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Assisting students with learning disabilities transitioning to college: what school counselors should know.

Students with learning disabilities can benefit from developing specific knowledge and skills that may increase their chances of successfully completing postsecondary degrees. School counselors can play important roles as advocates, collaborators, and direct service providers. This article is a review of critical student knowledge and skill areas as well as school counselor roles in the implementation of postsecondary transition planning services for students with learning disabilities.


Learning disability is an umbrella term providing a common language for a wide range of professionals, including teachers and counselors (Thomas & Woods, 2003). Neurologically based learning disabilities manifest themselves in different ways (Brinckerhoff, 1994). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990, students with learning disabilities may have weaknesses in one or more areas including reading, writing, spelling, listening, speaking, thinking, and mathematics. All students are unique in terms of which of these characteristics they possess.

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, more and more colleges and universities have implemented support services for students with disabilities. The 173% increase in the number of students with learning disabilities attending postsecondary institutions from 1989 to 1998 (Henderson, 1999) is attributed in part to that legislation (Flexer, Simmons, Luft, & Baer, 2005). It has been suggested, however, that many students with learning disabilities are encouraged to pursue vocational education rather than to attend 4-year colleges (Janiga & Costenbader, 2002). Data indicate that "only 13% of students with learning disabilities (compared to 53% of students in general population) have attended a 4-year post-secondary school program within two years of leaving high school" (National Longitudinal Transition Study, 1994, as cited in National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2004, p. 1).

Although disability legislation has helped to make postsecondary education a more realistic option for students with disabilities, the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) suggested "... that many students with learning disabilities do not consider postsecondary education options (2- and 4-year colleges and vocational schools) because they are not encouraged, assisted, or prepared to do so" (1994, p. 1). Hitchings et al. (2001) interviewed 97 college students with learning disabilities and found 20 reported being discouraged from pursuing college by teachers and/or school counselors.

Many students with learning disabilities do pursue postsecondary education, but they often do not complete their programs of study. The U.S. Department of Education (as cited in Janiga & Costenbader, 2002) reported that since 1989, only 53% of students with disabilities either had completed their postsecondary degree or were still enrolled, as compared to 64% of students without disabilities. Dickinson and Verbeek (2002) suggested that individuals with learning disabilities might be more successful in life if they were able to complete higher levels of education. They also indicated, however, that many students with learning disabilities end up working in low-paying jobs with few benefits and little job security. Successful transition to college opens the door for future economic success, social power, and personal well-being.


School personnel are directed to help students with learning disabilities prepare for life after high school. In 1990, IDEA mandated the inclusion of transition services in students' Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) by age 16; that age was lowered to 14 with the IDEA Amendments of 1997. Special education professionals primarily coordinate IEPs; however, IDEA mandates the participation of related services professionals when relevant. As such, information on college transitions should be provided to students with learning disabilities by school counselors. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) supports school counselor involvement in transition planning, as outlined in its professional position statements Educational Planning (ASCA, 2000) and The Professional School Counselor and Students with Special Needs (ASCA, 2004). Additionally, the 2001 Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) standards specify that school counselors be trained to assist with educational transitions.

Despite support for school counselor involvement in transition planning (ASCA, 2000, 2004; CACREP, 2001; Hildreth, Dixon, Frerichs, & Heflin, 1994; Satcher, 1993; Satcher & Dooley-Dickey, 1991; Taves & Hutchinson, 1993), Milsom (2002) found many school counselors reported not being involved in providing transition planning services for students with disabilities. Of participants in her national study, only 68% of high school counselors reported assisting with transition plans for students with disabilities. Additionally, Hitchings et al. (2001) found only 8% of the participating college students with learning disabilities indicated having met with a school counselor during high school to discuss coursework and requirements for applying to college.

As advocates for all students (ASCA, 2003), school counselors can play important roles in helping students with learning disabilities transition to college. School counselors develop working relationships with college personnel and have experience assisting students with college admissions. They are often the individuals who coordinate college admissions testing and can most easily arrange for (and help students prepare for) those tests. Finally, they possess knowledge of courses required for college admission and for success in future careers. With collaboration from special educators, school counselors can help students with learning disabilities determine and explore realistic future options and ensure that they complete the steps (e.g., coursework) necessary to pursue those options.


All students transitioning to a postsecondary institution can benefit from participating in activities that help them develop skills in academic, career, and personal/social domains (ASCA, 2003). For example, all students should be encouraged to examine and assess their strengths in areas such as studying, time management, and organization, as these skills have been associated with success in college settings (DuChossois & Michaels, 1994). Hicks-Coolick and Kurtz (1997) conducted a qualitative study with college disability services counselors regarding the characteristics of students with learning disabilities who were successful in college. Three main themes emerged in their findings: motivation, preparation (including completion of college preparatory coursework and development of effective study skills), and self-advocacy skills.

The NJCLD (1994) stated that postsecondary transitions can be greatly affected by student participation in transition planning activities. In fact, Halpern, Yovanoff, Doren, and Benz (1995) found that students with disabilities who had engaged in some formal transition planning were more likely to pursue postsecondary education than those who had not. In general, however, there is little effectiveness data on transition programs, and no research specifically focusing on the effectiveness of school counselors in providing interventions in this area.

Many transition programs are offered to incoming freshmen by various colleges and universities (see Brinckerhoff, 1994; Dalke & Schmidt, 1987; HEATH Resource Center, 2004), but some programs have been implemented in high schools. For example, Phillips (1990) presented the results of a program implemented to 15 students with learning disabilities over a 4-year period. Students started in ninth grade by participating in their own IEP meetings, visiting colleges, and participating in seminars during which they discussed their disabilities. Over the next 3 years, students were assisted in exploring their own learning styles, determining which accommodations were effective for them, and communicating their needs to teachers. Phillips reported upon completion of the program that students were more aware of their rights, had developed greater disability self-awareness, and could identify more potential career options.

Aune (1991) described a program focusing on individualized psychoeducational training for 55 students with learning disabilities. Student needs were assessed based on a transition model, which provided guidelines for content areas (e.g., using accommodations), desirable timelines, and optional services (e.g., consultation with parents, individual counseling). Through grant funding, a transition specialist was hired to serve as a case manager, meeting bimonthly with students one-on-one and coordinating the provision of additional services. Optional group sessions were provided during the summer months, and students continued monthly communication (often by phone) with the case manager during their first year of college. Aune reported 71% of the students pursued postsecondary courses within a year of graduating from high school and the majority were more aware of their disabilities and able to self-advocate.

IDEA mandates that students be actively involved in their own transition planning, yet research indicates that many students do not actively participate in their own IEP conferences (Grigal, Test, Beattie, & Wood, 1997; Hitchings et al., 2001; Williams & O'Leary, 2001). Consistent with the ASCA National Model[R] (ASCA, 2003), a comprehensive approach to postsecondary transition planning is recommended, emphasizing the involvement of various professionals as well as the student and his or her parents (Phillips, 1990; Sitlington, Clark, & Kolstoe, 2000). School counselors can assist in ensuring that transition planning is approached collaboratively and with the active involvement of students and parents.


Knowledge of Disability

Campbell and Dahir (1997) identified the awareness of personal strengths and skills as important in academic and career planning for all students. Related to this concept, students with learning disabilities can benefit from developing awareness of their disability (Cowen, 1993; Durlak, Rose, & Bursuck, 1994; Goldhammer & Brinckerhoff, 1992; Merchant & Gajar, 1997; NJCLD, 1994; Taves & Hutchinson, 1993). By learning about their disabilities, including associated strengths and deficits as well as interventions or accommodations that work, students with learning disabilities can be better prepared to set realistic future goals.

School counselors may not be experts on disability, but special educators are. Collaborating with special education teachers may be the most effective method of helping students with learning disabilities to increase awareness and understanding of their own disabilities. Special educators can be encouraged to help these students examine their disabilities and their educational histories, including successes and challenges. School counselors then can follow up with individual or small-group sessions during which they help students with learning disabilities explore the relationship between their skills and abilities and potential future careers. A discussion of required coursework also would be important at this time. More specifically, by making students with learning disabilities aware of course requirements for various college majors and encouraging them to try out rigorous academic courses, school counselors can help these students assess the reality of successfully pursuing various majors.

Knowledge of Postsecondary Support Services

All students can benefit from learning about what to expect when they go to college, including topics ranging from time management and personal motivation to extracurricular activities. Students with learning disabilities need additional information not relevant to the majority of students pursuing college. Before choosing a college, students with learning disabilities should possess knowledge of admission requirements for students with disabilities (Sitlington et al., 2000) as well as the availability of and procedures for accessing support services (Cowen, 1993; Durlak et al., 1994; NJCLD, 1994; Sitlington et al.).

According to Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, postsecondary schools must modify program requirements that are discriminatory and allow for the use of auxiliary aids. One modification might be a course substitution, and examples of auxiliary aids might include taped texts, exam readers, and note takers. If students become aware of what accommodations will be available in advance of graduating from high school, they would have time to test the effectiveness of those accommodations in their high school classes.

In addition to providing basic information to students with learning disabilities about common types of postsecondary support services, secondary school counselors can serve as liaisons to postsecondary institutions, helping students with learning disabilities connect with personnel who can more thoroughly discuss admissions requirements and availability of disability services. School counselors also could encourage these students to visit colleges and can help by arranging student meetings with admissions and disability services during the visit.

Providing these students with a list of important questions to ask postsecondary personnel (e.g., "What documentation do I need to obtain services??" "How do I apply for services?") can provide structure for the students and ensure they obtain enough information to help them make informed decisions. The answers to many of these questions are likely to be available via college and university Web sites, and school counselors can assist students with learning disabilities in accessing and navigating through these Web sites (Milsom, Akos, & Thompson, 2004).

Knowledge of Disability Legislation

Students with learning disabilities can benefit from learning about disability legislation, specifically IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 (NJCLD, 1994; Scott, 1991; Sitlington et al., 2000). Unless formal education is provided, many students with learning disabilities go through high school without ever being informed of the legislation that guides the provision of services to which they are entitled. Milsom et al. (2004) found that of the six 11th- and 12th-grade students with learning disabilities participating in their study (a psychoeducational group designed to help them prepare for college), none was familiar with disability legislation.

While one could argue that students can successfully complete high school ignorant of the laws that help them, the same cannot be said for students in college. Because the ADA and Section 504 mandate that postsecondary institutions provide support services only for individuals who request them, provided those individuals possess the appropriate documentation, students with learning disabilities must be aware of their tights and responsibilities. The ADA and Section 504 protect students who are otherwise qualified from unfair discrimination; in relation to college, otherwise qualified refers to meeting the requisite essential requirements for admission and academic program regardless of the disability (Scott, 1994). The essential requirements depend on the core competencies of the academic program (e.g., an essential requirement for a math degree would include the ability to successfully complete coursework in math).

Through collaboration and coordination, school counselors can help students with learning disabilities to acquire information about disability legislation. In addition to providing information to these students in a small-group format (Milsom et al., 2004), school counselors can invite disability services personnel in to talk with students with learning disabilities and their parents. Content should include a discussion of changing roles and responsibilities for students and parents. A variety of resources are available to assist school counselors, teachers, parents, and students in understanding disability legislation (see Greenbaum & Markel, 2001; Turnbull & Turnbull, 2000; Webster, Clary, & Griffith, 2005), but by consulting with their district special education administrators, school counselors can promote a collaborative effort and ensure the information they have is current.

Ability to Self-Advocate

Once students with learning disabilities possess disability awareness, knowledge of disability services available in college, and an understanding of their rights and responsibilities, they must develop skills to successfully advocate on their own behalf. Consistent with the ADA, many researchers discuss the importance of students with learning disabilities developing self-advocacy skills (Durlak et al., 1994; Goldhammer & Brinckerhoff, 1992; Hicks-Coolick & Kurtz, 1997; Hildreth et al., 1994; Lock & Layton, 2001; NJCLD, 1994). Wilson (1994) found that nearly 70% of the participating students with learning disabilities relied on their parents or teachers to communicate their needs.

Essentially, self-advocacy involves a student possessing an awareness of his or her needs and the ability to effectively communicate those needs to others. Hicks-Coolick and Kurtz (1997) identified five components for self-advocacy: self-awareness, self-acceptance, knowledge of rights and resources, assertiveness skills, and problem-solving skills. Durlak et al. (1994) used a direct-instruction approach to teach self-determination skills to students with learning disabilities, providing feedback and ongoing practice. They concluded that "... repeated practice of self-determination skills relating to self-awareness, self-advocacy, and assertiveness is essential if students with learning disabilities are to achieve some degree of comfort with, and confidence in, their ability to demonstrate these skills in post-high school environments" (p. 57). Krebs (2002) agreed that future personal and professional success is facilitated by the development of self-advocacy skills.

School counselors can again collaborate with special educators to provide opportunities for students with learning disabilities to practice self-advocacy skills. Skill instruction followed by role-play and then supervised practice with special education teachers can allow for students to gradually develop skills. Students also may be encouraged to self-advocate in their regular education classes. A psychoeducational approach can be used whereby students are first taught the basics of self-advocacy. An experiential component can follow, in which students first watch school counselors and special educators model the skills, then the students role-play, and finally they practice the skills with regular education teachers. The use of peers (perhaps older students) as models also could be effective.


When providing individual planning to students with learning disabilities, school counselors may consider modifying sessions based on student needs, and Wren and Einhorn (2000) have provided a variety of suggestions for counselors. For example, they suggested that counselors may need to structure shorter sessions and frequent breaks, remove distracting objects, provide noiseless objects for students to hold or squeeze, or allow students to stand, pace, or sit in different chairs throughout the session; these modifications could be helpful for students with short attention spans. They also suggested reserving a few minutes at the beginning and end of sessions to review previous material, a helpful accommodation for students who learn better with repetition. Similarly, Wren and Einhorn suggested counselors not assume that students comprehend the information they provide.

Asking for clarification, simplifying vocabulary, decreasing sentence complexity and length, and slowing speech to the students' preferred pace could be helpful. Other students with learning disabilities may benefit from counselors reviewing key ideas, illustrating points with sketches, and, when necessary, asking students to bring in written or taped notes, questions, or thoughts. All students have unique needs and school counselors must do what is necessary to clearly communicate.

As recommended with other diverse populations, school counselors must attempt to learn about and understand the experiential worldviews of students with learning disabilities. They also must acknowledge the potential effects of learning disabilities on student identity and develop interventions to help individuals cope. For example, learning disabilities have been identified as negatively affecting self-esteem (Wren & Einhorn, 2000). As such, school counselors may want to implement primary prevention interventions to promote positive self-esteem in all students (possibly through classroom guidance) and follow up with secondary prevention activities (perhaps a small counseling group) for students with learning disabilities who could benefit from additional support.

In addition, individuals with learning disabilities often experience anxiety and depression related to academic failures (Orenstein, 2000). Orenstein suggested individuals might be hesitant to register for college preparatory courses based on a fear of failure or a lack of confidence. To intervene, school counselors can provide support and encouragement to students as they explore possible postsecondary options. Testimonials from alumni who are currently attending or successfully completed college may help increase student self-efficacy.


Many students with learning disabilities have the potential to be successful in college, but not without support and encouragement. Simply by proactively addressing their needs, school counselors demonstrate belief in their potential. A collaborative approach to transition planning is emphasized by the IDEA mandate that transition services be included as part of a student's IEP; decisions must be made with input from multiple perspectives. School counselors must make sure that their voices are heard on those teams, as they possess unique knowledge about career and lifespan development.

Furthermore, in order to effectively advocate for students with learning disabilities, school counselors must be directly involved. It goes without saying that school counselors should include students with learning disabilities in any career and college planning activities offered to all students. In addition, they should provide information to parents and anticipate concerns and questions regarding what it means for a student with a learning disability to attend college. Whether they provide direct services or collaborate with others to ensure that students with learning disabilities develop additional knowledge and skills for successful transitions to college, school counselors cannot deny the importance of sharing their specialized knowledge.


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Amy Milsom, D.Ed., is an assistant professor and Michael T. Hartley, M.A., is a doctoral student in the College of Education, University of Iowa, Iowa City. E-mail:
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Author:Hartley, Michael T.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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