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Education beyond school can be daunting for those with SEN, but potential problems can be averted with the right planning and support, writes Amanda Kirby

Moving from school to either university or college involves a steep learning curve for most students. For some, though, it can represent an even greater challenge. A lack of proper planning can result in early drop-out, which in turn can have significant consequences for the future confidence self-esteem and, ultimately, employment prospects of students. A successful transition, on the other hand, can pave the way to real independence and growth.

Not surprisingly, this time of transition has been recognised as more challenging for students with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, and those with other SEN such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), speech and language difficulties and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). In reality, students often have more than one area of challenge, as overlap or co-occurrence is the rule rather than the exception. This means that there is a strong likelihood that any student with one recognised SEN will exhibit features of other SENs, even if the criteria for a full diagnosis are not met. For many students, identification of the complete picture of challenges they face may not always have been obvious or fully explored. In addition, the environment the student is in (including the level of support provided) may impact on the particular areas of difficulty the student shows.

Students may find that their difficulties with learning increase at times of transition and change because they have been removed from a familiar and relatively stable learning setting. They will have known their school environment well and will have had a good idea of the daily demands on them, and the expectations of others. Some may have had a statement of SEN and may have received regular support. Nearly all will have been living at home, having their day-to-day needs, such as washing, ironing, meals and paying bills, met for them. Some students will have been relying heavily on their parents to provide academic and life support. Parents and siblings, rather than peers, may also have provided the main focus for social interaction. This can result in a student arriving at college being intellectually ready but not necessarily fully prepared emotionally, socially and practically.

Not all students arrive neatly labelled and identified with clear support needs, and this time can be a "tipping point" when demands increase exponentially. Some students start several courses but fall out in the first few weeks.

What help is available?

Opportunities to develop social skills are important for students with SEN.College and university support services have become increasingly responsive to the needs of students with dyslexia but some services may have less knowledge and experience in other areas, such as dyspraxia and ADHD. Much of the focus of support may have been more around the academic aspects, such as study skills, and less on everyday life and social skills. There is no doubt that it is a challenge to determine where the lines are drawn. How much out of hours support is it really appropriate for education to provide? What is deemed as reasonable, and what is the role of parents and guardians in undertaking some of this preparation for transition?

College and university offer a myriad of novel experiences which may not always have been considered but may in reality prove to be the aspects of life that cause the greatest challenge and expose the student's vulnerabilities.

A key task is to identify before arrival, whenever possible, where support needs to be given and who should provide it. Students and families can use the internet to research common issues and the secrets for success. Peer mentoring schemes, which buddy up students, can also be very successful, allowing a more experienced student to demonstrate how to manage non-academic areas of college or university life and provide information and advice on the local setting.

Determining the focus of support is a challenge and this can better be done while the student is still in school, as every student with SEN has a unique pattern of strengths and challenges and parents and teachers will be important in determining an appropriate approach. Good liaison between local colleges and schools can also make a difference. Advance orientation days at the new institution can be particularly useful.
Parents and guardians need to discuss honestly how much change the individual can manage at one time. Some students will never have travelled away from home, lived independently or been out to pubs or clubs before they reach further education. The new term may represent their first experience of navigating transport systems on their own, living and working in a new environment and not having parents in close proximity.

There are many factors that can exacerbate the challenges faced by those with SEN at times of transition and the cumulative effect of these different issues can be devastating. The more new areas the student has to cope with, the greater the problem can be. This is on top of the recognised challenges relating to the student’s known learning difficulty. A poor start can mean that the student sits alone at night listening to others having fun but not knowing how to join in.

Key areas of difficulty

College or university can place unfamiliar and increasing demands on students with SEN. Students can experience difficulties with issues such as:   

  • organisational skills – meeting assignment and social deadlines, getting to lectures on time and keeping paper work together
  • self-care – managing washing of clothing and bedding, and personal care
  • friendship – negotiating new relationships and making sense of social boundaries without parental restrictions or guidance
  • finance – managing finances over a period of time and not spending everything in the first week of term
  • the environment – negotiating a new, complex college environment, which may involve split sites and require independent travel
  • living arrangements – coping with a hall of residence or sharing accommodation and kitchen areas with others.

At the same time that students are experiencing the new demands of college or university, they are also facing a marked decrease in support from familiar sources such as the home and school. Such support may have been crucial to students' academic success in the past.
The only way to map out the potential challenges is to consider each aspect of college or university life and to consider whether the individual student has the necessary skills on board or needs some guidance, training, adaptations or support.

Standardised adjustments and advice, given purely in accordance with a student's label or diagnosis, run the risk of missing the real needs of the individual. Even those with the same diagnosis will generally present very differently in terms of the nature and severity of their symptoms. So the real challenge is to manage the individual student's personal learning styles.

Executive functioning

One area of difficulty which is common to many of those with SEN is that of executive functioning. This relates to skills in planning, time management and organisation. A range of simple strategies can be helpful here, including setting up automated mobile phone reminders, having automatic back-ups of personal folders and academic work in the Cloud, developing to-do lists, colour coding folders for each course and area of personal life on computers and mobile devices, and setting up standard templates for assignments and other regular tasks.
We can no longer be complacent and simply give out booklets welcoming new students to the world of further education. Recent technological advances have provided new hope for students with SEN, making it easier to develop truly personalised solutions.

Assessment of skills and needs can be gathered prior to transfer to further and higher education, and there are a number of online assessment options which can provide ongoing developmental support systems that are open to all. Such assessments can assist in predicting potential issues and provide early guidance on many aspects of life, often including live (but not face-to-face discussion). They allow the student to ask the questions that they may feel uncomfortable raising in a classroom or group setting. Such online portals can also build up a wealth of real world examples of what works.

Many students who have learning challenges do not have a formal or complete diagnosis; they don’t always fit into neat boxes or conform to standard labels. By providing access to information for all, these students who are often at the periphery of education can also be supported. This is a social model of support, rather than the diagnostic medical model, and it can be very effective.

Top tips for making FE and HE work

Make sure transition is manageable
Discuss the potential risks of tackling too many changes at once and stick to small realistic steps.

Start training for independent living skills early on
Make and implement a plan for understanding and developing life skills, such as washing and ironing clothes, shopping, cooking, running a bank account and managing a budget.

Encourage organisational skills early on
Students need to become familiar with and practice skills such as using alarms on phones, operating a diary system which can be backed up, colour coding files and breaking up complex tasks into manageable chunks.

Develop opportunities for social skills practice
After-school clubs, sports activities, religious or local community groups, and voluntary work can all be great ways of getting students out and about mixing and interacting with their peers.

Teach study skills
Don’t just expect students to have gained study skills at school; teach them specifically. Essay templates can be helpful. Demonstrate different forms of note taking to see which is preferred and explore how to use technology such as text-to-speech and proofreading software.

Discuss ways of coping with emotions
Help the student to understand emotions – such as anxiety, depression and stress – what causes them and how best to manage them. There are many ways to identify the first signs of problems, and practical methods for combating stress, including relaxation techniques and exercise. Students should know who they can turn to if they need help, such as counselling services, the GP, and drug and alcohol services.

Further information

A former GP, Amanda Kirby is Professor in Developmental Disorders in Education at The University of South Wales, where she founded The Dyscovery Centre in 1997. The Centre provides assessment and intervention for children and adults with dyslexia, DCD, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders:

Amanda Kirby’s e-book, How to Succeed with Specific Learning Difficulties at College and University, is available at:

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