Know Before They Go: Details to consider when preparing your child with special needs to attend college classes


Authors: Paul Curd, Psy.D. & Kerri Holferty, M.Ed. 

Attending college can be a time of exciting opportunity, academic achievement, and personal growth. It can also be stressful trying to stay current on assignments while navigating new relationships and new expectations. These stressors can significantly impact any student. However, if a student is also trying to manage the limitations of their particular disability during their academic experience, college can become even more stressful. Managing health issues, appointments with treatment providers, dietary restrictions, or medication needs are just a few of the demands which can increase a student’s stress level and make it more difficult to achieve their academic goals.

In our experience, we have seen many students over the years who have been able to learn, grow, and thrive through their college experience regardless of their various disabilities. So how can parents prepare their children, and themselves, for the challenges that lie ahead in the higher education environment? The information below is intended to provide additional context and helpful tips to assist you and your child in managing these stressors so they can live up to their full potential.

Finding the Right School

Identifying a school that will be a good fit for your student’s needs and goals is a good first step. This process can best be done by identifying the most important needs of your child, and then finding schools able to meet those needs. Things to consider may include:

Proximity – A good first question to ask yourself and your child is, “How close to home do they need to be?” If your child will need to be close to home to receive regular support from you or other family members, or if they would like to keep their current treatment providers, attending a school in another state or across the country may not be the best plan for their success. Considering how close to home your child needs to be, as well as how long it would take you to get to them if there was an urgent need, can be a significant portion of this decision. If your child is hoping to spread their wings a bit, proximity can be a very important decision to make together after talking with your child about the pros and cons of each college location being considered.

Transportation – What are the options for your child to return home on breaks? Is there bus service? What about a train? Will air travel be necessary? These questions are likely contingent upon the proximity of the college and your available financial resources.

Housing – If you are planning for your child to live away from home while attending college, what are the options, and what will be the best environment for your child? On campus residence hall? Off campus studio or apartment? Renting a room from someone in the community? Or perhaps even sharing a house with other students? And of course, what will it cost? Common considerations like physical accessibility and distance to their classes will be important to evaluate, as well as more individual details such as availability of support services and access to specific needs such as quiet space or bathroom access.

Academics – Once you have identified schools in reasonable proximity to home and with adequate transportation and housing options, talking with an Academic Advisor (also called Academic Counselor, Entry Advisor, or Admissions Advisor at some schools) will help you and your child determine which schools have classes, certificates, or degree plans that will fit well with your child’s goals and abilities. Advisors often help with scheduling and class selection, and can provide advice to help make sure your child takes an appropriate class load for their abilities and situation.

Disability Support

Most schools will have an office or department specifically dedicated to helping students who have disabilities. Encouraging your student to connect with this office will give them another form of support as they venture into their college career.

To access disability support services, students will need to provide documentation of a disability. This can often be an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a 504 Plan from the high school they attended, or other documentation from a healthcare provider that states the diagnosis and the impact it has on their learning. There is no standard format for documentation, so check with the Disability Services office at the college to ask what they require.

The Disability Support professional will work with your student to determine appropriate accommodations. It is important to understand that some of the accommodations your student received in the K-12 setting may not be provided in the college setting. The applicable disability laws differ between secondary and postsecondary education – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), respectively. IDEA is about success, and ADA is about access.

Accommodations are determined individually based on the impact of the student’s disability on their learning. These may include extended time for testing, a reduced distraction environment, a classroom notetaker, a sign language interpreter, or digital textbooks.

Counseling Services

Schools vary widely with regard to the type and availability of counseling they provide. To confuse things further, the terms “counseling” and “counselor” are used in a variety of ways and to describe many different job responsibilities across campuses. Even if your child does not need regular counseling or therapy, asking if a school has “Personal Counselors” or “Mental Health Counselors” can alert you and your child to a valuable resource that may be able to provide additional support.

At schools that do have Personal Counselors, they often provide counseling to students for a wide range of needs. These needs can include basic help with problem solving, stress management, academic success strategies, and relationship help. Counselors may also provide more advanced intervention to help students manage anxiety, depression, grief, or other significant mental health issues.

Because there is often high demand for personal counseling, many college counseling centers have limits on how many sessions a student can have per quarter, semester, or year. However, if a student’s need surpasses the allotted number of sessions, most counselors will provide referrals to counselors in the community or other agencies when needed. Referrals may also be provided for concerns such as substance abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, or for other specialized treatment needs.

Know Your Students Rights & Responsibilities

Most institutions will have either a printed or electronic statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. A review of this document should provide you with important information about how the relationship between the institution and your child should work and will help prevent unnecessary surprises during the educational journey.

This document will often contain statements to describe student conduct expectations as well as procedures to follow if your student experiences interpersonal or academic difficulties. Some institutions also cover disciplinary topics and the related appeal processes. You may also find a statement in this document about academic integrity, which will be a good conversation to have with your student so they do not accidentally plagiarize the work of others in the assignments they complete.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. What this means for you is that student educational records may not be available to you if you contact the school or a professor to find out about grades, performance, or other information about your child. However, in some cases, your child can authorize you to have access to some of their educational information. FERPA does not prevent a school from contacting family members in the event of a student health crisis or other emergency.

Preparing yourself and your child for the educational adventure that awaits them at college can be a significant step toward helping them achieve their goals and fulfilling their potential. Contacting potential college choices to inquire about the topics covered in this article can be a significant first step. Once you and your child have made a choice about a college to attend, helping your child learn how to find information and supports on campus, as well as how to advocate for themselves will be vital to their success in the college environment.



Paul Curd, Psy.D. is a Faculty Counselor at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington where he provides mental health counseling, instruction, and faculty support. Dr. Curd also works as an adjunct graduate professor at Western Washington University where he teaches counseling skills to master’s degree students in the Rehabilitation Counseling program.

Kerri Holferty, M.Ed. is the Director for Access & Disability Services at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington where she provides support services for students with disabilities. Kerri also teaches a College Success course for first-time-in-college students.