6 Ways To Start Preparing Students With Learning Differences For College

Sending teens off to college is emotional for any family. We push our birds out of the nest, worried if they will be able to spread their wings and fly on their own. There is hope and excitement we will see them soar, but also fear that we might watch them fall… 

… And this fear can be even greater for parents of students with learning differences (LD). 

After all, parents of LD teens have often been their student’s #1 advocates and supporters since they were very young. It’s only natural to worry about how LD students will manage on their own after high school, especially without the support of a 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) they received in K-12. 

Before you push them out of the nest from the highest branch on the tree, I recommend LD parents let their students practice spreading their wings closer to the ground at first.

Continue to read 6 ways you can start preparing students with learning differences for college.

6 Ways To Start Preparing Students With Learning Differences For College

To help your college-bound high schooler with learning differences thrive after graduation, guide them through these 6 ways to prepare your LD student for college:

  1. Remember Your Scaffolding
  2. Find What Helps You Cope 
  3. Investigate Transitional Programs
  4. Get Creative With Schooling
  5. Practice Advocating for Your Learning Differences
  6. Connect & Find a Sense of Belonging

1. Remember Your Scaffolding

Hopefully by the time they have entered high school, LD students have started to build a scaffolding for themselves. Having a scaffolding means having several layers of support to help create a successful structure for a student. 

For example, they can:

  • Use their peer tutors
  • Find a good learning support program
  • Utilize the campus counseling center
  • Find an exercise pal
  • Take their medication
  • Commit to attending office hours

Part of a solid scaffolding also includes finding what helps you cope with your learning differences. 

2. Find What Helps You Cope

Another way LD students can prepare for college is by understanding their coping mechanisms before they leave high school. When they are searching for their best fit college, have your teen ask themselves, “Does this environment have what I need to cope with?” Have your student think about what resources they would need to thrive, and then seek them out in potential colleges.

Colleges can help LD students cope by providing them with: 

  • Class notes
  • Extended time
  • Separate testing locations
  • Tutoring
  • Executive functioning coaches
  • And more! 

In addition to college-provided resources, students should also prepare some of their own self-driven coping strategies before entering college. 


Exercise can be a fantastic outlet to help LD students cope. For example, individuals with ADHD can benefit from any bilateral movement where one side of the body repeats something on the other side. It can help exercise their brain as much as their body. This can include activities like:

  • Swimming
  • Cross country running
  • Biking 

Exercise is a coping mechanism for plenty of high performers – especially first thing in the morning! John Rainey, the CFO of PayPal swears by his morning exercise routines. And it’s not just his imagination. Morning exercise can be really helpful for anyone with ADHD. Charging up their brains first thing in the morning can allow individuals with ADHD to feel so much better throughout the day. 

For other gifted students, the opposite might be true. Rather than needing time to wind up their brains, other LD students might exercise to slow the brain down. Yoga or meditation might be more helpful.

Importantly, many students with learning differences might think that taking time for themselves to cope is detracting from their school work or career goals in some way. But the truth is, the path to a bright future is a marathon, not a sprint. It is better to take the time you need to cope, so you can make it across the finish line.

3. Investigate Transitional Programs

Speaking of taking the time you need, timing is an important thing for LD students to consider on their path to college. 

Parents of LD students might worry that their student isn’t moving along fast enough in their education. Instead of comparing your LD student to the “norm”, remember LD individuals have different brain chemistry and developmental timeline. 

Research supports the idea that students with ADHD are delayed 1 to 3 years in their brain maturation. This delay is attributed to differences in the development of the frontal cortex – the center for self-management or executive functioning. 

It is really common for LD students to start later and take a bit longer to reach their educational goals. What’s important is to acknowledge that this is completely okay! Faster does not equal better when it comes to schooling. 

Students should take the time to investigate transitional programs, including:

  • Summer programs
  • Gap years
  • Internships
  • Employment

Explore these options to decide whether it’s the right fit for them on their path to college. For help with this process, reach out to college counselors who specialize in helping LD students at Bright Futures

4. Get Creative With Schooling

Another one of the ways LD students can prepare for college is to start researching early in high school. I always encourage students I’m advising to get creative with their schooling! 

Now is the time for LD students to really explore and seek out the learning environment of their dreams. There is so much power in personalized education.

Start researching by:

To study for their future career, your student might choose to pursue a:

  • 4-year college or university
  • 2-year community college
  • Trade or vocational program
  • Military position

Try not to think restrictively when it comes to what kind of learning environment your student will have after high school. It’s their time to choose the setting that will give them what they want and need! 

5. Practice Advocating for Your Learning Differences

Once they get to college, students with learning differences need to learn to ask for what they need. That’s why advocating for their learning differences is one of the most important ways LD students can prepare for college. 

There are a plethora of resources available for LD students in higher education. The biggest hurdle that LD students face is knowing what they need and asking for it in the first place! 

Know Your ADA Rights

In high school, students have a 504 plan that gives them accommodations for learning. Since parents and teachers are normally the first to notice when a student is struggling, they are normally the ones that advocate for these accommodations. But once they get to college, all that responsibility rests on the student. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a college is required by law to accommodate LD students. But they can only accommodate them if they ask for what they need. 

If they don’t have a letter to inform their professors about their LD status, the school will not know that they need accommodations. 

Have your LD highschooler practice advocating for themselves before they leave for college. If they ask for accommodations, they can have them. They can even get more support than they did in high school!

6. Connect & Find a Sense of Belonging

Last, but certainly not least, encourage your LD student to start learning to connect with those around them and establish a sense of belonging in their educational environment.

There is huge power in connecting with your professors, administrators, and even classmates. If they know you, they can work with you. So, spur them to show up and get to know their community. It can make advocating for themselves even easier.

Finding The Path To College That Fits Your Learning Differences

A common theme among all of these 6 ways to start preparing students with learning differences for college is that they center upon self-acceptance and understanding. These principles are essential for finding a path to college that fits any student, but especially those with LD.

Once your student knows what they need, they can seek out the kinds of learning environments that meet those needs! 

And no matter what paths they are drawn to after high school, it is important to have a plan A, B, and even C. Our experts have plenty of experience helping LD students and their families prepare plans for success after high school graduation. To get started with drafting those plans, reach out to a Bright Futures College Counselor today!

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