Heading to college in the fall? Summer vacation is the perfect opportunity to work on the skills you’ll need to succeed in college. Whether it’s understanding the way your disability affects you, navigating new environments, using an ATM machine, making your own doctor’s appointments, or figuring out what type of organization system works best for you, summer break can provide you with the free time to practice these necessary skills.
Research has shown that having the ability to understand your disability and self-advocate for accommodations can significantly contribute to successful outcomes in both school and in employment (Adelman & Vogel, 1990). Researching the types of accommodations available at your college and contacting the disabilities office can also help students with disabilities get an early start on learning strategies that can aid in their transition to college.
Parents and students are often overwhelmed with all that’s involved in the transition from high school to college, especially for families who are used to advocating for their children, and who may be unsure about how their children will fare on their own. Scheduling time while they are still living at home to help build skills can help this transition become much smoother and can also serve to ease anxiety for both parents and students.
Some of the specific types of skills you can practice during summer vacation are:
Visit unknown places and use maps to practice navigation skills – Whether students will be attending a local college and living at home, or leaving home to attend a college in another state, they will need to learn their way around a campus. For a student who has never experienced navigating a new environment, this can be extremely stressful. Visiting the campus over the summer break when it’s less crowded can provide the perfect opportunity for students to figure out where their classes will be, which dining hall is closest to their dorm, where the gym, disabilities center, and bookstore are located.
Ride public transportation and use bus/train schedules – Students will need to either learn how to drive or take public transportation between home and school on a daily basis or during vacations. Summer is a great time to practice new routes to and from a local school, and to figure out the best ways of getting to and from a distant school so that students know how they’ll be able to return home. For students who have never experienced taking a public bus or train, practice using local transportation during the summer just to practice this new skill and become familiar reading bus and train schedules as well.
Join a group activity based on a topic of interest to practice building new relationships – Summer is the perfect opportunity to research local organizations to find programs you’re interested in. Most colleges have an abundance of clubs, which students can join as a way of pursuing their interests and meeting other like- minded individuals. Why not practice your social skills over the summer while pursuing a passion, and be better able to take advantage when you arrive at college?
Set an alarm clock to wake you every morning to practice independent skills – If waking up on time during high school has been an issue, you can guarantee it won’t be any easier in college, when you’ve gone to sleep much later and don’t have parents shaking you to wake up in the morning. Start getting used to it during the summer! And if one alarm clock doesn’t do the trick, begin to learn how to set a backup alarm on your phone – which should be charging every night in your room anyway!
Start a checking account with ATM access to practice budgeting skills – This is especially recommended for families where parents have been acting as bank tellers and doling out money as needed. It’s time to think about how this works in the real world, whether the student will be continuing to live at home or going away to school. Family discussions about finances, how much will be in the student’s checking account each semester, and the student’s responsibility to check the balance periodically, should be done during the summer. If students will be working, they also need to learn how to deposit checks into the ATM machine, in addition to learning how to make withdrawals.
Purchase a calendar or planner of some type to record important dates and appointments to practice time management – Many students make it through high school keeping due dates in their heads and somehow manage to remember to hand things in (sometimes) on time. In college, students will have more long-term deadlines, more appointments and meetings they’ll be responsible for remembering, and parents won’t be around to remind them. A planner of some kind is crucial! Taking some time over the summer to figure out what type of planner system works best for you will help you be ready to get started when college begins. A personal preference, some students prefer to write in a paper planner, while others like using their phone calendars because they’re always with them.
Communicate using phone calls, emails and texts to practice communication skills – Try using different methods of communication over the summer and get used to checking them frequently. Colleges communicate important information with students through email so it’s important to update your email address to the one the college will be using and to check it daily. Parents and friends will probably text or call you, so be sure to keep your phone charged and check it several times a day for text messages or voicemails. If you receive a text or voicemail, practice texting or calling back so that the person knows you received it, even if you think it doesn’t seem like you need to respond. Keeping the lines of communication open when students leave for college is very important in reducing stress and anxiety for both parents and students. While parents need to respect their student’s need for independence, students need to understand that parents feel disconnected and need to know that their children are doing well. Take time during the summer to discuss what works best for your family and keep the discussion going when the student leaves home. For students living at home, it’s still important to stay connected so parents know if you need a ride, if you’ll be late getting home, etc. so they don’t need to worry unnecessarily.
Make your own appointments with doctors, friends, etc. to practice self-advocacy skills – One of the most important factors of success in college is the ability to self-advocate. Practice these important skills over the summer whenever the situation arises, whether it’s ordering food at a restaurant, asking for the bill, calling for information about something, or making a date with a friend or an appointment with a doctor. Almost every situation in college presents the opportunity for self-advocacy, and many opportunities can be missed if a student doesn’t know how to self-advocate. For instance, a professor explains an assignment but the student doesn’t understand what they are supposed to do and doesn’t ask and fails. A student who is supposed to receive accommodations for tests doesn’t let the professor know so doesn’t receive accommodations and fails.
Practice self-awareness skills by making time for self-hygiene, doing laundry, cleaning up your space and record them in your planner to practice time management – In addition to attending classes, doing homework, studying and socializing, college students must learn to recognize when it’s time to shower, do laundry, and clean up their space on their own. These are often the first things to go when students become overwhelmed with all of the other adjustments of college life. Beginning to make these a consistent part of a student’s lives while they are still at home can help them remember that these are important skills that they will continue to be responsible for when college (and the rest of their life) begins.
Practice healthy stress management skills by finding a type of exercise or way to reduce stress that works for you – Having a toolbox full of techniques that have been tried and tested will go far when anxiety and stress hit, and I guarantee they will! Summer is the perfect time to find the types of exercise (outdoor and indoor) that work for you. Take some classes (yoga, cycling, dance) and see what you like best. Learn breathing techniques, visualizations, music that helps you relax and unwind. Research support and counseling services on campus that are available to students and have a list of names and contact information handy for when you might need it.
If you can build many of these skills before leaving for college you will find that the transition to college will be smoother and your chances for a successful college experience will surely increase. Taking the unknown factor out of the equation can relax everyone involved in the transition and can prevent unnecessary stress.
Ronni Aronow MA, MS is a College Transition Consultant for Students on the Spectrum. She provides individualized High School Skills Coaching, Transition Planning and College Support for students with disabilities that challenge them in the areas of executive functioning, social communication and stress management. She has offices in NYC and Long Island, and is part of Spectrum Services at www.spectrumservicesnyc.com. Please contact Ronni at firstname.lastname@example.org.