This is the time of year when parents of twice-exceptional children are either starting the college search and application process with their children or planning to pack up and send off their children to college. In either case, these parents may be filled with a sense of trepidation, hoping that their offspring are up to the tasks that have likely caused parents much stress throughout grade school and high school — planning, organizing, focusing, prioritizing, problem solving, etc.
The transition to college and young adulthood takes many parents of 2e children by surprise. For years they have been so caught up in the here and now of getting their children through school that they didn’t have the time or energy to contemplate the future. When dealing with the issues facing their twice-exceptional children in school, parents are often focused on “just getting through this semester” or “just getting through this year.” College? That’s too far off to worry about now.
2e Newsletter conducted e-mail interviews with two professionals who help twice-exceptional students and their families make the transition to college. One is Matt Wanzenberg, an educational consultant who helps twice-exceptional and other students with transitions throughout their educational careers. The other is Wendy Eisner, coordinator of a community college program designed specifically for twice-exceptional students. Both shared their thoughts on how parents can prepare their children for this phase of life and support them as they move toward independence.
A Conversation with Matt Wanzenberg, Ph.D.
Matt Wanzenberg, Ph.D., has worked in special education and school administration, and is now head of an educational consulting company in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Wanzenberg and Associates, LLC. His company specializes in planning for transitions, which he describes as occurring from “grade level to grade level, building to building, or high school to the adult world.” In his consulting practice, Wanzenberg has worked with twice-exceptional students and their families to build the skills the students will need to be successful in college, select an appropriate college, and learn to function independently in the college environment. Following is an edited interview with Matt Wanzenberg about his work with 2e students.
Q: Can you describe the services you provide to students during high school and college?
A: We help in bridging the gap between high school and college or employment by training parents and students in the shifts associated with these transitions. We use a broad understanding of public and private resources to help in the fulfillment of a student’s individualized goals.
Q: How do you help in the college-selection process?
A: We maintain a current and independent database of colleges, universities, agencies, and other training organizations that are evaluated based on criteria relevant to a client’s individual needs. We engage the client and family in a comprehensive evaluation of interests, needs, and considerations that help bring options to light. Where needed, we update gaps in the student’s record through psychometric evaluation, and/or vocational and career assessments that could help us make more confident recommendations.
Typically, our college-search clients participate in the development of a College Support Analysis, a multi-dimensional review that evaluates specific school or program characteristics within the context of the student’s learning profile, which includes the student’s known achievement data, applied compensatory skills, and strengths and challenges. We focus specifically on several school or program characteristics:
From this analysis, we make specific short-term and longterm academic recommendations. Short-term applies to high school enrollment and transition to college, and longterm applies to higher education and the workplace.
Q: How can parents and kids find colleges that will really be responsive to the needs of a 2e student? Many advertise their support services, but how can families evaluate these claims and choose one that fits their child’s needs?
A: That’s a good question which requires much more space that I probably have allotted, but I’ll try my best!
Meeting general admissions criteria should not be the only consideration for the 2e student in his/her transition to college. Just because a student is admitted does not mean it will be a good match. And just because a school is the most rigorous or selective does not mean it’s automatically the “top choice.”
Two pieces of advice that I give are:
Visiting the school is critical, particularly during the ebb and flow of an actual college schedule, not a holiday. The details are revealed by observing and by asking the right questions: What’s the culture of the campus like? How receptive to student diversity does the school seem?
Remember, all colleges and universities are mandated by law to maintain a basic student disability support program. Distinguishing between the schools that offer supports and services because it’s the law and those that do so because it’s best practice requires a great deal of dialog and reflection. You can’t get this information from a book or a guidance counselor’s blurb. Give your student ample time to prepare questions and dive in… deep!
Inquire about the training that faculty and support staff undergo. Ask about partnerships within the school. A student disability support staff member who enlists the support and advice of experts on campus in the area of individual student need demonstrates the highest order of college support service. For example, at one school a professor of speech and language pathology with expertise in pragmatic social communication consulted on the needs of a college student with Asperger Syndrome.
Also ask to speak to enrolled students who access the support program. That can give you “boots on the ground” information on specific supports.
Q: How involved should parents be in the college application process, given that they may have kids with challenges in the areas of organization, time management, and written output?
A: I think it’s good for parents to partner with their child during the admissions process, probably because I believe it’s systemically stacked against many 2e kids. I support parents’ involvement in the admissions process to the degree that it allows a student’s preferences and concerns to be adequately addressed. Students should not be intensively directed in this process, but should be assisted by parents as needed so that they can make informed decisions. My 2e college clients appear to be ready to actually make those decisions for themselves.
But it’s important to consider whether a 2e student is ready for college. The timing of college enrollment should be based relative to:
It’s been truly exciting to see options evolving for those students who are not yet ready to go away to college, like gap year programs and bridge programs. And many students and parents are now opting to get their start at a community college, a choice with many advantages. Among them are:
Q: What can parents expect a college to do for their child in terms of accommodations and support?
A: Accommodations — how information is presented differently — are very common, while modifications — what information is added, subtracted, or enhanced — are rarely in effect on college campuses. Also, be prepared for a far less descriptive support document in college than in high school (i.e., no goals, no short-term objectives, no “minutes” or placement, etc.). Typically, the support document is drafted in concert with the student’s previous support plan, but it’s highly context-specific for each campus, based on what services the school provides for students.
Q: How much of a role should parents expect to play once their child is at college, especially if things aren’t going well?
A: Each case is so different, and I’m used to seeing a great deal of variability in parent’s anticipated participation at the college level. Some parents plan to be in contact on a weekly basis, and some plan on “cutting the apron strings” completely. In cases where parents and students are committed to continue their partnership in academic supports, I advise choosing a local college.
Parents who intend to fade often don’t know how to begin. When this is the case, I help them to “unlearn” many of the prime assumptions that K-12 IEP/504 advocacy has reinforced. But when it’s clear to me that a parent’s frequent involvement is required for a student’s success, we include that as a search characteristic in the College Support Analysis, looking for schools that value parent participation and have included it as a part of their support infrastructure. In all cases, though, there is the expectation that responsibility for academic support will eventually transfer from the parents to the student.
For parents, it’s critical to avoid what I call the “big surprise.” This means that, for months, parents can operate with the assumption that no news is good news. Their only source of data might be a casual “I’m fine” from the student on a weekly basis. I emphasize that it’s important to apply the tenet of “trust through verification” during the initial parts of each semester. When I work with college students, I tend to be specific about achievement. I often try to use error analysis on completed tests and papers as a way to problem solve, but also to verify that things are indeed “fine.”
Q: How do privacy laws affect the role parents can play?
A: The chief law which impacts educational records — in K-12 as well as in higher education — is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). More information about this law is available at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html.
It seems odd to many parents that colleges will gladly take your tuition payments, but require formal steps to be taken by your student before releasing protected information. Typically, colleges are required to acquire — not seek — consent to share information with parents. However, this does not prevent some colleges from developing internal policies to permit parents to communicate directly with college support staff. Be sure to ask what requirements exist when you are investigating these college resources.
Q: How have you worked with 2e students transitioning to college?
A: It depends on what the student needs. I currently work with one high school student who I’ll call Jose. This 9th grader was diagnosed with AD/HD but also exhibits exceptional cognitive ability. He’s enrolled in accelerated and honors courses, and he meets the criteria for eligibility for an IEP/504 based on his executive skills deficits and processing speed. However, the family and I found that — with the proper balance of good communication, instruction in compensatory skills, follow-through, self-monitoring, and accountability — Jose could probably steer clear of the need for an IEP. Nevertheless, we are still considering the need for accommodations for college placement testing.
In putting together a plan for Jose, I borrowed what works from the IEP process, including:
In addition, I included things I wish were a part of every child’s IEP:
For Jose, we want to work on building his survival skills far ahead of college enrollment. As we see how well he learns to apply these skills, we can then determine whether he’ll need accommodations or more intensive, school-based interventions. I’m especially watching his processing speed, as this factor may indicate the need for extended time, which in college, requires extensive documentation.
I’ve never felt comfortable with framing Response to Intervention (RTI), 504, or IEP supports as negative consequences that students will be “punished” with if they fail to meet a standard. But they are often negatively perceived that way by students after a culmination of unsuccessful interventions. I try to avoid having this specific dialog with students; but the reality of stigmas, tracking, and poor self-concept require a realistic conversation with parents before, during, and after my involvement. In short, an informed decision for formal support comes with costs and benefits. I share that perception — supported by 15 years in special education instruction — as honestly as I’m able.
With Jose, I function as a coach. We work together to identify the barriers that get in the way of his being independent and successful in school. We often talk about what a “fly on the wall” would see when he reaches the goals we have set. We share an online calendar where we can track assignments and other responsibilities that affect his schooling. We also work together to track his academic and organizational goals and then chart them. I share these charts weekly with Jose and his parents, who also help with monitoring progress. In addition, I offer to proof Jose’s papers and make mechanical and stylistic suggestions. I teach and reinforce learning strategies linked to the Kansas University Strategic Instruction Model, which can be explored. Most importantly, Jose and I have an honest dialog built on established rapport, with a reminder that I have a plan to fade away as he grows more independent and applies what I teach him.
I work with another 2e student in a different way. This student — I’ll call him Dan — is currently in college out of state. Even though long-distance service is not my preferred approach, I provide support for this young man in the areas of organizational and self-advocacy skills. In situations like this, my relationship with the student begins here in the Chicago area and eventually extends to a distant college campus.
We take advantage of technology like videoconferencing, shared online calendars, screen sharing, and e-mail. We establish consent for release of information up front, and I make introductions to each of the advisors in the school’s disability office. We use breaks and visits back home to gather our resources and map out challenges that we know will be ahead. For example, we identify curricula that may be more demanding, analyze gaps in the student’s weekly schedule that could lead to difficulties, and reflect on the supports and the purposes of good self-advocacy.
Q: How do schools react to a third party getting involved with a student?
A: The current model doesn’t exactly lend itself to thirdparty assistance in college. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily discourage it either! It’s important to realize that we are in the infancy of formal support for students with disabilities in higher education.
As colleges stumble awkwardly towards a clearer model of universal supports at this level, it’s important for me to take appropriate initiative. And, overall, I would say that I maintain good access to the information I need to help students like Dan in college settings. I work with a number of college students on campuses across Illinois and in Indiana. I’m pleased to see that, generally speaking, schools understand and appreciate the assistance of a third party in working with their students.
It depends to a large extent on establishing rapport with the support gatekeepers at a college or university. After proper consent for release of information has been established by the student, my contact begins far before a student steps foot on campus. In my initial introduction by phone or in person, I try to underline our common interests in the student’s success. I explain the types of services I have provided in the past and how I will assist in the future during the client’s enrollment. I share information, including our College Support Analysis, if applicable, and explicit information about academic strengths and challenges. I try to use specific examples so that college disabilities service coordinators can get a sense of where challenges or successful “teachable moments” have occurred.
Q: What changes do you see taking place in colleges and universities in terms of their understanding of who 2e students are and what they need?
A: More and more admissions offices are partnering with their colleagues in the student disability offices in order to add an important dimension to their admission criteria: self-advocacy and compensatory skills. This does not mean an IEP is guaranteed to get you into any particular school; but it does mean that if you choose to share information on a disabling condition, schools may take that information into consideration in your favor. They cannot use the voluntary disclosure of a disability as a barrier to include an otherwise qualified candidate.
In part, this change in attitude represents good business because roughly 12 percent of the general population has a disability that may have an impact on education. Over the past five years, colleges have been actively exploring the need to bring this diverse population into the fold. As you can imagine, some colleges are ahead of the curve on this initiative, while others are behind.
Q: In ending, what words of advice do you give 2e kids about making the transition to college?
A: I have a laundry list of considerations I review with each student. The highlights include:
A Conversation with Wendy Eisner, Ph.D.
Wendy Eisner is Program Coordinator for The Achilles Project at Nassau Community College in New York. This unique program, in existence for three years, is the result of Eisner’s efforts. Eisner’s background in psychology and education, experience as a parent, and role in 2e advocacy alerted her to the unmet needs of twice-exceptional young adults entering college. She organized and chaired a collegewide, collaborative effort among faculty members, administrators, and consultants, to explore what needs could be served by a special 2e program and then to design that program.
In the following edited responses to 2e Newsletter’s interview questions, Eisner would like to acknowledge the contributions of Achilles Project faculty members Jason Gorman, Orval Jewett, Valerie Lagakis, and Caroline Olko.
Q: What have you found to be 2e students’ significant challenges in making the transition to college?
A: Because 2e is such a heterogeneous group, our students’ areas of challenge are quite diverse. Academically, they show weaknesses in math, science, reading, or writing. Their evaluations report weaknesses in working memory, processing speed, executive function, motor skills, communication/social skills, impulse control, attention, academic motivation, and depression/ anxiety. We also see atypical learning styles such as a multi-sensory learning style or a preference for handson learning. These characteristics, combined with other challenges that these students often face, can result in students struggling both with academics and with social/ emotional and daily functioning. Academically, we might see:
In the areas of social/emotional and daily functioning, students may demonstrate:
Q: Which support services have proven to be the most helpful to students in The Achilles Project?
A: Due to the heterogeneous nature of the 2e population, different support services have helped different students. Four types of support that have been especially beneficial are:
What’s critical to our success is faculty training and teaming — making faculty aware of the characteristics and educational needs of 2e students and strategies for teaching them. In addition, having faculty members work together to resolve challenging situations has also benefited our students.
Q: When 2e students enter adolescence, they can be resistant to asking for help or accepting accommodations — not wanting to stand out as being different. Does that attitude tend to carry over into college, or are the students in your program open to seeking out what they need to be successful?
A: I have observed individual differences in this behavior, and it often relates to the degree to which the student accepts his/her areas of weakness, and the student’s level of maturity. Those who do not accept themselves resist asking for help. They have explicitly stated that they like to hide their areas of weakness. Not surprisingly, these are the students who do not grow or succeed; whereas those who ask for help and use needed accommodations do.
Also, the students with greater self-acceptance likewise accept being different. They are proud to be in The Achilles Project and feel comfortable openly discussing their participation. Those ashamed of having areas of weakness want to be “normal” and are less likely to use a needed accommodation.
The Achilles faculty training program teaches both classroom instructors and non-classroom support providers to encourage our students to ask for help. We tell our students that the ability to be interdependent where needed is equally as important as the ability to be independent.
Q: What challenges do the parents of 2e students face? Many have been actively involved with their child’s K-12 education, but with privacy laws, it can be much harder for them to know what’s going on with their child in college and to be involved. If a student is struggling, do you communicate or work with the parents?
A: Each post-secondary institution has its own policy in this regard. In The Achilles Project, we ask students to sign a written release permitting Achilles faculty to communicate with parents; and we run a bi-monthly parents’ group where we discuss students’ issues on a generic basis. The Achilles approach includes holistic education and scaffolding, and communicating with parents falls within this approach. We speak with parents with the understanding among all parties that our goal is to help students achieve a sense of autonomy.
Q: What kind of results has your approach to teaching 2e students produced?
A: The holistic approach we take has helped our students thrive. We address both the academic and social/ emotional needs of each student. We also provide strength-based instruction, where our teachers see what our students can do, not only what their problems are. Plus, we use scaffolding, where we provide reasonable accommodations as needed, and later reduce or phase them out. Finally, we deliver these interventions through mentoring relationships in which the student receives individual attention and develops a sense of campus affiliation.
With this combination, our students find success. Their fall 2009 mean GPA was 3.46 out of 4. Additionally, they have shown progress in such areas of challenge as submitting assignments on time, displaying appropriate classroom behaviors, and forming friendships. Prior to using this particular combination of services, these students presented severe academic and/or behavioral challenges that resulted in failure or withdrawal from courses or college.
Q: In some other countries it’s common for young people to take a year off (“gap year”) before starting college. Would you see this as beneficial for some 2e students?
A: Again, it depends on the student. Achilles faculty members have voiced differing views on this topic. We have seen several students with no academic motivation and no academic or career direction. When we ask these students why they have applied to college, the reply is essentially “parental expectation.” These students would benefit from time to explore their career interests, which would then inform their direction and motivation at the post-secondary level.
Another view is that a productive way to use extra time between high school and college would be to take courses or workshops in study and test-taking skills, time management, computer skills, stress reduction techniques, and so forth. Doing so would serve the dual purpose of familiarizing the students with the new features and demands of the college environment and developing skills that would increase their chance of success their first semester.
Some think that perhaps 2e students would have more positive experiences in gap year endeavors — such as travel, internships, volunteering, or professional work — after developing their confidence and maturity through a program like The Achilles Project. Or, another alternative might be to take a gap semester rather than a gap year if their college permits them to begin during the spring semester.
Q: What are some effective ways that you think parents can prepare their 2e children for college?
A: There are many steps parents can take long before their 2e children are high school seniors to help prepare them for college. From early on, parents can encourage self-sufficiency in as many areas as possible, both at home and at school. They should provide assistance where and when the child needs it but not beyond that point. At home, parents should:
With regard to school, parents should:
Parents can also support their 2e children by:
When it comes time for the college search and application process, parents should:
Before your child makes a final decision, make sure that s/he visits the school, attends classes, meets some students and faculty — including in strength-area courses — and meets support services staff.
Q: What are some effective ways that parents can support their 2e children as they enter college?
A: Parents should communicate with their children regarding this next chapter in their lives. As in all other situations, the parents should listen with an open mind and explicitly state that they are available to the child whenever needed. It’s helpful to discuss hypothetical problems and resolutions regarding peer pressure and bullying, as well as the consequences of risk-taking behaviors, such as in the areas of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Also important is encouraging children to connect with at least one staff member at the school and to become involved in activities and campus life so that they can meet other students who share their interests and make friends.
Some things for parents and children to do before classes begin are:
Finally, be positive and express confidence in your child’s ability to succeed and to make good choices. Express faith that your child will continue to develop strength areas. Remind him/her that you are available whenever needed and that you look forward to sharing news with one another at your child’s first vacation!
Two-year versus Four-year Schools
Consider that your 2e child’s first step at the postsecondary level be at a community college that has support services to meet his/her needs. At Nassau Community College, we have observed many 2e students “reverse transfer” from first-rate four-year colleges to NCC. Although their intellectual records qualified them for acceptance there, their learning challenges hindered their success. We have also observed the opposite scenario, where 2e students use NCC as a stepping stone to the four-year institution where they thrive.
The community college lays a foundation for the future academic success of 2e students. It provides small classes, time to adjust to the increased independence and work demands of college, and the opportunity to strengthen organizational and study skills. Success in this supportive environment helps 2e students build self-confidence and a sense of self-efficacy that they then bring to their transfer institution.
The Achilles Project
The Achilles Project is a special academic program for 2e students which uses strength-based instruction with academic and psychosocial support services. The program serves a maximum of 20 students per semester, although many more have inquired about it.
Components of strength-based instruction include:
Academic supports include:
Psychosocial support services include:
Another critical factor in the effectiveness of this program is personnel. Our faculty members exhibit a sense of caring and understanding, generosity with their time, openness to colleagues’ input, and flexibility in instructional approach.
As a result of taking part in this program, many of our students have shown complete reversals from maladaptive to adaptive performance and behaviors with respect to specific academic subjects, career direction, attention, anxiety, self-esteem, self-efficacy, socialization, and leadership. Almost all of our graduates have transferred to first-rate four-year institutions where they have continued to succeed. Some have received scholarships and made the Dean’s List. Some have already received their bachelors’ degrees.
Our program has received the following recognition for its first three years of operation:
This article is reprinted with permission from the 2e Newsletter and the author.
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