11/23/2014  |  By Jodi Sleeper-Triplett

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.

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 insurmountable.

 “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.”

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 insurmountable. 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,” 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 two and four year colleges or universities. They found that the coaching group had a significantly higher total LASSI 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.

To assist students in choosing the right college or university to meet their needs and their level of self-regulation, consider the following:

  1. Ask the student what support might be useful at college. Often times students don’t know what is available at the college level and appreciate guidance when exploring prospective schools and programs.
  2. Discuss the process of obtaining accommodations at the college level and if you are not sure of the details, refer the student to SPED or to an outside specialized college counselor.
  3. Suggest that the student research each college of interest — what is the level of support for students with ADHD and what will it take to get support and/or accommodations at each school.
  4. Encourage students to visit a limited number of schools to start out. Too many choices can be stressful and add to the emotional dysregulation/overwhelm.
  5. Discuss what is important for each student to learn while on campus, beyond accommodations for their academic needs. Examples of these areas include:
    a. Size of the college or university
    b. Urban, suburban, or rural — what is most comfortable?
    c. Distance from home
    d. Layout of the campus — do the “Goldilocks test.” Is the school too big, too small or just right?
    e. Housing and dining options
    f. Sports and recreation choices
    g. Clubs — academic, social, religious
  6. Suggest that the student visit Student Support Services on campus. It is important to make an appointment in advance of the visit. Note that colleges use a variety of names to identify their support services: writing center, coaching, counseling, tutoring, disability services, help with accommodations.

As defined earlier in this article, self-regulation is a skill necessary for reliable emotional well-being. Self-esteem and self-confidence also play an important part in emotional growth. Students who feel good about themselves, are self-aware and comfortable in social situations, have an easier rollout into college. When working with students with ADHD and executive functioning issues, notice how the student relates to others, self-advocates, and is able to see at least part of the bigger picture — the end goal. You might consider referring a student to a coach to prepare for the transition to college. Coaching is a valuable intervention for students who need to strengthen these areas before classes start and during their college matriculation. The coach provides structure and support while helping students identify areas of strength and areas requiring skill building and strategies for success. With increased skill, will, and self-regulation, students with ADHD and low scores on self-regulation can learn to thrive and flourish beyond high school.

Jodi Sleeper-Triplett, MCC, SCAC, BCC, is the leader in the field of ADHD youth coaching and the author of “Empowering Youth with ADHD” (2010). Her company, JST Coaching, LLC, provides youth coach training programs, keynote presentations and workshops worldwide. For more information, visit
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