Summer Classes – New topics, re-do poor grades, or not-at-all?

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Depending on one’s school, summer semester may be the same length as all other semesters, or it may be a compacted semester. For example, some schools offer concentrated classes that do not meet over as many weeks but that do meet for a longer time period during each class session. If one is taking this kind of concentrated summer class there are some decided things to be aware of, particularly if one lives with a disability that impacts his or her learning.

The best strategy for summer classes may be to focus on repeating classes that were nearly passed the previous semester, or that one passed with a very low grade. Improving the grade in these classes will improve a student’s overall grade point average (GPA) which helps a student maintain good academic standing – academic standing impacts a student’s eligibility for financial aid, as well as whether or not a student will end up on academic probation or suspension.

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This also makes financial sense if one considers that it is more cost effective to privately borrow money during a shorter summer semester, should they have temporarily lost their financial aid due to grades. While tuition costs may stay the same, housing/food costs will be lower for the shorter summer semester. By re-taking classes that one failed earlier, during the summer, a student may be able to re-qualify for financial aid by the beginning of the fall semester.

When is retaking a previously failed class during a shorter semester not a good idea? When a student struggles with the material, or the way the material is taught. In these cases a student may benefit from retaking the class during a standard length semester so that they have more time to work with the information, tutors/learning centers, and their memories. Many disabilities impact memory and limit how much a student can memorize in a short period of time. In these cases, taking an abbreviated class in a subject area a student struggles with is often not a good idea.

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Memory, availability of tutors and sometimes limited summer hours in learning centers are also reasons why it is often not a good idea for a student  to take challenging-to-them new classes during the summer. Professors are still required to cover the same basic information, homework assignments, and assigned readings during the shortened semester as they do during a regular semester.

I do sometimes meet students who mistakenly believe that because a summer class might only last half as long during a summer semester as it does during the ‘regular’ school year, that the professor will assign only half as much work. This simply isn’t so. Students need to have the same preparation at the end of the semester for the classes that will follow, regardless of what time of year they took a class. Whether a semester is seven or fourteen weeks long, students need to know the same material and obviously that puts more pressure on a student, their memory, and their anxiety level.

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Summer is often a good time for a change of pace. Students should consider developing their work experience during the summer; this may include apply for an internship with a company. Even if a job is outside a student’s area however, the experience gained through working is valuable for a resume – work with the Career Services office on campus if unsure how to ‘fit’ work experience onto a resume. And remember – “work” does not have to be paid to belong on a resume. If a student has no luck finding a paying job, then the student should find an organization they can volunteer for that will help them build up their work experience.

Summer may also be a good time to take a class through a local community college that is not the student’s primary school. Students can check with their primary school’s registrar’s office to make sure any class(es) they take will transfer. Summer may also be the best time to get some a student’s physical education requirements taken care of with a swimming, rowing, sailing, or golfing class.

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I know you have stress, what are you doing to deal with it?

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Photo – Workers Law Watch

The life of a college student is stressful. The stress begins with the initial transition to campus from home, then the transition in expectations from high school to college life; the longer you stay in school, the harder classes tend to get; roommates and others might be difficult to share space with; professors may have unrealistic expectations…and then there’s the exams.

As I watch the students around me melting down as we ramp up into final exam period, I understand that everyone has reason to feel distressed. This is a busy time of year, there is still a limited amount of sunshine in our northern climate, and everyone is ready for a break from classes. When I talk to students about how they are caring for themselves, though, I find that they are not doing some of the helpful daily things that can assist them in finishing the semester on a strong note. Some appear intent on burning themselves out, apparently forgetting that just because the semester is nearly over doesn’t mean they will have some magical recovery once the last test or paper is handed in.

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In order to help one’s self deal with stress there are some very practical steps a person can take.

1. Create a pattern of sleeping, eating, homework/study that allows for breaks while studying as well as time to sleep and eat.

2. Sleep at night – for many students the time for sleep may be midnight to seven a.m. and for those taking medication or with certain disabilities, getting to bed before midnight may also be necessary.

3. Give your brain time to relax before it is time to sleep – make a relaxing walk, shower/bath, listening to quieting music or whatever works for you – part of your ‘wind down’ time before going to bed.

4. Don’t engage in activities that get your brain or adrenalin going just before trying to sleep. No exciting video games or pumped up music or activities that will leave you revved up instead of winding down.

While it is important to create this routine for yourself, it is also helpful to work every day, throughout the day, on your homework and study. Most students have under-utilized chunks of time during the day that just slips away – use these time slots to start working on an assignment, or to complete some of the reading that has been assigned in class.

Leaving all homework and reading until the evening again increases stress, decreases how much you will remember, and thus feeds into the cycle of feeling like you’re working hard and getting little in return for that hard work. If you have trouble with time management, seek out an academic adviser or councilor who can assist you with working on these skills.

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Recognize also, that by the end of the semester one either has been keeping up with the information needed to pass a class or they have not. Waiting until the final weeks to try and learn a semester’s worth of information basically does not work. Instead of trying to pull a passing grade out at the last second, consider what can be done differently in the future to avoid repeating the mistakes of the present. Set up appointments with counseling services for the beginning of the next semester. Talk to your academic adviser about your proposed course load, and reconsider taking foundational courses that were barely passed – you probably didn’t learn as much as you will need. Future courses build on the information you were supposed to be learning in foundational courses.

A degree, by itself does not get a person a job. A person’s grades and the experiences they gain through work study, internships, projects, research etc. are all important. Stress increases when a person realizes they are struggling and if one is struggling too much in classes that are corp to one’s field of study, then one may need to consider changing their field of study.

If you are a student who is stressed out all the time, then you may simply be studying in the wrong subject area  – career service advice is available on basically all college campuses. If stress seems fundamental to the area of study you are pursuing, then talk to career services about possible areas of study that might prove less distressing for you, given your personal strengths and challenges. Remember, education is supposed to be challenging, not painful.

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If your stress is based on the other hand, on not being prepared for classes and tests – then you may need to re-examine if you are ready to be in college yet, or if you need to spend time in a minimum wage job. Until one feels a personal motivation to be in college, one is probably wasting time and money, and invariably increasing their personal stress level for the wrong reasons, by being in college. If you have no personal reasons for being in college, then the entire process is likely to be stressful – and an expense that might take years to pay off.

Are colleges adapting to increasingly diverse students?

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I note that the media has recently been discussing the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2013/03/20/autism-prevalence-is-now-at-1-in-50-children/

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and read the recognition that this does not mean there are necessarily ‘more’ autistic children – rather, that the medical community is becoming better educated about recognizing autism in it’s many different presentations – which can vary significantly from one person to the next.

I wonder though, about the way education is going to need to continue to change as socially we recognize the degree of difference that is present among a classroom full of children. I would suggest that with so many children experiencing autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, affective disorders, etc. that the education system is past the point of being able to expect the ‘majority’ of children to have significantly similar learning styles, considering that even when they do not have any form of disability, people often have different ways of best learning new things.

 

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My own work and research echos what John Dewey observed at the turn of the last century; if there is one way of best teaching, it is to provide mentored opportunities for a person to learn, hands on, by doing. What it means to ‘do’ will vary – writing requires opportunities to write, discuss, revise (and read others’ writing); science requires experiments; social studies means experiencing other cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking about things…some of this does happen currently yet, hands-on practices still do not make-up the majority of learning opportunities in the education system.

Think particularly of higher education; how often do we still expect people to learn by sitting in a lecture hall and listening? This is particularly true for first year classes – a student’s crucial first year often requires trying to learn in a style that fewer and fewer students are well suited to. If a student survives the entry level classes, there will be increasing opportunity for the student to gain hands-on opportunities with field work, seminars, or work shops. These opportunities are seldom available to freshmen.

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It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that as learners continue to change, the institutions responsible for educating them will also be required to adapt. Many of the students who previously were not diagnosed as autistic, were not diagnosed in part because they functioned well enough to still participate in social functions like seeking an education. As the medical community becomes more adept at recognizing that these high functioning people also live with a disability, more people who attend college will arrive with documentation that they live with a disability. Students who in the past would have had to struggle through on their own, will increasingly have documentation that they live with a disability – and will be at last eligible for the accommodations they require. Those who teach or administer in the higher education realm would be well served to be increasingly prepared as these students arrive on campus.

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Housing, classroom expectations, peer social interactions/support, needs for counseling – these are all areas where planning should be taking place now to facilitate the increasingly diverse student population. Meanwhile, families should be practicing routines with children which will also support their college success: taking medication, following basic social protocols when meeting new people, learning study techniques even if the student is intelligent enough to not need to study for class – these are all skills the child needs to practice at home, to support their eventual college success.

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Preparation is needed on both the home front and in the institutions that educate, if we are going to assist the increasingly diverse student population in becoming educated social citizens. Failure to rise to the challenging but necessary work of adapting to the changing needs of students will have a negative impact on society. Too many bright young people are in danger of being pushed out of the current education system – it is time to reconsider business as usual. Focusing on one ‘fix-all’ answer (like technology) is also not appropriate, as there is too great a range of learning styles to assume that any one answer will be suited to all student needs.Diversity of students requires diversity of methods in teaching.

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Who made your child’s diagnosis, how was it arrived at, and does it matter?

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Recently I’ve had people send me several news stories about the over-medication, or inaccurate medication of young people.

(Examples: “Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions” – this story is about an ‘adult’ child and therefore different from the younger children I’m speaking of in what follows in this post. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/us/concerns-about-adhd-practices-and-amphetamine-addiction.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

“Attention Disorder or not, pills to help in school” – a story of pills being used to make up for over-crowding and other school and social issues.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/health/attention-disorder-or-not-children-prescribed-pills-to-help-in-school.html?pagewanted=all)

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These stories prompted me to think — does the average busy parent, (possibly with more than one disabled child to care for), even have an opportunity to stop and think about the qualifications a doctor needs to accurately diagnosis a disorder like AD/HD? Even if a doctor is qualified to make the diagnosis, did the doctor take the time and go through the necessary steps to accurately diagnose a child? Or did a doctor take shortcuts that led to a quick best guess? Is a doctor ‘just trying’ medication to see if it helps; in this case ‘help’ being shorthand for getting a child to focus more at school.

Unlike antibiotics, which arguably aren’t going to leave a person any worse off if prescribed when not needed, anti-depressants, and the stimulate medication usually prescribed for AD/HD, can both lead to dangerous outcomes if given to a child who doesn’t have a medical need that warrants these drugs.

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What I am suggesting today is that when parents are given a diagnosis of depression, or AD/HD – or any other disability that a doctor feels requires medication – that parents ask what diagnostic tests have been given that helped the doctor arrive at this diagnosis. Particularly with AD/HD it isn’t enough for even a qualified doctor to just talk to the family or give a quick questionnaire about a child’s symptoms. Along with a full medical history, a doctor should give a child a range of diagnostic tests before arriving at an AD/HD diagnosis. The actual tests may vary slightly between health care providers, but there should be some ‘proof’ that supports the clinical diagnosis.

Depression and other affective disorders are more complicated to diagnose, in that there is not a set of standardized tests that can necessarily be applied to reach an accurate diagnosis. This is why it is important to seek out professionals who are qualified to make the diagnosis: a psychiatrist or neuro-psychologist who works with young people is the sort of professional I would seek out to work with a child. The qualified doctor should take a complete medical history of a child including the child’s family medical history, ascertaining if there is any family history of affective disorders.

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The doctor should also have follow up meetings with a child, particularly if medication is prescribed, to accurately judge how a child is responding to the medication. Finally, depression and bi-polar disorder both respond best when medication is accompanied by talk therapy – if a doctor is prescribing medication and not requiring follow up talk therapy you need to find a different professional to treat your child.

A qualified doctor making a legitimate diagnosis of a mood disorder, AD/HD or similar disorder and finding a useful medication to prescribe to a child can be a life safer. Parents as always, however, have to be their child’s advocates. Do not allow someone to medicate your child without having first done ample medical tests to ascertain that the medication being prescribed is treating a disorder your child actually has. The right medication is only ‘right’ if it treats an illness or disorder that one lives with.

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Parents supporting students at college: Part Two – Housing and Independence

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Where will a student live when they go to college?

If they stay in their local area, then they may be able to stay at home. Depending on a student’s disability and how they are managing their transition, medication, and independence, a year at home that further supports the transition to independence might be a good idea.

Sometimes though, dorm life is a good idea for supporting independence, even if the student is close enough to live at home. Moving to a dorm allows a student to be responsible for getting themself up and to class on time, taking their own medication without reminders, being responsible for their own laundry etc. Even if a student remains living at home during their first year at college, families should be encouraging the kind of independence that includes these same specific skills.

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This may mean parents clenching teeth when a student is sleeping through class however, students need to learn the consequences of missing class including failing grades.

Families are not helping students in the long run if the only thing that ever gets a student out of bed is a parent. Students have to learn to be responsible for such things themselves if the final goal is for the student to live independently. Ideally, a student will have practiced getting up, doing laundry, taking medication while still in high school but life isn’t always ideal.

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When it is time for students to apply for housing at a university, some parents choose to take on the responsibility of filling out the housing application for their student. I would suggest that it is better to work with the student then to fill out the application for the student. Again, this is a step towards independence and if the student isn’t ready to fill out the application by him or herself, then they probably aren’t ready to live away from home either.

Some families tell me their student is too busy to fill out the application. A student’s life is not going to be less busy once they are a full time college student and learning to manage multiple demands on their time is something families can help students with by helping them make the time to fill out their housing application. Think about it this way – students have to learn to prioritize the most important events over lesser events – having a place to live is a priority over most other activities, including sporting events and extra curricular social events.

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While in college a student may choose to live off-campus at some point. Parents may provide emotional support and advice during this process, they may even accompany their student on visits to potential apartments. Remember however, that this is another step in gaining independence; the final decision is the student’s decision as are the final consequences. If the student chooses a building that has a great social life and as a result their grades start to suffer, the student has to learn how to re-balance their social/academic life and parents will not be able to oversee this process.

The other main thing families can remember is that with university dormitories, students are still in a supported environment – the housing staff is specifically trained to work with young people making the transition to independent living. Rather than stepping in to “fix” problems with the housing staff, families can encourage their student’s independence by discussing issues the student may run into, (perhaps a problem with a roommate) but then encourage the student to follow through on the steps that are necessary to resolve their issue without the parents becoming directly involved.

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For example, if a student has a roommate issue, they can discuss this with the housing staff person responsible for their living unit (floor, hall, building) – there are levels of such staff, whose purpose is to help students resolve conflicts: Resident Advisers, Community Advisers, Professional Staff etc. When families would like more information about such staff and related processes they can now find this information on web sties; go to the university’s web site, find the link for Housing, and then read over the related housing web pages to find out what processes your student does have available to them. You can then advise the student about the process, without having to step in and implement the process yourself.

On or off-campus, a student who is in college needs to start putting into practice the independent living skills that are part of becoming a self-sufficient adult. Families need to remind themselves that it is generally better for students to live through a few bumpy moments at college, sorting out their problems without parents jumping in to ‘fix’ things, if students are going to be well prepared to adjust to the next step of their life – living independently as a working professional.

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Parents supporting students at the college level: Part One – Transition and Classes

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Raising a disabled child is challenging. Just ask my parents (they don’t complain but they could tell you a lot about the challenges.) How children are raised has changed a lot since I was growing up but one thing hasn’t really changed – when parents have a child who faces a unique set of challenges, the level of support the parents provide in advocating for and providing auxiliary support for their child has a huge impact on how much of the child’s potential the child will realize. Parents who work outside of the classroom with their child have children who tend to do better in the classroom.

Given this, I understand it is particularly difficult for parents who are used to assisting their children achieve success when the now young adult moves to college. How much support should parents continue to provide? Parents recognize that the geographical move alone hasn’t changed who their son or daughter is, so how does a family reconcile what the student may still need with what the parents can provide from a distance?

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Transitioning to college is challenging for every student – don’t let the recruiting brouchers for colleges, with their pictures of happy students, deceive you. Everyone faces challenges when they first transition to college life; disabled students are going to encounter unique problems as well as some of the same changes their non-disabled peers face such as  new food, new smells, new rooms, new people, new schedules, new ways of doing things….

For some students – disabled or not – a move which places them at a significant distance from home is not a good first move. More students should be making a several step transition to the college they plan to eventually graduate from. At least one year, and often two, can be spent at either a community college or a regional university that is not the university the student intends to take their final degree from. What students sometimes loose sight of is that no matter where they start their college education, their diploma will still have the name of the school they eventually graduate from, not the names of the schools they studied at along the way.

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Parents, your role may be in helping students recognize when they are not yet ready to jump straight to a school that is a significant distance from home. Similarly, if your student is only comfortable in a smaller school, going directly to a very large school may not be a healthy transition for him/her – each student has an individual limit to the number of new stresses they can successfully deal with at any one time. Parents, you may be the best equipped to advise your student about their personal tipping point for too much stress.

Parents can also be helpful in making sure their students know where to access the major life essentials in a new environment. Does the student know how to catch a bus/train/subway in their new town? Are they aware of where the closest grocery store and laundry mat are?  Have they found the dining hall and laundry in their dorm housing? Does their school have a health clinic or do they know where the nearest doctor’s office is? And where and how will they be getting any needed prescriptions refilled?

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At the college level perhaps the most significant change in the parent-child relationship that is taking place comes to the parent’s involvement in their student’s study/homework/grades and teacher interactions. It is no longer appropriate – or legal – for parents to receive information directly from the professors of their sons/daughters classes. Legally, once a person becomes a full time college student, they are considered an adult and their right to privacy regarding their grades and school progress is protected.

Grades are not going to be updated daily.

Teachers are not going to respond to demands for information.

Students are not going to always have quickly updated grading information either. At the college level professors may provide very little grading feedback during the course of the semester. Combine this with the potential that a student may choose not to share grades they know a parent will not approve of and it is very possible that a family will not know until the end of a semester that their student has failed some or all of their classes. This is the adult reality of college.

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This is a further reason why some families are best served by taking a stepped transition from living at home to living away at school; community and regional schools may be less expensive than the final-destination university that a student intends to graduate from. If a student needs practice being independent then the stress of expensive classes with little room for failure may not be a good first transition step on the way to obtaining a professional degree.

In the next part of this series we will look at another area where students need to be working towards independence: their ability to make housing arrangements.Both on and off-campus housing have specific steps which parents can help with, and points at which parents will need to let their students manage on their own.

 

Should my disability impact where I choose to study?

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Those of us who are disabled wish to have the same freedom of choice that other citizens enjoy and most people want the freedom to study where ever they would choose to. In reality though, most people do have a number of factors that weigh in their decision of where they will study including their: economics, aptitude, geographic location, desired field of study; and simply their ability to research a limited number of schools before needing to make a decision.

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Those of us who are disabled should also consider factors such as: the size of classes and how that will impact our ability to focus or necessitate being in close contact with large numbers of others; the geographic layout of campus and if this will complicate moving from class to class; the school’s familiarity with our particular disability; the available accommodations and applicable resources at each specific campus. While no one of these considerations is necessarily a deciding factor, it seems realistic to keep these points in mind as we reach a decision of where is the best fit for us to study.

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Individuals who find large numbers of people, or a great deal of noise distracting or distressing are generally poorly served by attending very large universities, where class sizes may be 500 – 2,500 students in their first year or two of study. There are a number of very good medium and small schools where potentially overwhelming numbers will not be a factor in a student’s success.

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Those with mobility issues should consider the availability of public transport or parking spaces if their intended campus is large enough to making traveling between classes a challenge. Climate is also a mitigating factor for many disabilities – snow, humidity, heat can each differently impact a person’s mobility or otherwise complicate a person’s health.

Some students like the challenge of being a trail blazer, which is usually what is required of a student when the school they plan to attend is unfamiliar with the disability the student is living with. In circumstances like this, it is best for the student to be in communication with the disability service provider months before they actually enroll — students may need to be very specific about the kind of accommodations that will be necessary and disability service providers will need to analyze a school’s capacity for being prepared.

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Students may also have a disability which requires them to be near a larger medical center, or a population center were more services are readily available than one would find in remote, rural locations — like the one where I currently work and live.

The institution where I currently work is isolated enough that obtaining sign language services usually means using a computer with camera and students with complex medical needs are required to drive three to five hours to receive services.

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Each disabled student and his or her family will have a comfort level for the kind of programs and services that will be necessary, those that will be desirable, and those that are optional. Students are best prepared for success when they weigh all these considerations before agreeing to sign up for four or five years of study with an institution…although a student can always transfer, most students prefer to find their ‘new home’ and start settling in sooner rather than later.

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