their parents want them to be, or because they think this is something they are supposed to be doing. These students often stumble along waiting for someone to offer assistance, but they don't seek it themselves. They don't know they are missing something, they don't ask questions, and they are not actively trying to find out answers when they don't know them. This just may not be the right time for college?!
- Nothing is irreparable. My mom taught me this. We all make mistakes, and our mistakes have consequences; however, the great thing about mistakes is that we can learn from them, and hopefully prevent similar mistakes in the future. So, try to relax, sit back and enjoy the ride, with your kid in the driver’s seat.