Planning for Life Beyond High School with ADHD

 ADHD Weekly, February 7, 2019

Is your high school student considering a two- or four-year college degree, job training, workplace, joining the military, or a gap year? When ADHD is part of this journey, teens and young adults—along with their parents—need to know what they are ready to do.

Where to begin

Start talking with your son or daughter about long-term plans during middle school, explains Kevin Antshel, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the ADHD Lifespan Treatment, Education, and Research Program (ALTER) at Syracuse University. Before high school starts, your child may have the chance to sign up for elective courses that will help him get where he wants to go.

Dr. Antshel says he often asks young clients what they’re interested in and hears “video games” as a response. Parents tell him the same thing when he asks them what their child does well. He follows up by asking what is it about video games the child enjoys—the excitement or the novelty, the continual rewards or the positive reinforcement. Whatever the response, he next guides the parents and child into an exploration of careers or jobs that will provide the same kind of stimulation.

“I encourage parents to think creatively in terms of occupational outcomes,” Dr. Antshel says. “They should know what things the child has an aptitude for and interest in, versus things he really doesn’t want to get involved with.” If it feels overwhelming to have this discussion on your own, don’t hesitate to bring in a professional.

Looking past high school

There are plenty of options for a young person transitioning from high school to the next step in life, says Arlyn Roffman, PhD, professor emerita of special education at Lesley University and author of Guiding Teens with Learning Disabilities: Navigating the Transition from High School to Adulthood. Choices could include continuing their educations in a two- or four-year college program, vocational training, a gap year or a formal gap year program, starting work, or enlisting for military or civil service.

The most commonly chosen options are entering college or vocational training, entering the workforce, or taking a planned gap year.

Dr. Antshel recommends community college to the majority of his clients. Most are local schools, allowing students to live at home or nearby. Students can continue to receive a lot of the support and resources they’re used to, while adjusting to the demands of college.

Dr. Roffman points out that community colleges usually only require a high school diploma or GED, and not standardized testing, such as the SAT or ACT.

“Class size tends to be smaller, tuition is lower, and they offer a wide range of vocational, remedial, and developmental courses,” she says. “Students may choose the intensity of study to best fit their needs and interests. They may start slowly and take just a few courses in areas of interest, enroll in a certificate training program toward particular employment goals, or choose to matriculate in an associate’s degree program with the intention of later transferring to a four‐year institution.”

Many students who achieve their two-year degree develop enough confidence and academic skill to continue on for a bachelor’s degree, says Dr. Antshel.

Vocational training or employment
If your son or daughter is interested in a trade, a vocational program can prepare him or her to begin work. Such programs offer the hands-on training essential for that kind of work. Many programs include an apprenticeship will let young adults work directly with a skilled tradesperson.

“You can prepare for a promising career at a trade school,” write the career counselors at “JPMorgan Chase’s research found that a large number of employers report that it is hardest to fill middle-skill jobs, which are jobs that require some training, but not necessarily a four-year degree. And the skills gap is furthered by the problem that one-third of the country’s unemployment rate is a result of a mismatch between current workers’ skills and the available jobs.”

This means there are many well-paying jobs that are going unfilled. A person with job-specific vocational training can step into them very quickly.

You can learn more about trade school and vocation training at the US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Gap year
Gap years can offer a break from schooling to decide what the next plan will be. A young adult might travel abroad, perform volunteer work, or work in a job related to his career interest before starting college. What’s essential is that the gap year has some focus. For some young adults with ADHD who struggled through high school, a gap year offers a chance to take an academic break and develop additional coping skills.

“The key here is it must be organized,” says Dr. Roffman. “A year ‘off’ holds little advantage for someone who needs structure in his or her life. 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.”

Dr. Antshel recommends a gap year be spent close to home—maybe a part-time job or a community college course in something the young adult is genuinely interested in.

Taming the tumbleweeds after high school

Dr. Roffman suggests every student keep a personal portfolio of all transition-related documents, for use in applications to colleges or employment. It should include school transcripts, IEPs, a summary of extracurricular activities, all disability documentation and test results, and any relevant information about applying to college applications or finding a job.

It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of going to college right away. “It may be that taking time to work or travel is a better option,” she says. It gives your child time to mature and develop a better sense of any interests he has—and might even want to study.

Dr. Antshel suggests thinking of making post-high school plans as a living thing—something that may change and evolve.

“You want your plans to be flexible, you want your plans to be adaptive, you want your plans to include the adolescent with ADHD,” he says. “I think the transition to adulthood should be something that’s given consideration, but unfortunately I don’t think every family does that. I have seen families who were just so focused on high school, and once high school ended, it’s like tumbleweeds blowing.”

Looking for more?

Join the discussion: How did you help your child plan for life after high school?