Don’t stop building your smarts (some summer advice for students)

Stylized image of a human brain lit up with blue light indicating activity and growth.

“If you believe you can accomplish everything by “cramming” at the eleventh hour, by all means, don’t lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining” Max Brooks

School’s out (almost)! And if you’re a student getting ready to graduate from high school, you’re probably ready for some well earned down time, right? And if you’re headed off to college or university in September, you probably want to make this summer count. Spend time with your friends. Party a bit. Maybe spend time at a cottage, or just chill somewhere. Honing you academic skills is likely the last thing on your mind. But…if you truly want to meet your potential in college or university, there are some things you should do this summer that can’t wait until the last minute, which will keep you sharp and on your game, will prevent your skills from getting rusty, and will allow you to start this next chapter of your academic career with some momentum. It is absolutely true that “if you don’t use it, you lose it”, so here are some things you can do over the summer to maintain your edge:

Keep reading! It doesn’t have to feel like homework. Read anything that interests or inspires you, or sparks your interest. Read at a level that’s fun for you. Read magazines, or newspapers, or trashy novels if that’s fun for you, but read! And if you want to challenge yourself a bit, try listening to audio books, or try a novel using that text-to-speech software (Kurzweil, perhaps?) that’s been gathering dust on your laptop. The whole point is to keep your mind active and stimulated by giving it new information to process.

Keep writing! Nobody’s asking you to produce 10-page papers every week, but you can keep your writing skills sharps by doing something as simple as maintaining a daily journal.  And no…texting does not qualify as the kind of writing you need to be good at.  In college/university you can’t write using acronyms or emoticons (LOL), so keep your skills up by practicing the kind of writing that you’ll be required to do when you get here. Go old school and write a letter to your Aunt Daisy in Newfoundland, or a thank you note to Uncle John in Red Deer.   Journaling, letter writing, whatever you do, find a reason to write frequently throughout the summer. You may even want to do this by experimenting with the Dragon software that is sitting alone and lonely on your laptop.

Learn your technology! Many high school students with learning disabilities have access to technology and assistive software that they never use.  Take some time this summer to learn it.  Post-secondary students routinely use programs like Kurzweil, Dragon Naturally Speaking, and Inspiration to level the playing field and to achieve at their academic potential.  And with very few exceptions, every student at this level is using some form of technology. Get comfortable with your technology and be ready to put it to use when you get here.  You’ll be glad you did.

Learn your self!  Part of that self is the small but important part that is your learning disability. This part should never define who you are, but ignoring it won’t do you any good either. So, start by reading and understanding your IEP and assessment (if you have one). Understand your diagnosis and what it means. Understand and be able to explain why you get the accommodations that you get. Take responsibility for developing an understanding of how you learn, and what the learning strategies are that empower you to reach for your potential. The more you are able to do that, the more independent you become, and the more effective you will be in advocating for yourself after high school.

Maintain a schedule! One of the biggest potential stumbling blocks high school students encounter in transitioning to university is with time management. In high school, your schedule was largely determined for you, but in university…not so much.   In most cases you will determine the number of courses you will take, when they will be, whether or not you will attend, or whether a social event with new friends will take priority over your academic responsibilities. This kind of independence and responsibility can seem like freedom, but it can become a curse if you let it. So get a handle on your time management now. Plan and stick to a routine over the summer. Set an alarm and get up on your own. Figure out when you will work out, when you will spend time reading and relaxing, when you’ll hang out with friends, when you’ll take time for college /university prep, and how you’ll do all of that around the summer job you may have found. Put all of this on a schedule and stick with it, in preparation for the new time management demands you will find after high school.

Get ready for your courses! Look for course information online, and get the lay of the land as early as you can. It’s much better to start the first day of class having already established an overview of what will be required. You may even be able to buy your books ahead of time, and if you can do that, there’s no reason not to scan some of that material as part of your summer reading program. And to the extent that it’s possible, learn your new campus. Explore it if you have the opportunity to do that. Figure out how to find the offices and services you may need, and get comfortable with navigating your new campus well before class begins.  One less thing to worry about once class actually starts.

Make early contact with the Office for Student’s with Disabilities! As we discussed in a previous blog post (Smooth Moves: Transitioning to University), the process for being accommodated at a post-secondary level is very different from what you may have become used to in high school. So…it is never too early to start the process. Meet with a Disability Advisor at your new school, who will spend time with you reviewing your current accommodations and documentation. Many high school students require an updated assessment when they move on to college/university, and an advisor can facilitate and guide you through a process to ensure that you are appropriately accommodated when class begins.

So enjoy your summer, by all means, but don’t neglect important aspects of yourself in the process, and don’t stop building on the solid academic foundation you established in high school. Use some of your “down time” this summer to build yourself up, preparing your body and mind for the new journey that lies just ahead. Have fun, but make sure you don’t arrive at the first day of class with an empty tank. Get proper rest, and exercise, and nutrition, and nourish your mind in some of the ways that we’ve talked about. Nourish your spirit too, by spending time with people you love, and who love you, and who inspire you somehow to be your best self.  Have a fun, safe and productive summer, and plan to arrive at your new school with a full tank of gas, fully prepared to head out on the road to success.


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Smooth Moves: Transitioning to University

Banner that says "TRANSITION 101"

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today”.
Malcolm X

Conventional thinking suggests that the transition from high school to university or college is daunting and intimidating for the students making it, but a recent study in the U.S suggests that the students themselves are relatively comfortable with it, perhaps inappropriately so.  The data suggests that many students are entering university or college without realistic expectations and without necessary non-academic skills  (self-control, independence, goal-setting, and discipline). According to the report, nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 expressed that they do not believe that university will be difficult. The report identifies lack of awareness by students of the personal and academic challenges awaiting them as an important reason for academic failure.

The fact is that students pursuing higher education will be faced with a variety of new experiences and challenges that most are unprepared for. Greater levels of freedom and independence, vastly different teaching approaches and academic expectations, and much larger class sizes with greater anonymity are the just a few of the differences students will find.  And if they are leaving home to do it in a new community, they will quickly realize that they also left behind a vital support structure (parents, teachers, friends) which contributed in significant ways to their high school success.

My experience with students who have learning disabilities suggests that in some ways many of them may be better prepared for this transition than their counterparts.  In general, they have needed to work harder than their peers to arrive at the same place. They have probably needed to develop a unique set of skills in time management, planning/organization, and study strategies, just to stay afloat. They have needed to work longer, and harder, and smarter, so that by the time they arrive at university they are harbouring no illusions about it being easy.  If anything, they appear to have more realistic expectations about what it will take to graduate, and fully expect to be appropriately challenged by it.

Having said that, it is also true that students don’t always know what they don’t know. At the University of Windsor we offer a transition program for students with learning disabilities who are coming to us from high school. The BUILD Program (Bridge to University for Individuals with Learning Disabilities), is a week long program designed to provide students with the information and skills they will need to have a smooth transition to their post-secondary careers.  In order to assess the effectiveness of the program, we have students complete pre and post-program surveys.  At the beginning of the program, students generally feel that they already have all the tools they will need to have success.  By the end of the program though, after a week of exploring tools and technologies and supports and services that they hardly knew existed, students are expressing a recognition that there is still much they can learn, and indicate a desire and willingness to explore additional ways to make themselves more effective students.

The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), has long recognized that students with disabilities face a unique set of challenges when considering post-secondary education.  That is why they specifically fund offices for students with disabilities at every college and university in Ontario, and why they provide funding for The BUILD Program and programs like it across the province.  It is also why they funded the creation of a website loaded with information for students with disabilities who want to go to college or university. The Transition Resource Guide for Students with Disabilities is a great place to start if you are a high school student considering post-secondary options.  Arming yourself with as much information as you can will allow you to make the best possible choices for yourself, ensuring that you arrive at university/college appropriately excited and perhaps a little bit nervous, but confident that you are fully prepared to succeed into the future you have planned.

Image of a chart describing some differences between high school and university/college for students with disabilities

This chart summarizes some differences between high school and university/college for students with disabilities

Staying Different

Group of goldfish examining a very different looking bluefish.

“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.”
Victoria Moran (Writer and inspirational speaker)

If you’re a student with a learning disability, nobody has to tell you that you “think different”.  You’ve been figuring that out for your entire life.  But it’s possible that you also got the message that to think different was to think wrong.  In case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, that message was never true.

One of life’s biggest challenges is being yourself (whoever that is) in a world that wants to make you like everyone else.  I’m not sure what it is about being “different” that scares us so much.  Its OK to be a little bit different, mind you, within certain parameters that we all subconsciously agree to, but there’s a tipping point beyond which being different is not OK any more.  It can seem like a dangerous point to cross, because standing out too much can often draw unwanted attention.  It’s been said that “the nail that sticks out farthest gets hammered the hardest”, and I think kids with learning disabilities often learn this lesson at an early age.  Being different for some of these kids has not been much fun, so who could blame them for wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to start out clean when they head off to university?

For students with learning disabilities, arriving in a new community to attend college or university can seem like a fresh start.  Nobody knows them on their new campus, so they don’t have to be “different” any more.  Or to put it another way, they can be different like everybody else.  They can step back from that imaginary tipping point, blend in like everyone else seems to, and leave their disability in the past. Or at least it seems that way.  It’s easy for students to be seduced by the idea that they can leave their LD behind them. No more labels.  No more resource room. No more being pulled from the classroom for special help.  No more stigma, or teasing, or shame, or embarrassment. No more being a square peg in a round hole.

So it’s not unusual for students with learning disabilities to start their university career without any supports at all.  Many of them choose initially not to identify to the disability services office, opting instead to stay under the radar and attempt university without the support or the labels or the baggage they’ve accumulated in arriving there.  It’s easy enough to do, really, given the invisible nature of learning disabilities.  In fact, the invisibility of LDs  (and ADHD for that matter) leaves some people questioning whether or not they are real, including even some of the students who have them.  It can seem easier to ignore that part of the self than to acknowledge, embrace, and love it.

The problem is, ignoring it typically results in bad outcomes for university students, who often arrive at our office after their first semester in significant academic difficulty.  They may have failed a course or two, or they may even be on academic probation, but they are usually receptive at that point to talking about their learning disability, and about the supports and accommodations to which they were entitled all along.  More often than not, a poor first semester is a hole that students can dig themselves out of, once they are ready to accept that aspect of who they are, to embrace their uniqueness, and to adapt their learning differences to their new environment. But it’s a problem that could easily have been avoided, if they were never made to feel embarrassed about their LD in the first place.

It’s true that we have come a very long way in our understanding of learning differences and disabilities, and in our acceptance of them in one another.  The vast majority of students with learning disabilities who choose university, arrive there prepared to self-advocate and accept the supports and accommodations to which they are legally entitled.  But…there are still too many who don’t.  There are still too many who have been made to feel that they are a little bit too different.  There are still too many who feel enough shame and embarrassment about their LD that they would rather risk academic failure than draw attention to this particular “difference”.

But what’s so good about regressing to the mean?  What’s so special about sameness?  Who wants to be average or ordinary?  Fitting in usually involves hiding our unique light under a basket.  It is vastly overrated, and often comes at a very great cost. The difference makers in the world have always been people who “think different” (or as Steve Jobs called them, “the crazy ones”), who don’t conform to the world, but who instead find ways to change it.   They do it with courage, without apology, and without embarrassment.  Which is exactly how students with learning disabilities should embark upon their university careers.

Some of you may remember Apple’s “Think Different” campaign from the late 90s. It bears viewing again, and it’s worth noting that many of the exceptional people in this piece are known to have had a learning disability, ADHD, or both

Apple Computers:  Here’s to the Crazy Ones