Preparing for College

Getting ready for college should not begin the summer after graduating from high school. In this interview, Dr. Gregory Buch and Dr. Joseph Spector discuss some of the biggest challenges that clients face in transitioning to college, and how to prepare for them in advance. 

Dr. Spector is a clinical psychologist at the UC Davis Student Disabilities Center and the Davis Counseling Mediation and Advocacy Center, and a special education attorney.

Dr. Gregory Buch: In terms of education and disability law, what are the biggest differences that parents and students face as they transition from high school to college?

Dr. Joseph Spector: Public K-12 schools have an obligation to identify students with disabilities. Either by referral, or just an awareness that the student is likely to have a disability. We call that search and serve. So the schools have an obligation to identify those students, to go through an evaluation process and determine whether they need special education services or accommodations. 

The college process is voluntary. The student self identifies the presence of disability. So, if the student doesn’t step forward, there is no obligation on the college’s part to work with that student with academic accommodations. 

In college, parents generally don’t have legal standing to request services. I think this change from parental authority to student authority is probably one of the most important things that people don’t understand. It’s a critical aspect of the transition that is commonly ignored. It shouldn’t be parents advocating until the 18th birthday and then suddenly students take over. Because they’re not prepared. They don’t have the experience. 

Greg: So eighteen is way too late to start preparing for this transition. What kind of skills should parents and students be focused on while they are still in public school and are covered by IDEA?

Joe: There are several terms people use to talk about this. I like the term self-determination. Some call it independence or self-advocacy. I think it needs to be worked on early, where students can learn to do some of their own problem solving. 

Parents need to learn that each time they do something for a student, the student has lost an opportunity to learn how to cope with problems, and at the same time has learned that someone else will take care of problems for them. It’s very hard to watch a student go through a tough time, to perhaps even fail, or feel uncared for. I understand that. On the other hand, every little moment you go through during life is part of the transition. So, I think that parents need to think about how their own responses can encourage self determination, rather than reinforce reliance on others, dependence, and an inability to cope. 

Greg: Can you give some specific issues you see students facing in college?

Joe: There is something called the anxiety-avoidance cycle. Students justify their avoidance of certain activities by saying they are too anxious. I try to reframe that and say, “Is it because of your avoidance?”  Students avoid a little bit of anxiety, but in doing so escalate the situation that they tried to avoid. I see students not going to meetings, not talking to professors, not asking questions to get information that they need, or not going to the dean’s office. Then they are dismissed because they avoided a whole series of activities that were required to stay in school. 

So, in a clinical sense, we want to replace the anxiety-avoidance cycle with an anxiety-engagement cycle.  Before college, we want parents and teachers to help the students deal with their anxiety issues or concerns through engagement rather than through avoidance. So, if I could pick out one critical skill, it would be to learn to engage rather than avoid. 

 Greg: How do you translate this issue into a goal for a 14 or 15-year-old student?

Joe: We could relate it to working with teachers, to getting assignments, to doing homework. If there is a problem, they write it down. They outline it. If they are confused, they get help. But not help in interfacing with the teacher, help in defining the problem and then re-engaging with the teacher. Or, if it’s a social problem, helping the student identify the strategies for dealing with the problem, rather than intervening.

PALS provides direct behavioral support for self-advocacy, executive functioning  and vocational skills for teens and young adults. Please email for more information. 

Dr. Joseph Spector is available to provide clinical and legal consultation for preschool-age to adult clients, at the Davis Counseling Mediation and Advocacy Center. (530) 759-1929.