The College Assistance Program
by Sophia K. Havasy, Ph.D.
The young adults with ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger's, Tourettes, depression, anxiety and myriad other diagnostic labels that we call self-management disorders, need to continue their education after high school. We need them to complete certifications, degrees, state boards... whatever is needed for them to be inde-pendent, to earn a living, to be contributing members of society. Our economy needs them to be educated, as does our work force, social security, and their self-esteem.
At the Tarnow Center for Self-Management, we have spent the last 20 years working with young adults and their families. In the beginning, our work was focused on helping the young adults who had already failed out of several colleges figure out what they needed to do to turn it around. We still have those young people. Typically, they come from bright, well-educated families. The student is also bright. It is usually not about IQ points. After a year or more the young adult may have accrued 6-9 credit hours. Credit card debt is high. It is not unusual for there to be some kind of legal issue hovering in the background. Thousands and thousands of dollars have been spent with little to show for it. These students and families have taught us a lot.
In addition to working with students who have been unsuccessful in their college attempts, we have developed the College Assistance Program specifically for students to learn to be in college effectively from the beginning. Our learning and life interventions are based on in-depth understandings of neurodevelopment, executive functioning, and what it takes to become an active learner and self-manager. We bring together our inter-disciplinary team and the extensive resources of the Tarnow Center to address the needs of these young adults and their families. We have also developed approaches to work with high school students and parents so that when they leave for college they know what they need to be successful. Utilizing the community college system, as well as, other local colleges and universities, we are able to design a program to provide the level of support each student needs, and ongoing monitoring to enhance accountability and student ownership of their college experience. Our experience suggests that many of these students need co-management in order to learn self-management.
Co-management posits that the student will learn how to navigate whatever the destination by working with someone who teaches the student the processes, rehearses the points of self-advocacy, and then assists the student to follow through. Pilots are trained in cockpits with dual controls until such time as the student has logged sufficient hours, developed the necessary skills, and can demonstrate the skills on a consistent basis. Everyone recognizes that you don't want to entrust someone with little or no experience as a pilot with the lives of others and a plane that can crash. For the at-risk population of young adults, the same specialized training is involved in creating competent college students. We also know that the costs in lives and money can be tremendous if these students do not get the specialized help that they need.
The co-manager is a co-pilot, a coach, someone who can translate goals and plans into the language of daily functioning and self-management. Our experience at the Tarnow Center has taught us the importance of understanding at what point the process needs to start to help each student figure out the "Why bother?" of learning new skills. We know that you cannot teach study skills to someone who sees no need to learn them. In the same vein, if the student truly believes, "I write my best papers the night before," then why would that student want to plan ahead? We know why. Parents know why. The work is getting that student to find reasons to change the behaviors.
The College Assistance Program begins with a thorough evaluation process that prepares the student, parents, and the support team of Tarnow Center staff, to understand the level of intervention needed from the beginning of the college process. The student must be able to tolerate some level of scrutiny and observation. Sometimes students come to the Center with an exaggerated sense of their capabilities. It is important that parents participate so that the student's profile of skills and competencies becomes clear to all involved. Good evaluations lead to good treatment.
We specialize in a collaborative process of assessment. A good history and copies of any previous assessments are important to review. Because of our unique way of understanding these students, we often need to do further testing. We want to know who the student is as a learner, a self-manager, and as a person in the family and the larger community.
A Learning Style Evaluation consists of a series of tests that help assess skills necessary to learn effectively. Examples of these skills include attention, short-term and working memory - both auditory and visual, oral language, auditory and visual processing, longterm memory and processing speed. Additionally, tests that evaluate academic achievement levels are included and errors evaluated to establish strengths and weaknesses. Testing, whether learning or psychological, provides significant information about the student's executive functioning, decision-making, self-management skills, frustration tolerance, persistence, self-confidence, anxiety levels, ability to collaborate, responses to success and failure, areas of interest, and information about possible career directions.
An additional piece essential to the Tarnow Center relates to how well the student manages on a daily basis. We need to know what life skills are in place on a consistent basis. Does the student get himself up in the morning to get to school on time? Does she take medicine regularly without being reminded? Is he a good driver? Can she remember and plan for appointments and assignments? Can he talk to a professor to address needs in that class? Has she come to understand and accept her learning disability? Parents provide important collaborative data, especially on life skills information because if the student is not doing these things, the parents usually are. The co-manager's job is to work with the young adult on a regular basis to develop the skills for consistent daily functioning.
Whether through the psychological, the learning style evaluation, or the self-management assessment the goal is to engage the student in self-evaluation and an appreciation that skills can be developed that will make their goal of a college education possible. Good intentions and wishful thinking don't make a career path unfold. Our job includes teaching the young adult how to transform the good intentions into effective actions.
The College Assistance Program is about teaching the students to manage their lives. For example, many students are willing to work quite hard in their studies but become demoralized if the hard work produces only poor grades. The work is as much about understanding when efforts fail, as well as, what will make their efforts succeed. Each student is different. Our job is to understand your student in a comprehensive manner and to give the student and parents directions on where to start. The student, the parents, and the Tarnow Center staff can then, in an ongoing process, track growth, locate the obstacles, determine what steps need to be taken, and keep the young adult engaged to persist and learn the next lessons in effectiveness.
These learnings can be about taking medicines regularly so that a semester isn't sabotaged midway through because of depression returning, cycling resuming, or prescriptions running out. Often times, young adults are ambivalent about taking medicine. To stay on top of medication means that the student has come to terms with the fact that it is needed, that there is a condition that needs treatment, and that the grieving process has occurred. It means that, for now, the student and the parents are doing the psychological work of accepting the lives they were given and are engaged in making the most of it. It also means that the self-management skills are in place for that task. At the Tarnow Center, we know that the student's needs must be addressed from a biopsychosocial perspective, particularly, for these at-risk young people.
For many of our students, the lessons are in managing money or time. Some students pay more money to the bank in overdraft fees than they spend. Tracking time, schedules, and assignments are critical to being an effective student, employee, and even a friend or family member. Just because these young people are of the new millennium does not mean that they are always effective with technology. Web sites for the colleges can be difficult to navigate, even more so, if the student doesn't know what they are looking to find. Exams are often taken at testing centers on computers that need to be scheduled. Lack of planning can sink a semester easily if the student is unaware of the requirements. Quizzes and homework can have midnight deadlines for submission. Imagine all of the ways that this process can break down for the student with significant self-management difficulties.
We often reflect on how people who self-manage well have difficulty appreciating how tasks become so difficult and elusive to the non-self-manager. It seems so easy. Parents often say, "I never see you study. Don't you have schoolwork to do? When is your next exam?" It is not unusual for the student to reply, "They don't ask for the home-work. It is not graded." Or, "It is pretty easy. I don't need to study." When there are few grades, doing poorly from the beginning can be hard to redeem. The stakes are higher than they realize.
It is important to keep in mind that the non-self-manager may not have a clue as to how you function so well. They think it is magical or maybe just something missing in their own genetic code. We know that for most of these young people these are all skills that they can learn to become effective self-managers. Figuring out how to get this understanding across to young adults and implemented in their daily lives is part of the unique expertise of the clinical staff at the Tarnow Center.
Through frequent contact and coordi-nated services students in the College Assistance Program practice on a daily basis the skills that lead to effective, independent functioning. Over time, there is decreased reliance on the co-manager and increased ability to self-manage in the college environment.