Webinar Transcript

Ask the Expert Webinar Q&A: Is My High School Student Ready for College?

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Robyn Maggio:  It's a pleasure to introduce today's expert, Dr. Ari Tuckman. He's the author of three books, Understand Your Brain-Get More Done, More Attention-Less Deficit, and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD. He is in private practice in Westchester, Pennsylvania, a board member of CHADD, and co-chair of the CHADD Conference Committee. Again, we're pleased to welcome Dr. Tuckman.

Ari Tuckman: Hi, there. It is great to be here, and this is a topic that I get a lot in my office. Often, it's the parents of high school seniors. Hopefully, it's not in the summer before they're about to go away that this comes up, but preferably it's the parents of high school juniors, or even sophomores, so that gives us some time to work on this. So, let's take some questions here.

Robyn Maggio:  Okay. Great. Coming from a parent who feels like they initiate and prompt their teenager a lot. And if they don't, they feel like things don't get done. So, do you have some specific strategies on how those teenagers can start to initiate and make their own decisions?

Ari Tuckman: Yeah. So, I've got a few thoughts on that. My first thought is, the things that you're initiating and prompting your team to do are probably, a lot of them are things that are important for you that they do, but may not be as important for them that they do. I'm not saying that's a reason why you shouldn't prompt them, but to just be clear about who's motivated to do what here. Alternatively, some of it may be stuff that, "Yeah, I guess I could see why I should do that, but I don't need to do it right now," and that procrastination of ADHD that a lot of kids, well, a lot of people with ADHD of all ages, they don't feel that activation until they get closer. So, a week out, it doesn't exist to them, but the night before, all of a sudden, now they feel it.

Some of it might be that, but I think, my advice would be, first, to think about, is this something that they are motivated to do, or is it more important to me that they do it? But then have some conversations with them about, "Okay, so here's the stuff that I feel needs to be done. Here's why I think it should be done. I don't really like bugging you about it, but it seems like if I don't, you don't really do it, so what do we do here? How do we get me out of the business of having to bug you all the time with this?" And to find out, what are some ways for them to be motivated about it. And if these are things that are somewhat non-negotiable, in this sense of, "I can't let you fail. That's just not acceptable to me," then you may just have to accept that you're going to have to do some bugging of them, but to have some conversations about it.

Going back to what I was talking about before, how do I know that you're ready for college? And to say, do not frame this as a threat, but to say, "You know what, we are watching to see how you handle different things, to know that you are ready to go away to college. Because for you to go away and it doesn't work out, is not good for anybody. These are the kinds of things that we're watching to make an assessment about your readiness, and if you need to take some time off before you go away to college so it's a good experience, then that's what we're going to do. And that's okay. I mean, there's no shame in that, but if going away to college right after graduation is important to you, then these are some things that we need to work on." And that, again, it's part of many conversations that you're going to have over those years.

Robyn Maggio:  Along that same line, I know that grades sometimes are used as a way to motivate teenagers and college students. So, what if your student doesn't see your grades as a motivation? How do you help make that connection that that has an effect on their future beyond school and college?

Ari Tuckman: For most of us as adults, we can see that abstract connection between these grades and getting into those colleges, and then what follows. So, but these students who aren't as motivated by grades, may not see that connection. Or this abstract, A is a better than a B, than a C, than a D, just doesn't mean anything to them. It doesn't motivate them. So, I think if that's the case, you need to step back a bit and talk with them about, "So, let's talk about, what colleges are you thinking about?" And have them name some names, and then you just go online and you say, "All right, let's take a look. Let's see what the average GPA, the average SAT, the average class rank is for the kids who are getting into that school," and help them see how these grades now, even in freshmen, sophomore year, directly connect into. And to do some quick math, if they're like, "Oh, well, I can get my grades up later."

Say, "All right, well, let's see what your GPA is now, and let's do some quick math to figure out. You're going to need to get 117% your last four semesters in order, or your last four quarters, in order to get your GPA up to a 3.0. That seems unlikely." And so, I think that that's part of it, but it may also be that they just don't have as many options for college, but that they may be one of those people who does well in life, even if they don't do well in school. And as the parent, to not make yourself insane over the grades that they're getting.

Robyn Maggio:  We are going to change topics a little bit. We have some questions coming in about parents of current college students. So, one who has a daughter who's had an unsuccessful freshman year and is saying that she wants to go back to school, but she hasn't really done anything to show them that she's ready. So, as a parent, would you take that as a sign that their child isn't ready to go back, or how would you handle that situation?

Ari Tuckman: Yeah. I think this is a great question and one that I see fairly often. So, I think in that case, what I'd recommend is that the parents just talk very directly to their daughter and say, "You say that you want to go, that you want to go back, and I believe you because I don't have reason not to, but at the same time, I'm not seeing you do those things that would get you ready to go back. So, here are the things, blah, blah, blah, blah, that your dad and I, or your mom and I think would be important to do before you go. I don't see you doing that. So, what are you doing? Maybe I'm missing it, so fill me in. What am I missing here that you're not doing, or that you are doing, that's going to show that you're ready to go back?"

So, start by giving them some benefit of the doubt. But at the end of the day, to then continue the conversation about it and just say, "Well, but these are our concerns. And these are the things that we're not seeing, and that we feel like, really, we should see, to feel like you're ready." And to put something of a timeline on it, and to be very, very clear about what that date is, that drop dead date where you need to notify the school. Yes, I'm coming back, or no, I'm not. And by the way, here's $1,000 deposit, or whatever. So, that should be on the college student to find that out.

If they can't manage to find that out, that is not a good sign for their ability to handle anything at school. So, it may just be that you need to have some very direct conversations with her about it, and perhaps, be prepared that, you know what, she's not ready, not this semester. That's okay, there'll be another one, but she's not ready this semester. And that that burden of proof is on her to show you guys, not on you to chase her to make sure that she is ready.

Robyn Maggio:  What about for students who might be in college and might be at home going to a community college or local college, who are looking into going away to finish out the rest of their degree? Any different suggestions for that audience?

Ari Tuckman: I mean, first of all, I'm a great proponent of community colleges. I think that, first of all, there's no cheaper college credits around, which is important these days, but they fill a great need in the market, so to speak, in terms of, for a lot of these students that we're talking about. To be able to fill in some classes, or to work on some classes while living at home before they go away to college. Most community colleges, I think, don't offer a four degree option, at least that's true where I live. That be different somewhere else, but you can at least get half of your credits there and then you go somewhere else. I think in that case, I would talk to the college student about, here's what we need to see. And again, it's the ultimate grades, but it's also about the process.

So, how are they handling getting those grades, and how are they handling getting themselves to class, and getting into bed on time, and getting enough sleep, and getting to work, and all that other stuff. And again, if it's that mad dash scramble that things are getting done, that does not bode well for how they're going to be when they live on their own, or with a roommate who really doesn't give a crap whether they get to class or not, because it's not their job to care whether their roommate gets a class or not. So again, it's that same process of looking at, how does this current behavior predict what's going to happen in the future?

Robyn Maggio:  We have a parent whose son has difficulty talking about his future, and what he wants in life, and his goals. And they're wondering, is this typical for someone who has ADHD?

Ari Tuckman: I mean, it can be, depending on how old he is. Especially, the younger he is, the more common that is. So, if he's 14 and has trouble thinking about his goals after high school, that would hardly be unusual. If he's like 17, 18 and a senior and he's still having trouble, then that might not be as common. But yeah, I mean, part of ADHD is not seeing or feeling the future as much as people of the same age who don't have ADHD. So, they're more focused on what's happening right now, more so than what's coming down the pike. This is part of why kids live with their parents until they're 18 or 20 or whatever, and old enough to go out into the world, because as parents and adults, we can see the future more effectively.

But if he's really not thinking about the future, then my advice is, you don't push him into the future. You don't push him into making decisions about the future too early. And instead, you find other things that he can do. So, getting a job or taking some classes, whatever, it doesn't matter what they are, just trying some things out to help him figure out what it is that he might be interested in doing later. And that he might just be one of those guys who blossoms a little bit later. So, instead of at 18, it's more like 19, 20, 21, that he figures it out, and then makes some of those big life choices.

Robyn Maggio:  Moving back onto high school students getting ready for college. We have a lot of questions about the gap year and taking that time off. So, when would you begin having that conversation about taking a gap year before committing to going to college, or even committing to join the military, or do something else after high school?

Ari Tuckman: My recommendation on that is that you just drop it in casually along the way. "Not everybody goes straight to college right after high school. There's other things you can do also." And your kid's response initially might be, "Aah, I'm going to college," or "I don't want to miss out," or whatever, right? But whatever, you've planted the seed, and then you drop it in again, and then you drop it in again. And if it really seems like, okay, this is not working out here in high school, or it's not working out well enough for me to feel confident to write a fat check to some college somewhere, that's then when you start talking about the gap here.

And what all the options are, do a little bit of research and say, "Oh, I found this one. You go snorkeling in the Bahamas every day and you study marine ecosystems, or something," so it's something appealing and interesting. And to talk about it basically as a little bit of a detour to get them prepared for college, so that they can really make it a good experience. That you want them to have a good experience in college, which means getting good enough grades to keep themselves in college.

And that's where the gap year fits in. Now, you might need to talk to them a little bit about, "Well, what are we going to tell everyone? All my friends are going away to college. What are we going to tell them that I'm doing?" And to make it clear, this is not a punishment. This doesn't mean that they're not smart enough for college. It doesn't mean whatever. It just means that, "You know what, we're going to do something a little different here, and this is going to be pretty cool." So, you got to sell it, right? Because especially for a teenager who might feel self conscious about it, that could be the deal breaker right there. So, you need to find a way for them to finesse the language, so that the social impact doesn't become the reason why they don't even think about looking at it.

Robyn Maggio:  And what about for parents who have done all of this prep work, and their child is, they're feeling ready to go to college, and they're on campus and they know that they have different support programs or services there. Do you have any suggestions for how they can make the best use of the services that might be available on campus?

Ari Tuckman: I mean, first of all, having some really honest conversations about what services are available and your student's willingness to use them. Because the, I don't know, there's this thing about these college services that by the time a bunch of these students use it, it's too late. They show up in the 13th week of this semester, and it's like their fate has already been sealed at that point. To have some really honest discussions with them about, "If we're going to send you off the campus, here's what we need to see. This is what it's going to take for you to show up for the next semester."

As a student, you have to convince an admissions department somewhere to let you in, and then you have to convince mom and or dad to pay for it and to sign off on it. But the same goes, once you get into college, you got to convince the college that you got good enough grades to keep you there. And you got to convince mom and or dad to continue to pay for it, or to sign off on it, or whatever. Part of that is to say, "If we're going to do this college thing, it's with the understanding that you're going to be going to this support center every week, and you're going to be doing this stuff that needs to be done there." Now, the problem is, you don't really have any great way of verifying whether or not it's happening, but if you make it clear that, "Look, if your grades are below this, we're not paying for another semester, unless you can prove to us that you've been to that counseling center every week, or whatever."

So, it's hard because as the parent of a college student, you have much less awareness and much less access to the information about what's going on there. So, you just try to have those conversations ahead of time and really emphasize honesty and that at the end of the day, if they're not going to the support center, you're going to see it in their grades. It will become obvious. This is far from the perfect crime, because it will become known whether they went or not, because you're going to be able to see it in their grades.

Robyn Maggio:  Along those same lines of services, we have someone whose child receives therapy, and they're wondering how do you transition to not only college, but to also a new therapist?

Ari Tuckman: It's hard because there's some college campuses that have great counseling centers and they make it a priority to have enough therapists that their students can be seen. And then there are other colleges where it's like, you get five sessions a year and that's it. And by the way, there's a four month waiting list. So, that would be something to consider before you even choose a school, perhaps, or to find out, are there other options in the local community. Now, if you go to NYU in the middle of New York City, I mean, you've got, obviously, a million options right there, but if you're going somewhere else, there may not be easy, local options. And especially as a freshman, if you don't have a car, you're really limited, in terms of who you can get to. So, that's something that you're going to need to kind of check in on and plan ahead for maybe.

Robyn Maggio:  Do you have any advice for college athletes?

Ari Tuckman: I think, in some ways actually being an athlete, where you have a fairly rigorous schedule, can actually be better. Ironically, there are some folks where the less they have to do, the less they actually get done. Having a very structured schedule where you have your classes, and you have your workouts, and you have your, I don't know, your running exercises, and going to the gym, and whatever, can actually really structure their time and make them much, much more effective. Also, depending upon, I mean, I don't know, I had this one college kid who did great at a division one school when he was on a soccer team and they had lockdown study times. And then he transferred schools to another place that had no study times, and he totally struggled because he needed that lockdown study time.

And then I've had athletes where this supposed study time is basically mandatory social hour, because nobody is doing any work, but technically speaking, they're all within this study room from 6:00 to 8:00 or something, right? So, you need to find out what the real deal is, and not just what it's claimed to be. Another potential benefit is, an athlete might have, the coach might get some regular reports about which students are eligible or not, and will then put some pressure on. Or just in general, for the student themselves, knowing that, "Oh, man, if I get below a B minus, then I'm not going to be able to play this weekend," provides a much more immediate motivation, compared to 14 weeks from now, I may get a bad grade.

It's too far away. We talked about folks with ADHD not feeling the future as well. It's like, by the time they feel it it's too long into the semester and too much has been set in stone already. So, being an athlete can be a great distraction, but it can also provide some good structures. So, I think it's really about the details there, of how that's going to work out.

Robyn Maggio:  We have a parent who's wondering about, at the beginning of the college, should you insist on full transparency from your student, in terms of assignments, assignment status, grades, all of those different pieces that go into academics?

Ari Tuckman: So, I assume what the question is about, should the parent be able to have full access to the student's information?

Robyn Maggio:  Is it a good idea for their parent to have full access to all of that information?

Ari Tuckman: Well, that's a hard one because on the one hand, I think, the way to think about it is, if it's more about managing the parent's anxiety, in other words, I need to see it, to know that you're doing it, that's probably not a good reason to have that access. On the other hand, if you have a student where you really are concerned, where it's like, "You know what, with oversight, I think you could probably be successful in college, but without it, I don't know if you will be." If that's part of the bargain, that's part of the agreement that's made is, "Okay, we will send you off, but here's the deal. We have to have your logins and stuff to the grade portals, to see how you're doing." Then maybe that's part of the deal.

My advice there is that you fade it out, as appropriate. Meaning that, maybe initially you check more, and then as you see that they're doing fine, then you begin to check less, and you back off and let them manage it on their own. My advice to students, when it comes to parents checking their grades, or checking their cell phones, or whatever, my advice is, make it incredibly boring for your parents to check your stuff. And boring means, nothing exciting and problematic to be seen here, move on, please.

If mom and dad get bored because they don't see anything interesting, they're going to not check as much. That's just human nature. So, to make a point then of thinking about, what is the right amount of checking? Am I doing this so that I can sleep at night, or am I doing this to make sure that my student really is doing what they need to do? And now we're jumping onto things early before it's a problem.

Robyn Maggio:  But what if your teen wants to go to a large party school, rather than a school that, as a parent, you know has more services and will do a better job with students who have ADHD?

Ari Tuckman: Not an uncommon question. So, I think you need to talk to your kid about, what's your motivation for picking this school? Why this school, rather than that school? What do you imagine college is going to be like? How do you see yourself handling those temptations of being at a big party school? Like, let's not be naive about why they want to go there, but to ask them directly like, "Why that school? What are your problems with the other school?" Find out where they stand on it, to make your case for the smaller school, but to tie then, this conversation back to their current and recent behaviors.

So, not going back to freshman year, but "Based on how you've been handling da, da, da, that gives me some concerns, that in a really entertaining, distracting environment, that you're not going to be able to handle it well. And that if it doesn't work out well, that you're going to be back here in a semester. And that means a waste of money. It means you're going to feel bad about it. It means that you're then going to have to figure out what to do while you're home. Are we really willing to take that chance?"

And then it becomes on them. Again, burden of proof on them to prove to you between now and when a deposit gets sent off to whatever school they're going to go to, that burden of proof is on them to show you that they're ready to handle it. It may be that, and this is your last option, but, and maybe you just got to drop the veto bomb on them and say, "You know what? I understand why you would want to go to that school. I do not think that would be a good idea. I cannot sign on to that."

It's like, if they said, "I want to get a tattoo on my face," would you then be like, "Oh, well, who am I to judge?" So, just say, "I'm not going to do it. I cannot in good conscience, let you do that. So, instead, if you go either to a local school or you go to this other smaller school and you get whatever GPA, if you can show us you can handle it there, then I will entertain a conversation about you transferring to this other bigger school. But as of right now, I don't feel like I've seen a track record to convince me that this is a good idea."

Robyn Maggio:  Last question today. So, what if, as a parent, your child has gone to college, community college, four-year college, comes back, taking off a semester, but your fear is, or your sense is that they're never going to want to go back to college. How do you help parents through that situation?

Ari Tuckman: And that's a common fear, but I think that, I mean, first of all, a lot of the kids who don't go back to college, or the ones who say, "Oh, I want to take some time off and then I'm going to go to college," they didn't want to go to college in the first place, but they just didn't feel that they could say, "I don't want to go to college." They're just stalling making that ultimate pronouncement. Whereas, I think that the kids who, there may also then be a subset of the kids who go off to college, it's a terrible experience because it doesn't work out well. And then, because it was so terrible because they weren't ready for it, then they say, "Nope, I don't want to go back," because they don't want to deal with it again. But I think that is a preventable thing, where it didn't necessarily need to work out that way.

But I think that for the kids who really just don't want to go to college, and that's fine, not everybody in the world has to go to college. You don't have to go to college, but you have to have some sort of skills that not everybody else has, if you want to have anything of a lifestyle that will enable you to live independently. There's lots of jobs you can get that are great jobs, that pay well, that have a satisfying life, that don't involve a college degree. And frankly, having a bunch of college debt, and then to do one of those other things, is really no blessings. So, I think to help them figure out, if not college, then what else is it going to be? And that may be a process that takes a little bit of time, but that's okay.

Parenting takes a while sometimes. But I think that for the kids who, where they take time off, or whatever, either before or during, I'm going to go back to my line from before. There's nothing like a crappy job to convince someone of the value of an education. I've seen a lot of folks, where with a little bit of age, and a little bit of wisdom, and some experience, they come to a point of realizing, "You know what, actually, I am ready for college. I can see now that I wasn't before, but I am ready now, and I can do something good with it. And it's going to be a positive experience." Not just academically, but they're going to get a lot more out of it.

And since teenagers with ADHD often mature a little bit more slowly, so they're a couple of years behind in terms of some of these life management skills, it may be that there's a big, big difference between 18 and 19, or 19 and 20, in that with a little bit more time, they figure that out and then they're ready to go and to do well and to make it a good experience.

Robyn Maggio:  So, thank you so much, Dr. Tuckman.


This webinar is supported by Cooperative Agreement Number NU38DD000002-01-00 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC.