Help Your Teen Plan a Rewarding Gap Year

 ADHD Weekly, September 7, 2023

Has your teen decided to take a gap year between high school and college? If so, you might be worried about what they will do during this year or more out of school and if they will go to college afterward.

Many teens, especially those with ADHD, benefit from an academic break and successfully transition to college following their gap year. A gap year can provide additional time for emotional maturity, hands-on experience in a field of interest, and space to slowly master living on their own and caring for themselves. The key to a successful gap year experience is ensuring that your young adult has something to do during this time—whether that includes working, volunteering, traveling, or enrolling in a transition program.

Gap year opportunities

Arlyn Roffman, PhD, suggests that teens who intend to pursue a gap year have a plan for what they will do during that year. Dr. Roffman is professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and founder of Threshold, a transition program for teens and young adults with learning, developmental, and intellectual disabilities.

“A year ‘off’ holds little advantage for someone who needs structure in his or her life,” says Dr. Roffman. “But a year doing something purposeful, where he or she can build confidence and learn lessons about the ways of the world, can be highly beneficial.”

Threshold is one option among several such programs for those taking a gap year; many are based on college campuses. These transition programs help students with diverse needs successfully adapt to independent living. Some even offer teens the opportunity to enroll in a few college courses while learning life skills. There are many different forms of transition programs, including those that focus on executive function skills, life skills, and helping teens find a career based on their interests.

Some teens prefer to spend their gap year working or volunteering in their field of interest. Others may look for opportunities that combine work or volunteering and travel. Skills gained from a gap year can help ease the transition to college and help a teen better handle living on their own.

One young adult, Amanda, spent her gap year volunteering at a national park in Portugal, thus combining travel with environmental conservation and preservation. Sharing about her experience on social media, she says that her gap year helped her learn new skills: “Moreover, this project has helped me to improve my skills related to teamwork, communication, and adaptation to new experiences.”

Closer to home

Not all gap year experiences require international travel; there are many options available closer to home. SOAR, a nonprofit organization, provides unique experiences for teens and young adults with ADHD and learning disabilities through their gap year programs in Wyoming and North Carolina.

According to its promotional information, SOAR created their gap year programs especially for individuals with ADHD: “From learning to prepare healthy meals, to budgeting, to keeping personal spaces clean and organized, to learning to develop positive relationships, gappers are able to learn and grow through real life experiences.” Specialized programs like SOAR help teens with ADHD build social, executive function, and life skills which are usually not taught on college campuses.

It can get costly if your teen wants to participate in a transition or specialized program or travel for their gap year. You will want to discuss with your teen how the family will pay for a gap year. If a low-cost option is needed, your teen can ask their school counselor about internships or job opportunities, especially ones that are local to your family. Internships can give teens an idea of what working in a particular field is like, which can help them decide on a field of study or future career. Another option, if your teen isn’t sure what field interests them, is to contact the state office of vocational rehabilitation. State vocational rehabilitation offices help young adults with disabilities find employment and can provide employment resources that can help them discover their career interests, acquire job-related skills, and provide on-the-job training.

Help in creating a gap year plan

Most teens and young adults need help creating a gap year plan. Often, their high school guidance counselor can provide information about different options. They can also reach out to a gap year specialist, a professional who can help them explore opportunities.

“Gap year specialists can help families build a program that will allow the student to focus on areas that they want to strengthen before attending college and ultimately feel confident and prepared when they arrive at the college that they will attend,” says Janet Price. She is a gap year consultant with Essig Education Group and works with teens to find the experiences best suited to their needs.

While a gap year may not be suitable for everyone, the experience and skills learned can be valuable and help a teen with ADHD to better transition to college.

“Don’t be intimidated if your young adult wants to try something different; encourage him or her to do something out of the ordinary,” says Jeremy Neidens, director of SOAR’s Eagle View Ranch in Wyoming. “After all, we are all unique human beings and deserve to live life outside the box at times. The options for what a gap year can look like are limitless.”

More on gap year planning:

Join the conversation: How did you or your young adult spend a gap year?