Today’s college-bound high school students face numerous milestones on their way to graduation; first there are PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), then come the SATs, the college tours, applications, recommendations, and finally letters of acceptance (or rejection). This is often an exciting albeit stressful period of time. But the fact is that college is not the best option for every teenager. Some teens will need to wait and do a little growing up before considering whether college is for them. Others may realize post-secondary education will never be their choice.  For teens with LD and attention issues, the question of whether and where to attend college can be even more complex.

So, what about the high school student who isn’t headed to a four-year college, or in some cases, any college at all?  What should parents be aware of and how can they best support their teenagers? Watching peers make exciting plans for the future that don’t reflect the plans of your son or daughter can be painful for the entire family. The experience can be particularly difficult in today’s ultra-competitive environment of super-achieving kids.

For our son, Alex, now a junior in high school, following in his older sister’s footsteps is not in the cards. While she was a star student who breezed through the toughest classes at the same time she was participating in athletics and theater, our son has struggled with the basic courses required for high school graduation. (These days just earning a high school diploma is daunting.)

Help your teen prepare a ready description of his post-graduation plans

It’s bound to happen — a well-meaning neighbor, family member, or friend will ask, “So where do you want to go to college?” Or, “What score did you get on your PSAT?” Having an answer in mind ahead of time can help those not heading to college avoid feeling embarrassed or put on the spot. Here are some perfectly reasonable answers that work for many kids:

  • I’m taking some time off after high school to figure out what I want to do.
  • I’m going to work for a while and save up some money.
  • I’m going to take some classes at the local junior college. (Junior colleges don’t require SATs for admission.)
  • I’m looking into alternatives and I’m not sure yet.

“Students aiming for college often begin making plans by their sophomore year in high school,” notes Damon Korb, M.D., a behavioral and developmental pediatrician and director of the Center for Developing Minds who specializes in working with children with LD and social or developmental delays. “They set academic goals for themselves, choose a university and consider various paths of higher study. It is perhaps even more important that the non-college bound student has a plan. What will this student do after college, and what does he or she need to do to prepare for that event? Some may consider trade school. Others may travel or work. Regardless of their path, parents should work with their graduating student to help develop a realistic plan that covers expenses, health, and continuing development. If students invest their efforts in a future plan or direction, they can proudly announce their intentions when asked.”

Managing the most intense college-related milestones

It can seem as though every month is an important college-related milestone once your child reaches junior year in high school. There are certain time periods, though, that can create extra stress for those who are not college-bound. Being aware of such time periods and helping your child prepare for them can relieve some of the pressure.

  • PSATs: These preliminary tests are offered in sophomore year for students who want to see what the SATs are like, how they will score, and what sort of courses they might want to take to try to raise their scores. The PSATs are most commonly taken in the spring of sophomore year.
  • SATs: Believe it or not some kids are now taking their SATs in sophomore year so they can get tutoring or take a class and then repeat them numerous times and keep getting better scores. We actually had the misfortune of talking to one mother whose 14-year-old son had achieved a near-perfect score, information I decided not to share with my then 16-year-old son.
  • College tours: Many families use spring break of junior year to visit colleges. If you are not partaking, consider doing something engaging during that time so your child doesn’t feel left out.
  • College applications: Senior year can be a string of activities related to college applications, beginning early in the fall (for those who are applying for early admission) and lasting into spring.
  • Letters of acceptance (and rejection): These will start arriving in winter for students who have applied for early admission, and continue through spring. Even if your child isn’t applying to college, offering a sympathetic ear to others can still win him recognition as a good friend.

It’s helpful to be sure your child is involved in his own activities during these times. Anything from sports to volunteering provides a different environment where your child can shine without having to report a test score to do so.

Our son found respite at the local elementary school where he has been a classroom volunteer for going on three years. When he doesn’t feel connected at his school, he has been able to find his community elsewhere.

Look for role models whose paths are replicable

Not everyone goes to college, and certainly being a good student is not a prerequisite to being successful and happy. One way to help your child if he is feeling badly about not following his peers to college is to look for examples and role models who have successfully taken a non-college path.

Help your child find examples of successful and famous people with learning and attention problems whose paths were also unusual. Their stories can be can be inspiring and motivating:

You might also find that if you talk to family members you will discover other role models to whom your teen can relate. Our son was impressed to find out his very bright uncle, who runs a thriving print business, never attended college and went to work right out of high school. Another cousin opted out of the college path and instead traveled around the world to help build clean water systems in places such as Africa and South America.

Research positive alternatives to college

There are many great resources available for those not planning to attend college right out of high school. Doing some research with your teen during the height of college application “season” can diminish the possible discomfort or feeling of being left out or like a failure. One school counselor suggested we sit down with our son and make a list of his interests and skills, then begin looking at positive and realistic post-high school opportunities.

A good place to begin your search for post-high school possibilities is a website that suggests alternatives to college. This site lists a variety of alternatives from Habitat for Humanity (which engages young people in building houses for the underprivileged), to National Outdoor Leadership School (which offers trips and programs to build self-esteem and wilderness skills), to The Dynamy Internship Year, a not-for-profit educational organization that offers 17- to 22-year-olds a chance to live independently during what they call a “gap-year” opportunity.

Stay flexible for the future

Even if your child doesn’t want to go to college now, it is hard to predict the future. Numerous junior colleges, state universities, and private colleges offer programs specifically designed to support those with LD. It is not out of the question that at age 20 or beyond, a young adult may become interested in taking some college courses or trying a college that offers good support.

Most importantly, say counselors and therapists, let your child’s individual personality and abilities be the guide for what he wants to do and when he is ready.

Ironically, our son, who hates school and still insists ” Reading is stupid,” (his way of expressing how difficult and frustrating it is for him) wants desperately to be an elementary school teacher. Right now just getting through junior year of high school often seems an insurmountable challenge. But as his peers are visiting colleges, you can be sure we’ll be pulling out catalogues and brochures for the places and programs we think will provide the best opportunity for success. And a visit to the local junior colleges to talk about accommodations and options is high on our to-do list this winter. It’s never too early to get started.