Ludwig van Beethoven. Claude Monet. Stephen Hawking. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jay Leno. Anderson Cooper. What do these famous folks all have in common? Famed pianist and composer Beethoven became deaf in his 20s and continued to compose music. Stephen Hawking has a motor neuron disease that has confined him to a wheelchair and left him without a voice, but he managed to accomplish unfathomably groundbreaking work as a theoretical physicist. And Jay Leno and Anderson Cooper are both dyslexic. They all had or have special needs and still did extraordinary things with their lives.
Learning, mental, and physical differences present challenges for many high school students, especially those with their sights on a college education. Depending on their disabilities, they may feel overwhelmed by things that other students manage more easily, such as navigating from class to class, maintaining good grades, keeping up with homework, and overcoming social anxieties. As a counselor, working with these students may put your skills to the test. But if you go into it with an informed and empathetic action plan, you'll be able to give them the guidance and encouragement they need to get into college and on the road to successful careers. Here are 10 tips to help you get started.
1. Make them aware of available resources
Identify your students with physical and learning differences early so you can discuss their needs and the accommodations available to them. You may even be part of the team that develops Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students who qualify. Ask them about any concerns or fears they have about both the academic and social aspects of the high school experience and help mitigate those anxieties by pointing them toward the resources that’ll help them along the way. For example, you might help physically disabled students by speaking with their teachers about leaving class a few minutes early so they can get around the halls more easily and get to their next class on time. Go over the testing accommodations available for students with learning differences. Make sure students with visual or hearing impairments are comfortable with the school's services. And, of course, as a counselor, ensure student course selections are appropriate for their specific needs and that their teachers are aware of any accommodations they may need to administer.
2. Spend extra time with these students
For high school counselors juggling many students, giving LD students extra individualized attention may be difficult. But any additional time you can spend with them will be beneficial, particularly for those who plan on going to college. Monitor their transcripts, keep an eye on their grades, and go over their academic weaknesses with them periodically. If some of your students are faltering in a particular subject due to a learning disability, discuss what's giving them trouble and options that might help them improve, such as tutoring or reduced-distraction testing. Catch problem areas early on so they know where to focus their efforts.
3. Work alongside parents to ensure a strong support system
Parents are integral to the success of students with IEPs. However, the prospect of helping their teen through the college admission process may be uncharted territory best navigated with the help of a counselor. If possible, meet with both the student and their parents or guardians to discuss all their questions, concerns, and objectives. Issues such as which colleges best accommodate specific needs and what the student will study may be less contentious with a school counselor to mediate. Let all parties involved know what you’ll be available to help with, what obstacles they may face, and what role the parents should play throughout the college admission process.
Related: How to Build and Use a Support Network in High School
4. Help them start researching majors and careers
Though your students' personalities and preferences will inevitably evolve throughout their four years in high school, it's never too early for them to begin contemplating what majors and careers they're interested in. Discuss the subjects they like and do well in as well as those they enjoy but find more challenging. A student who’s riveted by biology despite having to work very hard to maintain a B in the subject shouldn't be deterred from aspiring to become a nurse. A student who loves sports but is unable to fully participate in them could major in Sports Management. Students with physical and learning differences may have to work harder to achieve their goals, but they can achieve them nonetheless. Talk to them about their academic and professional goals, identify subjects and activities to focus on in high school, and help them keep their eyes on the prize.
5. Discuss colleges and universities
It’s never too early for students to begin investigating colleges and universities either. Encourage them to explore their dream schools, noting their admission requirements and accommodations. Ask your students what they want out of their college experience, including factors such as campus size and location, dorm life, average class size, and student population. What would make them feel more comfortable as they transition to college life? After answering those questions and conducting some initial research, they may eliminate some schools from their list.
6. Help them work on properly documenting their needs
Documentation may be necessary when requesting accommodations for standardized tests, disclosing a disability on college applications, or seeking accommodations in college. The types of documentation accepted may vary. The College Board, which manages tests such as the PSAT and SAT as well as AP exams, states that tests used to diagnose learning disabilities should meet the following criteria:
- Comprehensive cognitive and academic assessment
- Individually administered
- Nationally normed
- Be administered under standardized conditions
Documentation requirements at colleges and universities generally conform to the above critera. A few of the tests that may be accepted include:
- Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement
- Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA)
- Weschler Individual Achievement Test
- Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement
Documentation should provide both evidence of the student's disability and their need for accommodations. Some schools may also require signed documentation from a physician, psychologist, or other trained professional. Work with your students and their parents to determine which accommodations they need for both testing and in college, and begin the process of gathering the appropriate documentation. Bear in mind that the validity of tests and letters of documentation may be based on how recently they were distributed.
Related: What Questions Should I Ask the Student Disabilities Office?
7. Help them with testing accommodations for SAT, ACT, and AP exams
The College Board encourages school counselors to become familiar with the many different types of accommodations they have available to ensure the most appropriate accommodations are requested for the students you’re counseling. The distributors of the ACT also offers special testing. Common testing accommodations include:
- Extended exam time
- Use of a computer
- Sign language interpreters
- Extra or extended breaks
- Alternative presentation formats (e.g., large print, colored paper, Braille)
- Alternative methods of response (e.g., verbal, speech-to-text)
- Flexible timing and scheduling (e.g., specified time of day, multiple day)
- Setting adjustments (e.g., private room, special lighting, preferential seating)
Discuss these options and their requisite documentation with students when they begin studying for these exams so they can ensure their needs are accommodated.
8. Help them explore accommodations at colleges of interest
While ADAAA compliance ensures that schools will have certain reasonable accommodations, some schools are more accommodating than others. That said, students should explore the accommodations available at the schools they're interested in to help them narrow down the list to the ones they’ll apply to. And once a student has decided on a given school, they should more fully explore all the campus has to offer well before the first day of class. If possible, meeting with campus personnel such as departmental advisors and accommodations coordinators will allow the student to ask questions and learn more about the services. Some schools even have sessions specifically for students with disabilities during freshman orientation. Help your students by researching whom they should speak with and the offices they should go to with questions or concerns.
9. Help ease the transition from high school to college
Transitioning from the insular comforts of high school to the independence and rigors of college can be trying for anyone, and students with disabilities may be especially susceptible to "the first-year blues." The campus will be larger, classes will be harder, and the reassuring presence of their parents and friends will be gone. Sugarcoating the realities they’ll face in college won't do them any favors. Help your students by being open and honest about the challenges they'll deal with. Students who struggled in high school will have to work extra hard to meet their degree requirements, and their first year of college will be a trial by fire. Let them know it won't be easy, but they'll come out on top if they work hard, roll with the punches of occasional setbacks, and rely on their schools' services and their cheering section back home.
Related: Autism and the Transition to College
Faced with the rewarding task of working with students who have physical or learning differences, you’re uniquely positioned to make college a reality they may not believe is possible. Get to know them, discuss their needs and goals, and help them tackle their challenges one class, one test, and one hopeful college application at a time.
Learn more about working with and helping students with specific needs succeed by checking out all our LD students content.