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Decisions, Decisions! Making the Final Post-Secondary Decision for Students with Learning Disabilities

This post is part of a series about helping students with LBLD experience academic success.

Read the other posts by the Landmark High School Guidance Department:

by Rachel Thomaszvic

It is finally spring of senior year. The flowers are beginning to bloom, and the countdown to graduation is officially in the double digits…soon to be single digits. Seniors feel accomplished and they look forward to all of the fun senior activities that will unfold in their final months as high-schoolers.

Spring of senior year is a time to reflect on completing high school, but it is also time to make an extremely important a decision: the post-secondary decision. Seniors may have five, ten, or even more college or post-secondary acceptances. Making the decision about which option to choose can be overwhelming. For seniors with learning disabilities, there are even more factors to consider when making the final decision as they not only have to consider details such as the location or campus they like, but also which program will be a good academic fit. In this article, I will discuss and provide insight into how to help students with learning disabilities make their final post-secondary decision.

Regroup & take a look at the options

It can be helpful for students to meet with teachers and guidance counselors to regroup and list of all of their options. If they have visited several schools and programs, try to help them narrow down their list by eliminating the options that they know will not be a final contender. Students should consider factors like location, campus, size, major offerings, courses of study, academic support, and the overall community vibe. Reviewing scholarships and comparing financial aid packages may also be helpful for them if affordability is a key factor for them and their family.

Visit… Again!

Almost every college or post-secondary program has special open house days just for accepted students. Even if the student has already visited, they should visit again on these days, which usually take place in the spring. Unlike a tour, the programming at accepted students’ days provides a more in depth look at specific majors, academics, and student life. Students should also check out disability services on their visit. Encourage them to call ahead to make an appointment and come prepared with a list of questions to ask. They should make sure they leave somewhat confident about the accommodations and academic support services each program offers. Questions students may want to ask may be:

  • How do I apply to accommodations before I start school?
  • Can I take my exams in a separate room?
  • What support services such as tutoring or coaching are available to me?
  • Are there both peer and professional tutors available?
  • Am I able to take a reduced course load as an accommodation?

Keep in mind, a post-secondary program may have all of the best academic support for students with learning disabilities in the world, but if the student does not like the campus or the vibe of the school, this is likely not the school for them! Their overall happiness will dictate some of their success.

Testing and Accommodations: Encourage Students to Compare

Knowing oneself as a learner, including personal strengths and challenges, is an important part of being an advocate for yourself during post-secondary education. After high school, there is no longer an IEP or formal educational plan that will follow student to their next destination, so it is important for each student to create their own success plan based on their own learning profile.

Encourage seniors to go over their psychoeducational report with a counselor and, based on their own profile, come up with a list of academic accommodations they would like to request. Teachers can also help with this by meeting with students to provide feedback about which supports they have benefitted from in the classroom during high school. A word of caution: colleges and post-secondary programs will not always grant students every accommodation they request. Accommodations are decided based on their psychoeducational testing and scores; disability services will deem students eligible or ineligible for each requested accommodation. So, how are they able to make an informed decision when accommodations are a huge factor?

Teachers and professionals should encourage students to connect with disability services at their top 2-3 schools and ask if there is an option to submit their documentation before they enroll to see which qualifying accommodations they would receive. Many programs and schools are happy to review incoming students’ testing, and they will send students a list of accommodations they would be able to offer. Comparing these lists with teachers and counselors may help students narrow down their options.

Help identify supports

In addition to comparing specific accommodations students may receive, it is also important to compare what support services are offered to students on campus at their top schools or programs. Support services may include tutoring, writing centers, math labs, academic coaching, comprehensive programs for students with learning disabilities, and social-emotional support. Information on support services can usually be found by digging around on a school or program’s website, as well as by asking questions on tours. Students have already gone over their psychoeducational testing, so they will know what academic supports will be most crucial for them to be successful.

Facilitate making an action plan

After many conversations and much deliberation, students should choose their post-secondary plan. Inspire students to embrace their decision, own it, and don’t look back! Students should focus on moving forward, but may need to be reminded that this decision is not life-altering. If things do not work out as planned, it is not the end of the world; they can always transfer or try something different! Making an action plan with a counselor or teacher before starting college can be useful. Help seniors create a written plan that includes specific names of buildings where they can go for help, their hours, how to schedule appointments, and who the contact people are at disability services. Assist them in creating a game plan for what to do if they are struggling in a class, and put that plan in a place where they can easily reference it. Help students to set up an appointment at disability services over the summer before classes begin as a part of their action plan.

Saying goodbye – a bittersweet time

Students have finally made their decisions and have been rocking a t-shirt with the name of their chosen school all week. The excitement sets in, but with it comes the realization that it is time to say goodbye to friends, teachers, and those who have helped shaped their paths.

The end of high school is a bittersweet time for high schools seniors as it represents the closing of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one. For seniors with learning disabilities, making the final decision and graduating high school can bring up some anxieties and insecurities. Some students may express fears about failing or feeling too overwhelmed. Memories of past educational turmoil may resurface as a new educational journey begins. Teachers and counselors can help support these seniors transitioning out of high school by reminding them how far they have come and allowing them to reflect and process their experiences in order to look towards new experiences.

The fear of failure

The fear of failure is pretty normal for seniors with learning disabilities, but is often a real concern of teachers. Our gut reaction is to try to protect our students from all fear and from all failure. The urge to encourage students to choose the school with the greatest amount of support or the one that is closest to home to ensure the student will not fail is tempting, as you may have been going above and beyond to put extra supports in place to ensure their success throughout high school. The gut teacher reaction is to suggest the school with the most comprehensive support, or the option that will yield the least amount of risk.

However, making the final decision is a truly collaborative process and should be based on multiple factors: academic support/fit, affordability, location, overall student happiness, and more. For the first time, the student is in the driver’s seat, and their teachers and families are in the passenger’s seat (yes, you are still in the car!). The more collaborative and supportive you are in helping your students make the best decision, the more confident they will feel.

Making the final decision and transitioning out of high school is a process filled with excitement, anticipation, stress, and sometimes fear for students with learning disabilities. However, if students, teachers and counselors take these important steps to make an informed decision, this process can be much less daunting.

Rachel Thomaszvic has been a guidance counselor at Landmark School since 2016. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a B.A. in psychology in 2012, and she completed her master’s in school counseling psychology at Boston College in 2016. Rachel is passionate about helping students with learning disabilities plan for their future and reach their goals and dreams. When she is not helping students, Rachel can be found exploring the eccentric and historic streets of Salem, MA with her husband, breaking a sweat at the CrossFit gym, and working part-time at her sister’s clothing boutique.

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