Transitioning Exceptional Students into College Begins in Middle School: On a Campus of Thousands of Students, No One Can Keep Track of One Student and Her Learning Differences, So Learning How to Advocate and Provide Documentation Is Vital to Success

Article excerpt

Imagine two scenarios: Sasha has a disability that she doesn't discuss, although she has struggled through college. She is placed into a field experience as a culminating part of her degree and immediately experiences failure; she is having some issues processing what is required of her and needs additional time to do so, plus health issues make her fatigued and unable to perform all duties asked of her. She will fail the field experience and may not earn her degree. She calls in the ADA, last minute, when she questions why supports are not in place to help her. But she has alienated her professor, the field supervisor and the host administrator who are all shocked and defensive.

Amy, on the other hand, has a documented disability of which she is fully cognizant. She contacts her university's ADA department before enrolling and supplies documentation of her disability. She meets with personnel to go over the parameters of her disability and the accommodations she feels will be needed to gain success. She self-advocates with every professor, articulating her perspective and needs, and is placed in a field experience that supports her needs and allows her optimal performance opportunities. She is hailed for being proactive and skillful in the workforce and is offered a job at the host site.

The difference between the two women is the level at which each recognized her disability, articulated individual needs, and self-advocated. These are skills with which students must enter the collegiate arena intact and strong: self-awareness and advocacy skills, knowledge of the disability, knowledge of the law, and full participation in the selection and implementation of accommodations. Identity formation becomes more salient in middle school, and understanding the role of exceptionality at this time is crucial. At the beginning of the middle school experience, adolescents must be aware of their learning differences and how to advocate for their needs throughout middle school and high school in order to have the practice it will take to master advocacy in college.

Therefore, transitioning exceptional students into college must begin in middle school.

Remove the Mystery of the Helpful Teacher

Your child needs to understand that she has an exceptionality that creates unique learning needs for her. Understanding that most of us have unique learning needs and learning styles, your child can position herself within differences and accept that she is on a continuum of abilities. If her learning ability is different from where the majority lie, the school may be required to provide support for those differences. The solicitous teacher or helpful assistant teacher is legally there to offer those supports and ensure that the curriculum is being adapted to your child's needs; there should be no mystery about the help the teacher is providing. Your child needs to understand that, under the law, she is entitled to that support and there is no shame associated with it. Additionally, in any given class, about 20 percent of students may have learning differences, including cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and the supportive teacher is there for all those various learners and learning styles. Helping your child recognize the continuum of learning differences and where she is situated is powerful and helpful knowledge.

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Teach Your Child about Exceptionality

During the development of identity, adolescents embody their race, gender, and age and at the same time need to understand the impact that their exceptionality will have on their identity formation. Explaining that diversity comes in all aspects of one's identity is a healthy way to begin to discuss and show acceptance for learning differences. Our exceptionalities may only become obvious in the learning environment, or they may be prevalent at other times, but recognizing that they exist and are part of who we are is important. …