The Impact of Self-Regulation on College Choices for Students with ADHD

How does self-regulation impact college readiness and college choices for high school students with ADHD?  Consider the college environment as compared to high school – teenagers are catapulted into the land of independent thinking. They have no parental supervision, a heavy course load, irregular sleep patterns, unstructured study habits, social pressures, and the need to manage their self-care without reminders. “Self-regulation is a skill necessary for reliable emotional well-being. Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. Emotionally, self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down”[1]

For students who score low in self-regulation, the ability to manage pressure, set structure, weigh risks, and manage emotions with friends, roommates, or professors feels unsurmountable. Receiving a D on a test first semester can be a devastating blow to a student with poor self-regulation skills, making it difficult for that student to:

  1. Calm down after receiving the low grade
  2. Consider strategies for improvement
  3. Talk calmly with the professor to find out what went wrong
  4. Share their struggles with their parents

In their 2010 study, Assessing the Impact of ADHD Coaching Services on University Students’ Learning Skills, Self-Regulation, and Well-Being,[2] Wayne State University researchers Sharon Field, David R. Parker, Shlomo Sawilowsky, and Laura Rolands examined the effects of coaching on learning and study skills, self-regulation, and subjective well-being of students with ADHD attending 2- and 4-year colleges or universities using the JST Model of Coaching.[3] They found that the coaching group had a significantly higher total LASSI[4] score and statistically significant higher scores on all three LASSI clusters, Skill, Will, and Self-Regulation, than the comparison group. The support and structure provided in the coaching relationship helped students who received coaching to set realistic goals and expectations, manage time, stay organized, and better self-regulate in both academic and personal situations.

Students and their parents are advised to do a reality check.  Is the student ready for college?  What are the compelling reasons to start immediately after high school and what might be significant reasons for waiting a year or more before leaving the nest?  Would a GAP year be valuable? Many students with ADHD and related issues find that taking a reduced course load at a community college and working part-time can help them test the waters of higher education while under the safety net of the family.  When self-regulation is a problem, being at home, or close to home, allows for continuity of care with a therapist and psychiatrist who have been a part of the student’s treatment team through high school. Even when living at home, college students find that the shift from the structure of high school can exacerbate emotional dysregulation. Since ADHD inhibits a person’s ability to self-regulate, changing environments and transitioning into a totally new lifestyle can be devastating.  With that said, it is important to note that there will be students who are well-prepared to “fly away” and embrace life away from home. The key point is to help students determine what will work best for them and choose based on their needs, not peer pressure, family pressure, or shame. In my experience, students will make good decisions when provided with information to create awareness around how they learn, what triggers their emotional tipping point, and what they honestly, in their heart of hearts, want to do.

[1] Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26, (1), 67 – 81

[2] Steven Stosny, Ph.D. in Anger in the Age of Entitlement October 28, 2011

[3] Empowering Youth with ADHD, pg. 132.  Jodi Sleeper-Triplett. 2010

[4] LASSI – Learning and Study Strategies Inventory