A “Bridge Semester” for College Students with Executive Function Disorder
When Landmark opened its doors in the fall of 1985, the diagnosis of AD/HD was just barely coming into use. As the years have passed, our knowledge of AD/HD and the number of our students with AD/HD has increased exponentially. Over the past 10 years, during which Landmark College has actively recruited students with executive function difficulties (also often referred to as ADD, AD/HD, Executive Function Disorder) we have been able to define some of the best practices and most effective strategies to support students of this profile.
For many of these students, it is enormously frustrating to comprehend and fully connect with the ideas in the curriculum, only to find time and time again that they are in academic trouble because of this maddening and hidden disorder of AD/HD: not planning, not getting to classes, not finishing homework, not turning in work even when it’s finished, not being able to complete papers or projects, etc. In other words, it’s not about being able to do the work, it’s about doing it. They have been told throughout their lives how bright and full of potential they are if they only applied themselves. Often students may start a semester and do well, only to fall into a deep dark hole where they begin to feel they will never catch up and thus avoid going to class or office hours. To add to the frustration, one hallmark of AD/HD is inconsistency, so at times students will complete the long paper or task or get an “A” in a class, only to fail the next paper or class.
Consequently, last January Landmark initiated a “Bridge Semester” for group of students new to the college. The criteria for acceptance was that these students had enrolled at another college and struggled because of their AD/HD, function at a high cognitive level, and would like to return to their colleges after getting the tools they need from Landmark.
The fundamental philosophy of the program is that the key to addressing executive function difficulties is for these students to become the leading experts about their own situation. Our goal is to help them understand themselves as fully as possible, in a supportive and intellectually stimulating environment. Landmark provides them with a “menu” of options that they will have available to face the challenges as they arise. Students are expected to be open to trying new ways of dealing with old problems and to begin to forge more successful ways of doing things. Backsliding and mistakes are welcomed and accepted in the program, with the expectation that they provide fodder and fuel for continuing to seek better ways of doing things.
The cornerstones of the EF program are a daily group advising session and a specialized English class. The group advising sessions were designed so that students could meet in a group of five each day during a scheduled block. The group advising session is a place where students can check in daily with their advisors and peers in order to stay mindful of their goals and patterns. It is a time when they can support each other to stay on track. Students in the program are often extraordinarily skilled at offering support or compassion when it is most needed or a reality check when old patterns of denial begin to return. These group advisors often use a group advising session to explore facets of executive functioning or to allow students time to organize and plan ahead or get started on work. All of the advising groups meet together once a week to hear speakers or panels on a variety of pertinent topics.
One key aspect of the EF program is the EN 105 class, taught by Ricia Gordon. Ricia explains, “My class, EN 105 (Critical Process and Writing Theory), is composed of two sections of new students, who, for the most part, have come to Landmark from other colleges. The focus of my class is to explore executive functioning as it applies to writing. Students read about AD/HD, the brain, executive functioning, and written output. They address these issues in their journals, as well as in formal essays. The final project is a research portfolio, in which students develop an academic self-portrait, drawing support from what they have read throughout the semester. The course introduces a variety of strategies for producing timely written work. Students experiment with these on an ongoing basis.”
Students from that Spring 2006 group were given a pre-assessment questionnaire asking them to rate themselves in a variety of areas on a scale of 1(poor), 2(fair), 3(good), 4(excellent). The results of this assessment showed significant overall progress, particularly in the areas of: keeping course mats organized; submitting papers and assignments on time; understanding the ways in which AD/HD has the potential to have a negative impact on academic performance and life in general; working on long-range assignments well before the due date; taking advantage of appropriate campus resources and services; and using specific strategies to manage ADHD effectively.
Although spring 2006 was a small pilot semester, the results demonstrated the undeniable value of our new approach with this elusive population of students. This spring Landmark College hopes to increase the number of students in this cohort and continue to track the results. Colleges all over the country are currently struggling with the question of how to support the bright, talented student who struggles with Executive Function. Traditional supports for students with learning disabilities—note takers, books on tape, extended time—are ineffective because these students often have such strong academic skills. To clearly define the problem and to explicitly discuss strategies and systems in support of Executive Function heralds a new direction in support services for college students. Every student struggles to one degree or another with the radical transition from high school to college; the students with diagnosed AD/HD are only the most pronounced. We believe that helping students to understand their challenges and develop ways to address them has significant potential for all students making this transition, with or without a diagnosis.
At Landmark College, we find that once our students have practice in capturing all of their various projects and commitments into a system that is understandable and doable, they begin to change the way they view the world. Rather than constantly being behind, desperately trying to put out fires, and overwhelmed by all the broken promises, students use their newfound strategies and systems to keep track of their executive thinking, so they don’t have to try to carry it all in their heads. For many, this heralds the beginning of an extremely productive period, where for the first time they are able to work at a level that is much closer to the potential of which they had always sensed they were capable.#
Christina Herbet is the Lead Faculty for the EF Program. Benjamin L. Mitchell is the Director of Admissions.