A Different Path to the Top
At Landmark College, there is a story we often hear. A bright student, well-supported by family and high school, matriculates at a college or university with a sense of excitement, direction, and high hopes for success. Even so, within a few weeks the challenges of getting to class, turning in work, and juggling all the activities of college life, become overwhelming. Within a semester or two, the academic picture has grown so dismal that the student is suspended or required to withdraw.
About a third of the students who matriculate at Landmark College fit this profile. Most of the others come to Landmark right out of high school precisely to avoid this scenario. The underlying challenge faced by such students, whether diagnosed or not, is most often Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), a neurodevelopmental variation affecting at least 7 percent of the population.
AD/HD is not a cultural phenomenon, but rather a genetically-based syndrome that has been well-established clinically and by contemporary neuroscience. It has nothing to do with intellectual potential; if anything, the prevalence of AD/HD among intellectually or creatively gifted individuals seems higher than the norm. AD/HD is now understand as a complex, multi-dimensional syndrome based mainly in the brain’s self-regulatory or “executive function” system. The nature of the disorder is such that individuals affected by it are placed at enormous risk in the transition from high school to college., and from home to the residence hall.
The reasons for this is simple. As a dysfunction of self-regulation, AD/HD mainly affects an individual’s ability to plan and initiate tasks, to keep track of time and materials, to regulate sleep and waking, to remember tasks and commitments, and to reflect on and learn from experience. Within the home setting, parents of high school students with these difficulties often provide essential structures, reminders, and supports. Likewise, the typical high school provides ample structure and constant reinforcement. Both of these systems drop away when a student goes to college, and while some students with AD/HD manage to survive the transition, many do not.
Landmark College, a private two-year college in Putney, Vermont, is not the only college or university concerned with these questions. For example, the Postsecondary Disability Training Institute sponsored by the University of Connecticut’s NEAG School of Education in June had an extensive focus on AD/HD, including transition issues and the efficacy of executive function coaching as a support. Many colleges and universities now offer coaching as part of their disabilities support services.
What distinguishes Landmark College is that every aspect of the program, from faculty hiring and training to residential support systems, is based on what contemporary research tells us about executive function difficulties and their impact on learning and behavior. Some of the most important features include first-year courses expressly designed to serve the needs of students with AD/HD, executive function coaching services that represent the current state of the art, a universal design approach to instruction across the curriculum, and extensive integration of assistive technology in required courses.
Landmark’s mission is not simply to provide the best education possible for individuals with learning disabilities, but also through the design of its program, curriculum, and instructional practices, to create models that may be useful in other postsecondary settings. Landmark College’s Institute for Research and Training, which currently operates several Federal grants, is the primary vehicle for dissemination. Ultimately, Landmark College’s goal is to end the kind of stories of past failure that it hears far too often from its students. #
MacLean Gander is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Landmark College.