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Readjusting expectations: Preparing for college

Students and families may need to adjust expectations about how supports and accommodations change in college.

By: Perkins and Annie Tulkin, MS, Accessible College

With appropriate learning strategies, and accommodations, does your student still struggle in high school coursework, without support in or out of school?  Do you or your student need to readjust expectations for what are “acceptable” grades, that reflect the character and quality of the actual work completed? As you learn more about the strengths and challenges your student may bring to traditional, rigorous academic pursuits, you may wonder if they are ready to go directly to college. These are concerns that many families share, for their students learning with or without visual impairment, or with other disabilities. There’s an enormous amount of resources to help with this planning.

It’s important to know that there are many different pathways to consider in planning for life after high school graduation. Each path or journey will look different, depending on the accumulated skills and emerging maturity of your student. Finding the right timeline can open up time for student maturity, life experience and skill development, which can lead to more successful engagement in chosen paths, with greater self awareness, confidence and understanding.

Rest assured that different timelines, other than the ‘direct to college’ plan, can create opportunities for success.

For example, if a student’s reading level remains at Grade 7 throughout their high school experience, even without a diagnosed reading disability, it’s crucial to recognize that their reading skills are not well aligned with the demands of a degree-seeking college program. Yet, that same student’s deep satisfaction in hosting guests, or serving customers, may lead to a career in hospitality, customer service or other work. Alternatively, a student may need more time to develop typing and access technology skills to engage independently with the demands of college level work.

While these realizations may be difficult, and often emotionally charged, having realistic expectations and time to build skills can create significant opportunities.  For students who aspire to attend college, and who’ve demonstrated the ability to meet the demands of academically challenging curriculum (grades may not tell the whole story!), here’s some “rules of thumb” while your student is in high school for selecting high school courses and skills needed to prepare for college – and career – success.  

Course modifications

So, if your student’s TVI or IEP team recommends course modifications, ask them why it’s necessary. Sometimes, this indicates that a student is lacking a skill that may be required to perform a specific task. Instead of taking away the requirement, work with your student to develop the skill. Remember, college accommodations for blind and visually impaired students are different from high school. Advanced preparation and skill building is the key to college success.

Paraprofessionals

A student who aspires to attend college should be operating in an academic setting independently, ideally by junior year.

A student who aspires to attend college should be operating in an academic setting independently by junior year, ideally, to develop the problem solving skills and self awareness they will need for future self advocacy. This includes managing homework, note taking, organization, to do’s and other tasks, using tools taught to them by their TVI and general education teachers.  

Additionally, students need to learn how to work without someone in the “back of the room” ready to help if a problem arises; they must learn how to self advocate, and to tolerate things going wrong, to problem solve, as well as to anticipate challenges.  

If these skills are challenging for your student, this is important information for your student and educational team, and point to crucial skills to work on while your student is still enrolled in high school, and to consider as they identify possible timelines for post secondary education and training. (See here for more information on different options for life after high school.)  

Low grades may be the anticipated, appropriate result of a reduction in support from a paraprofessional, as a student adjusts their approach. This is crucial information and feedback and will help your student to make better informed decisions about their future, without the false confidence provided by that person, or by inflated grades.  

Students with visual impairments and blindness have an enormous amount to learn throughout their K-12 experiences. For many students learning with visual impairments, the typical 13 year timeline for K-12 education simply is not enough time to acquire the skills and knowledge that their typically sighted peers gain, often through 13 years of incidental learning. It’s important to identify strengths, and areas for skill development, and a plan to acquire them in a logical sequence (for example, learning how to manage a daily calendar before going to college; learning to do laundry independently, if looking to live residentially at college; learning to type before learning a screen reader or to write papers independently). 

Students who are blind/visually impaired will need to work with the college’s Disability Services Office (DSO) to make sure that they have course content and materials in a format that is accessible in order to meet course requirements. DSOs will support the student in getting materials; yet students will need to access assignments via websites such as Canvas or Blackboard, online, and to manage assignments independently. Each college has their own process for registering and engaging with the DSO.  Prospective students will want to contact the DSO as they are looking at different colleges, to inquire about the process at that college; here’s an article to provide additional insight about visiting DSOs. Some colleges offer O&M training, but they do not provide sighted guides or classroom assistance. Your student should start to build their skills in high school and work with their IEP team, TVI and para to develop goals that work towards independence. 

Study hall

Students need to be able to reach out for help when they need it.

Additionally, college is the first time in most students’ lives when they have to learn how to manage largely unstructured time. Often, students may have an entire day without courses or obligations, when they should be completing assignments, both short term and long term. These time management skills take time to recognize and to develop preferred methods in managing independently through To Do lists, calendar apps and other tools.

Life skills

Reading levels (grade and speed)

First, what are the different methods with which your student accesses reading material? On each device/access point (Braille note, laptop, phone), how fast, and at what grade level, with what comprehension, is your student reading?  

Strong vocabulary, inferential comprehension, and comfort level with a number of different types of writing (creative, analytic, academic, unfamiliar vs. familiar) are critical for college readiness.  These are developed over many years.  

Pace and comprehension are important concepts as well. If your student is reading significantly below grade level, it’s important to ask why, and what steps can be taken to increase your student’s reading comprehension. Further, if your student’s preferred method of reading, possibly visually, is slow and leads to significant physical discomfort, it may be time to add to your student’s reading strategies to meet their post secondary goals. Then, if their speed and comprehension do not improve with deliberate interventions, it may be time to ask if there may be other learning disabilities (including auditory processing issues).  

A final question: is your student at the upper limits of their abilities?  All of these considerations help to understand who your student is emerging to become, and can suggest the pace and form of initial postsecondary planning.

Conclusion

The transition to college is a process that starts as early as elementary school. By empowering students to set goals, embrace feedback as opportunities for growth, develop skills, identify strengths, discover and work on weaknesses, families and educators are giving students the gift of independence on terms that allow them to make informed decisions, and to utilize their skills and interests in increasingly complex demands for reading, writing and critical thinking. 

This process can be difficult for students and families, as they receive challenging feedback, and work to gain the habits of mind that lead to success in college and career – or other paths such as training and employment, possibly better aligned with a students interests, curiosities and skills. The path to independence, and the ability to meet the expectations of college professors, requires early planning, as well as intentional challenges supported by families and students’ educational teams, and an embracing of appropriate rigor – starting early – that must remain centered in a student’s actions.

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