Friday, June 24, 2016

College Support for Executive Function Difficulties

Virtually every college in the country is required to offer “reasonable accommodations” for students with documented disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). These accommodations are intended to address issues faced by students with physical disabilities who have difficulty accessing campus, classroom, or course content. They are also designed to help students with learning disabilities who need things like extended time on exams, help with note taking, and technological tools such as “text to speech” and “voice to text” capabilities.

But what about students who are able to navigate the physical aspects of college and who do not have what we would consider “typical” learning challenges? Fortunately for these students, more and more colleges are offering supports and programs that address their particular needs.

Many of these students face difficulty with an array of competencies we broadly refer to as “executive functions.” These include difficulties with managing papers and materials, trouble with planning, and time management issues. Students who struggle with executive functions typically have difficulty managing long-term projects, such as research papers and cumulative work that extends throughout the semester, to be handed in at the end of a term. They will frequently complete an assignment but fail to hand it in. They may miss classes or deadlines or misplace required course materials. Despite strong academic skills, they will fail courses because they can’t “get their act together” to meet the requirements set by their instructors. Executive function problems are real disorders and are covered by the ADA. We've written before about ways that parents can help younger students who struggle with these issues. But once students head off to college, parents are no longer available to act as an organizational safety net. Finding support for college students who struggle with executive functions requires some investigation.

More and more colleges offer coaching in study skills, organization, and time management. Of course, students need to have the ability to take advantage of these services; just because a workshop on organization is available, doesn't mean that students with significant organizational difficulties will manage to show up.  Another resource would be to work with an executive function coach, ideally a clinician or learning therapist with a strong background in neuroscience, educational psychology, and special education. This individual would start by meeting with the student face-to-face but can often continue to work via Skype or other technology. The goal isn’t to organize for the student, but to give him the tools to internalize the skills needed beyond academics to succeed in college.

As you investigate college options for your student, look for descriptions of services that support executive functions. Ask if the campus Office of Disability Services has counselors who specialize in executive function disorders or if they can refer to off-campus professionals who can assist with these skills. And remember that there is no “do over” for students who fail college courses or get poor grades because they have not sought or taken advantage of the accommodations to which they are entitled. The time to arrange support for executive function difficulties is before problems arise.

Photo credit: IsaacMao via flickrcc

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