Why College? Why Now?

A former client dropped by the other day to say hello.  I had worked with both of her sons who are dyslexic and had received poor elementary level education in their public schools before she came to me.  They went on to a wonderful school for dyslexic students, then transferred to another wonderful private high school for students with learning disabilities.  They both made progress.  The last time I spoke with this mother, her oldest was thinking about college.  I offered to meet with him, but he decided to proceed with his guidance counselor, and I thought that would be fine, too.  Her younger son is now a junior at a similar crossroads.  I offered to meet with him, and she said she really wants to have him do that.

The older son (I’ll call him Joe) went to a well respected college that has extensive supports for students with learning disabilities.  At that, Joe was enrolled in an additional program that gave him even more support.  He actually got good grades.  But he still felt lost.  Joe became depressed, and eventually he told his parents he wanted to drop out.  He is working, but feels that somehow he will never “make it” and his self-esteem is poor.  Joe’s parents remind him he did well, so it’s ok, but somehow the magic button that is college did not pan out like he thought it would, so he thinks the fault is his somehow.

So what went wrong?  The family did everything that was advised to them, and their son did well in his college.  On the surface, there seems to be no reason for this evident “failure”.  Now their second son (“Bud”) is at the same crossroads.  His mother says he is different, and he really wants to go to college.  At the same time, she is concerned because his college counselor, as with Joe, told Bud he should “just go” as if somehow everyone should without question.  I asked, well, should I “just go” to Paris?  She laughed, but I think she got my point.  And then she said that Bud asked if he should study dentistry, if he should study business, he doesn’t know what he wants to do. . .from my perspective, I think I see what is wrong with this picture.

Why college?  If a young person is so uncertain about their future, the first thing they should be asking themselves is what they hope to gain from college.  It is not a magic button.  It is one of many possible stages or arenas in which to learn new skills and learn about one’s self.  It requires continued studying and homework–something that many students seem to forget in their quest for self-knowledge and the perfect job.  College is an opportunity, in short, to grow, to become, to explore.  It is not the final destination, it is part of the journey.

Why now?  Well, frankly it is easier to go to college before one is married or has other deeper obligations that take the focus away from those learning opportunities.  It can seem magical in the eye-opening and exploration, but the hard reality is that if you party hard you will suffer!  So again, no magic button.  It is as I said a part of life’s journey, and what better time to explore than when one is young and unencumbered.

Here is the exercise a young person and their parents need to undertake before moving to the future.  What does a young person such as Joe or Bud hope to accomplish over the long term?  Likely, they are thinking I hope to get a good job in something like XXXX, maybe get married and have a couple of kids, and eventually settle in a nice neighborhood near my parents/cousin/best friend.  That’s the long term goal.  So how do you get there?  The short term goal may include more learning, like college.  It might include working in a specific trade or field.  It might include travel.  But does more learning or college have to be now?  Should it be now?  Should a student work or travel for a year?  Should they take a PG year at another school?  There are alternatives.  A four year college degree opens doors, but guarantees nothing–especially not if the student does not have a focus.

I probably would have advised Joe to wait.  He can do the work, but he had no focus.  Now he feels like a failure, and he did not fail at his school work!  There was a clear disconnect between the college work and his goals (which I suspect were not clear to him at that point in his life), but he is interpreting that as a problem on his part.  As for Bud?  I’m not sure how I will advise him yet, but just from what his mother said, I think college could be a great choice for him.  He wants to explore opportunities in a way that is often best addressed in college (i.e., trying different courses).

And when all else fails, I remind students that I wanted desperately to go to college when I was 18.  I loved learning, and I wanted to continue learning.  I wanted to explore things.  During my sophomore year I learned that I would lose some of my funding in spite of my excellent grades.  I was devastated and had to leave school because no matter how we worked the numbers I could not afford to stay.  Eventually, I returned to college–after having married and having had children.  It was hard, but once in college again, my love of learning reignited, I realized that I now had more to offer.  I had gained new insights into myself and into my goals through life experiences and work.  And that realization was very rewarding.  It made me understand that there is a “neatness” to attending college on a traditional trajectory (straight out of high school) that is timed perfectly in many ways to the development of the young brain–but there is also a reality that not all students need to go to college right away.

So ask yourself–what do you hope for?  And can college get you there?  And do I need to do that now?  This the first step in the development of self-knowledge, and it is as important a part of the life journey as is filling out an application.

Why College? Why Now?

It’s That Time of the Year Again

I have had several families call recently concerning college options and if they are “too late” or “too early” in the search, what do they need to do, how do they get accommodations, etc., etc.  I hope to answer some of those questions for you here.

First, it is usually a good idea to think about the future when a student begins 8th or 9th grade in terms of selecting classes that will help set the student up for a college trajectory.  You can do this by working backwards.  For example, a student who excels at math should have completed AP Calculus by their senior year of high school, so working with his/her advisor, that usually means Algebra I is completed in 8th grade.  “Average” students should be placed in classes that allow flexibility, so that if they exhibit undiscovered talent in a particular area they will get the chance to shine at some point.  For example, a “College Prep” or mid-level curricula that allows a student to bump up into Honors levels when they do well in a particular course in a particular year will be well placed to challenge themselves in Honors the next year.

On the other hand (spoiler alert–this is for parents who worry about excessive stress and strain on their already stressed children!), pressing the student to excess at the outset may backfire.  If a student is doing well, and can handle some challenge, go for it!  Sometimes students need to be pushed or need incentives.  We all know people like that. For the college search, it is not about the grades per se, but the effort and the challenge that goes into the grade.  Colleges love seeing Honors and AP courses on a student’s transcript because it conveys that the student pushed him or herself, as both levels require a certain degree of ability and effort.  Thus, a C in an Honors class carries more weight than a B in a lower level class.   But I have seen many bright, talented students get pushed too hard and too soon and they do not do well in the higher level class.  This leads to them being dropped a level, which often leads to shame, embarrassment, and frustration.  It also looks questionable on a transcript if the student does not at some point improve their performance (and/or their class levels).  Another problem is created by grade inflation in lower level classes that have not prepared the student fully for college yet it “looks good” on paper.  Or the student has learning issues that causes them to be placed in lower level classes in all areas because the school does not offer differentiated levels of instruction, so the student becomes frustrated and their talents left untouched.  It is important to understand that grades are not everything, nor is performance on standardized exams.  If a student is engaged and learning, that is far more important.  Thus, even lower level classes should be preparing a student for college and/or the professional world.  Students in such classes do not have to write a book so to speak, but they should be writing five to ten page research papers by the time they graduate.

Thus, the true college search usually begins in the fall of the junior year.  Most students have had the chance to join a club, get a job babysitting, take driver’s ed, flirt with the student sitting next to them, learn how to use a library, run a five minute mile, or learn how to put together a halfway decent presentation.  They have begun thinking about the future as their older friends graduate and go off to college.  They are preparing for their senior year.  So at the beginning of the school year, college admissions representatives begin sending out mailings, set up booths at college fairs, and attend ball games to size up the “next big thing” for the college football team.  Students notice this and other events.  By mid-year they should develop a list of interests and compile a list of possible colleges based on their interests, their completed work, and their dreams.  By spring break they should begin visiting.  And during the summer, they should be diligently working on whatever skills they need to improve as well as completing their essays.  Come September, they need only fine tune applications, secure recommendations from trusted teachers or other professionals and narrow the field so they can concentrate on their class work.

Students who will need accommodations in college should be very busy during this time. They need to update any psychoeducational evaluations, doctors reports, etc. during the late spring/early summer.  They need to find out about the support services of different colleges and draw comparisons so they pick the one that is right for them.  They may need to take additional summer courses, work with a tutor on study skills, and/or take SAT prep classes.  College will provide them with accommodations, but will not provide remediation.  Check out what coursework is “required” vs. “recommended” both for admissions as well as for graduation from those institutions that most interest your student.  And parents need to stay on top of IEPs and 504s to ensure that their student will get what they need before they go off to college or a post-graduate program–and decide whether or not the student needs a post-graduate program!

Short answer?  You don’t need to start worrying about college when your child is in elementary school.  But please do not wait until the beginning of the senior year!  And if you are dissatisfied with your school’s guidance services, please do not be afraid to check out other resources.  Yes, you will have to pay for those resources–but college is an investment in your student’s future.

It’s That Time of the Year Again

When Do I Know That My Child Needs Help?

When do you know if your child needs help–in school, at home, on the playground. . .?  Let me begin by suggesting that if you are asking that question, the time might be now!  You might be especially concerned, with good reason, if you or someone in your family struggled when they were little, and/or if your child was born prematurely.  We hear that a child develops in stages, but what does that really mean?  After all, some children are quick to develop in one area, slow in another.  That is not unusual in and of itself.  But there are some tell tale signs at different ages of “typical” developmental milestones and basic skills.  If you question your child’s development in these or other similar areas, do not hesitate to seek support, or at least get answers to your questions.

An infant begins noticing the world around him or her fairly quickly by turning their head to sounds.  By about 6 weeks of age, most infants recognize human faces and smile back when someone smiles at them.  By 6 months, most infants grasp at objects, try to verbalize when spoken to by moving their mouth and tongue or making noises, giggle when you blow on their bellies, sleep a few hours at a time (or even overnight) without crying for food or a clean diaper, and recognize the faces of primary caregivers.  By 18 months, toddlers walk, talk in words and/or phrases, eat (messily) with a fork or a spoon, hold a cup or a bottle by themselves, and try to run away to explore the world when you don’t want them to.  Many know the word “No!” quite well and are not afraid to use it, even if they seem to forget what it means when you say it.

Children who are slower to develop these early skills at about these times, but who continue to develop nonetheless should be monitored closely.  While they may not yet need significant supports, they should not be neglected, for it is our timely development of basic milestones that seems to have the deepest impact on later development.  For example, our language skills develop exponentially in those early months, and we acquire several hundred to thousands of words in our first two years of life!  We may not speak all the words we know, but we know them when we hear them.  And our sense of grammar and syntax develops with equal speed in that time frame.  Children who seem to have a limited number of words, who do not speak even in “babble”, and/or who do not respond at all may have any number of developmental language issues.  Similarly, a child who does not walk, crawl, or grasp at objects may have any number of muscular or skeletal problems, many of which are easily addressed.  On the other hand, some toddlers have night terrors for no apparent reason, are particularly shy or particularly bold, or flit from one activity to the next.  These types of behaviors by themselves are not necessarily worthy of concern unless accompanied by other behaviors or limitations.  So a child who cannot grasp small objects, who does not respond when you speak to them, has a very limited ability to communicate, and has poor sleep patterns may have developmental disabilities that need to be explored and addressed.

By the time our children enter preschool and kindergarten (3 years and older), they should be talking, using the bathroom (with fading support by age), feeding themselves, playing with toys, and interacting with others.  If a child exhibits unexplained outbursts, experiences poor sleep on a consistent basis, does not respond to his/her name and/or seems “absent” most of the time, has difficulty walking, running, and/or throwing, does not speak or speaks unintelligibly, does not interact with caregivers or others without significant prompting, cannot manipulate small objects in their hands (such as buttons), tears at clothing or exhibits nearly obsessive behaviors with certain articles of clothing, eats things that are not food, and/or exhibits overly aggressive, overly passive, and/or inappropriate behaviors with others, then outside intervention is likely needed.  Any of these traits can be signs of something organic, such as a food allergy or headaches, or a neurobehavioral or developmental condition (such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder), or a musculoskeletal condition (such as low tone or dyspraxia).  By kindergarten and 1st grade, children should know basic two dimensional shapes, know primary and secondary colors, and be developing early reading, writing, and math skills.  A child who has been exposed to books from an early age should speak their alphabet by age 6 (with minor errors that are not always consistent), even if they make mistakes writing it (such as letters slightly out of sequence).  Mirror writing or letter or number reversals are not highly unusual at this age, but should be monitored especially if the errors are consistent (such as a child who mirror writes numbers all the time).

Do not be afraid to ask questions of the professionals who work with your child.  And if you are still concerned, keep asking!  Some issues are easily remediated, such as b and d reversals when writing.  But others require expert and professional support.  The best barometer to determine when to question whether or not your child needs help?  When you think he or she might need help.  Trust your instincts!

When Do I Know That My Child Needs Help?