By Dr. Giani Clarkson

Can I tell you a secret? Alright…here I go. I always cry at high school graduations. 

Some people may cry at weddings or baby showers, but for me…I always cry at high school graduations. High school graduations are a rites of passage ceremony for many students. It marks a walk into adulthood and an evolution into academic matriculation into college. For many students, college is an obtainable dream with the professional degree being the Valhalla of true academic success. However, for many scholars that receive special education services, this dream of attending college and getting a dream comes with some very rude awakenings.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2020-2021, fifteen percent of 7.2 million students receive special education services. The most common category for students who received special education services during 2020 – 2021 was specific learning disabilities. Now the good news is that many public schools across the country find support for these students by creating Individual Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan which creates personalized plans to assist students with learning goals and the aspiration of graduating high school. The bad news is that although these IEP and 504 plans play a crucial role in the success of students with special education needs in middle and high school, these IEP and 504 plans disappear when a student attends college. 

The goal is to make sure that these students can still achieve a quality education although their IEP and 504 plans do not translate to the landscape of college. A good majority of colleges and universities may have disability services for students who need additional help due to processing issues, but it is not the same as the individualized learning plans such as an IEP or a 504 that are found in secondary education. Colleges do not have the same legal obligations of a public school to students who receive special education services. 

Photo credit: Zen Chung via Pexels

If you have a student who is currently receiving special education services and you want to prepare your student for college, there are some simple things you can do now before high school graduation. 

First, teach your child how to advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy is not about having your student learn how to make excuses but owning their pathway to learning. Parents should teach their children to ask for preferential seating in the classroom, tutoring after hours, and even for various reading strategies to comprehend reading passages in class. Teachers will enjoy this from your scholar and it shows ownership which is an admirable quality. 

Second, time management is never a skill you can learn too early. Many special education college students who come from public high school run into huge troubles managing workloads. In high schools, students with special education needs and case managers manage this task together, but college is much different because there are no case managers. Teach your scholars how to manage a planner – writing down assignments, due dates, instruction, etc. In this modern era, students can use their cell phone as a great personal assistant to help manage these tasks. This is all about ownership of learning and taking the steps to become independent with some help along the way. 

Lastly, teach your child how to work in groups. College is about collaboration and testing your thoughts and ideas against others from various backgrounds. Building these social skills help special education scholars learn more about their evolving world and make them more adaptable to understanding the differences in others. By getting your student involved in sports, social clubs, and community service, will help students expand their view and diversify their way of thinking. 

The biggest takeaway is for parents to understand that if your child receives special education services, your child is not different – they just learn differently. Learning soft skills like time management, collaboration, and self-advocacy will help students with transitioning from high school to college. The support system may look different than a 504 plan and IEPs, but it does not mean students have to give up their dreams of attending and graduating from college. And when that day comes, I’m sure you, too, will shed a tear.