Guide

Journey to independence

Building your student’s skills and self-reliance as they prepare for life after high school.

By: Leslie Thatcher, Director of College Success @ Perkins

The journey to independence can be full of excitement, challenges, lessons in responsibility, exposure to freedoms, head-on encounters with fears, realizations of self-pride, risk-taking opportunities, triumphs and milestones. We all know that growing up is hard work. Yet, each experience helped us gain resilience, an understanding about ourselves, and independence. 

Some students with visual impairment are not given the same opportunities to learn and build independence in academic and every day settings, as their typically sighted peers. Modified curriculum, reduced expectations, and paraprofessional support without an intentional plan to achieve as much independence as possible, move responsibility out of the student’s hands, into someone else’s. This eliminates, or significantly reduces, the opportunity to learn about consequences, to process them, and to learn from them. Without working toward independence, a student cannot effectively assess their own skills, interests or preferences. These are important skills to develop as students begin to transition from high school to whatever their postsecondary plans are, including college, some coursework, training programs, or work.

While there’s no WRONG time to start building independence skills, the RIGHT time is certainly now, or as early as possible – even as early as prekindergarten.

These skills, and the confident independence needed to use them, do not develop overnight. They must be experienced, felt and integrated into one’s sense of identity.  Otherwise, as students consider life after high school, they may have little real understanding of what challenge is, what hard work means (and how long it takes!) and have limited opportunities to see how their skills compare to other college bound peers. These journeys are highly personal, unique to each and every individual. So, how does one become independent? When does the student start acquiring the skills they’ll need to be independent on a college campus? Is there a right time? A wrong time? 

Time to start is now!

Rest assured. While there’s no wrong time to start building independence skills, the right time is certainly now, or as early as possible — even as early as pre-kindergarten. Middle and high school offers many opportunities for students to practice independence. Building new friendships, adding responsibilities and discovering new adventures, and making mistakes, all offer valuable learning experiences. As students grow, they develop their unique personalities, declaring their interests, learning their limits and hopefully, receiving the training necessary to build essential skills for independence.

High schools can be very protective environments, sheltering students from the more rigorous schedule and academic expectations that they’ll have in college or the workplace. Demands for critical reading and writing, designed to prepare students for the typical college workload, have declined, due to pressures from many fronts. Pressure to graduate students on time, to attain college acceptances, limitations on teacher’s time for instruction, all impact and possibly limit a student’s experience with academic demands that build independence. Research even shows that grade inflation has raised average grades a full letter grade in the past 30 years, possibly creating a misleading sense of competence, independence, and college readiness. 

Shift in service provision

The transition from high school to college also includes a shift in service provision. This will impact the ease with which a student will access their accommodations and services. In high school, students receive services and support under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Yet, they’ll be considered adults in college, thus falling under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here are articles to help you as a parent or educator understand these significant shifts in responsibility and supports.

In this shift, many things will change, but most importantly, students will need to independently initiate a relationship with their Disability Services Office (DSO), request accommodations and then responsibly manage them for each class; there will be no TVI or paraprofessional, or Special Education department.  Here’s a helpful related article for parents on this topic.  This shift can come as a surprise to students, and parents. It can often highlight gaps in a student’s blindness skills, including their ability to self advocate effectively in a new environment, with unfamiliar adults, who often are not well versed with the nuances of learning and living with a vision impairment.

Skill development

Our students need to build independent skills in a range of areas. Time management, study skills, as well as practice staying on top of fast-faced academic assignments form a foundation for independence. Students need to make mistakes, turn things in late, and figure things out. For students with visual impairments and blindness, the cushioning of these academic demands in the K-12 system can reduce their sense of urgency. It can reduce motivation and recognition of what demanding academics look and feel like.

Other learning disabilities, and related issues that impact a student’s academic experience have critical impacts as well. Issues such as processing speed issues, or working memory issues, or ADHD, are often masked by the presence of paraprofessionals and other educators, who can (unintentionally) stand in the way of students showing where they are truly struggling. These struggles are often simply blamed on a student’s visual impairment. Yet, these struggles may be due to other issues: an undiagnosed learning disability or other challenge impacting a student’s ability to produce academic (and other) work. Diagnoses such as ADHD, executive functioning weaknesses, and processing disorders impact a student’s ability to take in information, remember that information, or express that information in the form of a test, paper, or contribution to a discussion or workgroup. Finally, our students may be recommended into fewer honors or advanced placement courses, lessening their exposure to academically challenging assignments and environments. 

So, let’s get to work.

How can we, as parents and educators, help our college aspiring students who are blind or visually impaired? How can we support their skills, allowing for more independence in school and at home? How can we help them to better prepare for life after high school? More importantly, how can we guide them toward setting themselves up for successful transition to college, work or community involvement with the skills they will need?

Check out this Perkins College Readiness Checklist. It’s an excellent conversation starter with your student and his or her school. This can frame expectations for college and careers, and introduce students to the skills they need, but may not know about yet. It can help to backward plan skill development over time, so students are not trying learn to type, for example, during their senior year. Make a timeline, or a plan, to ensure he or she has time to develop skills. Work to include and normalize the use of various tools. By junior year, aim to have your student have the access technology and typing skills to engage independently in all coursework. They should be able to access materials on multiple devices and research and type papers, with efficiency and with issues such as visual fatigue addressed through alternative reading methods to improve efficiency and reduce issues. These skills, and the understanding of when to use them, take time to learn, and develop. Prioritize in IEP discussions and goal development, address them during summer enrichment and practice them in all of their high school classes and at home; be sure all of their teachers know the critical nature of this work. These are essential, and transferable skills for independent work and life, as well.

Here’s a few more tips to help your student: 

The journey to independence never ends; we are always learning and growing. Luckily, the human brain is plastic and constantly evolving and learning, with new experiences. The young adult brain does not fully mature until around 25 years old.  So, there’s time to help support your student’s growth into the adult they will become. Inspire your student to identify skills they need to be as independent as possible. Encourage them to be self-aware, to remain motivated and persistent, and to track their progress toward their goals. It can pay big dividends in terms of growth, confidence, initiative and persistence.  

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