Special Feature 1

How Individual Coaching and Accommodations can Help Students Transition to College

Submitted by Neil Peterson, The Edge Foundation

Transitioning to college is a challenge for most freshman. Not only are students in an unfamiliar setting, many are living away from home for the first time. In addition to juggling classes and schoolwork, they are faced with finding new friends, negotiating with an unknown roommate, navigating the cafeteria or off-campus restaurants for every meal and, managing their spare time.

Add the fact that campuses are not designed with disabled students in mind, and it’s no wonder that many students struggle their first year and some drop out. Freshman year of college is especially difficult for students who have disabilities that impact executive functioning, such as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

These students tend to have difficulty planning, organizing, following through, adapting to change, managing time, and can be impulsive. ACEs, which include abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges, are common with nearly two-thirds of participants in a landmark study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The CDC also estimates that 5.2 million children in the United States have a formal diagnosis of ADHD, a common barrier to social and emotional learning. The National Health Interview Survey estimates that nearly 10% of school-aged children have ADHD. These numbers do not include those who are undiagnosed.

While accommodations can help mitigate barriers for these students, according to the report Accommodating College Students with Learning Disabilities: ADD, ADHD, and Dyslexia, only 51 register with the disability services office on campus.

Why don’t more seek accommodations?


  1. Many students with executive function challenges have not been diagnosed.
  2. To get federally mandated accommodations, such as extra time for tests and notetaking assistance, students must “self-declare.” That means they must:
  • Obtain a written diagnosis of their disability from a medical professional with experience in the area at their own cost.
  • Deliver the written diagnosis and other paperwork to the disability office on their college campus and request accommodations.
  • Meet with disability office staff to determine the appropriateness of the documentation and what accommodations will be available to the student.
  • Get a letter from the disability office after the documentation has been accepted and accommodations determined.
  • Take the letter to each teacher and professor and ask each one for the accommodations outlined in the letter.
  • Return to the disability office if the professor or teacher objects to the accommodations and ask the staff to intervene.


Daunting to say the least. Humiliating for sure.


  1. Some students feel a stigma at being labeled, even if the labeling would benefit them.

As noted above, half of the students with executive function challenges do not receive accommodations on campus. Accommodations are required under the law. And more importantly, accommodations help ensure that students have full access to their course work so they can succeed and graduate. One way to reduce dropout rates, increase graduation rates, and improve retention is to provide the support to students with disabilities so that they can perform up to their academic potential. Like all students, most disabled students are bright, creative, inventive, and energetic. They were accepted for admission by their postsecondary institution because they were identified as desirable additions to the community with potential to contribute to and gain from the experience. And yet, without the access due them under the law, too many are failing.


Colleges and universities can take other steps to change this:


  1. Focus on the students and not the labels, the cost, and the bureaucratic rules.


  1. Be honest with students and their parents about the process to receive accommodations and the fact that students with learning disabilities have much higher dropout rates than their counterparts. A National Center for Education Statistics report found that only 34% of students with ADHD have completed a four-year degree eight years after their high school graduation.


  1. Strongly encourage students to connect with the disability resource office and use accommodations from the beginning of their first term.


  1. Tell students that the college is not interested in labeling them, i.e., that the details of their disabilities are confidential.


  1. Find new and inventive ways to reach out, communicate, connect, and engage with each student and their family. While not a mandated accommodation, support students in finding a personal coach. A coach will focus on helping students learn the skills of planning, organizing, prioritizing, follow up, and time management that will affect not only their academic performance but also their adaptation to college life. The Edge Foundation, for example, provides coaches for students with disabilities that impact executive functioning. A study by Wayne State University looked at Edge Foundation coaching methods involving students from ten universities and community colleges. The study was the largest and most comprehensive study of ADHD coaching conducted to date. The research team determined that the Edge coaching model was four times more effective than any other educational intervention in helping students improve executive functioning and related skills as measured by the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory.


Institutions that have struggled with dropout rates have found the best way to help students become successful and stay in school is with the personal touch. Let’s get our bright, motivated, learning-challenged students the help they deserve so that they, their families, and our society will all benefit from their talents and energy.


[Neil Peterson, former chief executive of public transportation systems in Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles and founding CEO of Flexcar (now Zipcar), founded the Edge Foundation, a  nonprofit that provides executive-style coaches for young people who have executive function challenges. Reach him at npeterson@edgefoundation.org, www.edgefoundation.org.]