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Processing Speed Deficits and College – Part 1 – The Dilemma

By July 31, 2020NESCA Notes 2020

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist

By nature, transition specialists are generalists—professional who support students with a wide range of disabilities in moving toward an even wider range of learning and life outcomes. Working in Massachusetts, with an early background as a guidance counselor in a college preparatory high school, I often support students who are contemplating whether and when they should matriculate to a four-year college program. Many of these students experience processing speed deficits. This means that these students may be capable of reasoning at average or above average levels, and therefore being stimulated and actively engaged by college course content, but these students also need extra time to process visual and verbal information, to make sense of this information, and to produce output.

Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, assembled an assessment for parents and students—A Guide to Assessing College Readiness—that includes five areas considered essential for students with learning disabilities who want to succeed in a traditional college setting. These include academic skills, self-understanding, self-advocacy, executive function and motivation/confidence. Some of the academic items include being able to read up to 200 pages of college level text in a week, writing an organized 10-page paper that cites multiple sources, and being able to complete all of the steps of a long-term project in a timely manner. Within the assessment, it is carefully noted that this is not a diagnostic tool and is intended to inform discussion about the appropriate environment and supports that the student will need to achieve success and struggle less in college. So, when I recently received a question from a parent who was wondering if it actually mattered that her student was not able to read 100 pages in only a few days, the answer I provided was, “it depends.”

While there are many ways that we accommodate and modify instruction for students who have processing speed deficits during high school, some of these methods are easy to replicate across college environments and others are heavily dependent on the environment or only replicable with a good deal of external support provided by people and technologies. For example, in high school, students with significant processing speed deficits may be supported through modifications, such as teachers reducing their pace of instruction, providing copies of instructional materials and/or fill-in-the-blank note-taking templates, actively following up with students to confirm their understanding of material, reducing the amount of work a student is expected to do per quarter or on a test, and actively assisting students in digesting complex reading materials or offering lighter/alternative reading. When all of these modifications are added together, a student has a highly specialized high school experience and may be left with gaps in their academic, executive functioning and self-advocacy skills that need to be carefully bridged when the student aspires to participate in college learning.

While high school accommodations and modifications center on supporting a student to successfully make progress in school, accommodations at the college level focus exclusively on what a student needs to be able to access the instruction that is already available at that college. Rather than individually modifying the curriculum or work load in a college course, a student must be able to keep up with the same instruction provided to every student in the class and the same requirements as every student in the college through a combination of accommodations, self-help strategies and use of supports (tutoring, academic coaching, office hours, study groups, etc.) outside of the classroom. Accommodations are still very individualized, but educational programming is typically not. This makes the college search and selection process complex and important for students with processing speed deficits. Not every college that specializes in supporting students who face learning difficulties is a good choice for a student with slow processing speed. And not every student with a processing speed deficit has the same skills, or faces the exact same challenges, when navigating college.

Stay tuned for our next Transition Thursday blog where I will elaborate on some of the common modifications and accommodations provided to high school students with processing speed deficits and how to think critically about college selection, support and accommodation based on experience with those accommodations.

 

About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.