Transitioning from high school to university can be a big adjustment for any student, but for those with learning disabilities, misconceptions and stigma can add to the challenges.
Research from Child and Youth Studies PhD student Emma Peddigrew (MA ’21) recently gave voice to first-year students with learning disabilities in the Brock community. In February 2020, she conducted in-person interviews for her master’s thesis under the supervision of Professor John McNamara, focusing on emotional and social impacts of learning disabilities in the transition to first year.
“Almost all of the participants said there were misconceptions about what their diagnosis actually meant, not only for them, but also for the people around them,” Peddigrew says. “Even close family members didn’t fully understand what a learning disability meant, so students were trying to navigate how to communicate their needs to those around them.”
Peddigrew observed significant issues around self-esteem and mental health concerns, as well as high pressure from loved ones to succeed.
“Participants reported concerns that if they were to fail or fall behind, that their family or their close friends would blame it on their disability rather than being a bit more compassionate about the first-year experience and the stressful environment of university, in general,” she says.
Based on her findings, Peddigrew has advice for incoming students with learning disabilities.
- Connect with Student Accessibility Services as soon as possible. Peddigrew’s study participants received accommodations from the University for their learning disabilities. She says that accessing the services available and figuring out exactly what supports you need early on can help you avoid stress as the year progresses.
- Build a reliable support network. Peddigrew says it’s important to challenge the idea that university students have to be independent and figure things out on their own. “It makes life so much easier when you are able to confide in someone or ask for support or advice,” she says. “Students should know that there will be times when you are struggling and that’s normal.”
- Self-advocate. Learning to communicate needs and trust your experience is key for students who are moving into university settings, as well as workplaces and relationships, according to Peddigrew’s research. “A lot of parents think they know what is best for their child, and that might be the case for a time — but ultimately, the individual knows best what is needed for success,” she says.
Friends and family members of young people with learning disabilities can also help support a successful transition by remembering a few key things.
- Accommodations level the playing field — they don’t give a leg up. “Almost every single participant stated there was a stigma associated with having an accommodation,” says Peddigrew. “A lot of times their friends would call them ‘so lucky’ because they got an extra hour on their exam or an extra week on an assignment.” Accommodations are about equity for students with disabilities and do not give anyone an advantage.
- Students don’t “outgrow” learning disabilities. Participants reported that family members and friends often expected that they might “grow out of” their learning disability or their need for accommodations because they were older and more mature. “Learning disabilities don’t disappear,” says Peddigrew. “But you can set yourself up for success through intervention and understanding.”
- Nurture self-advocacy. “Families should really encourage self-advocacy from a young age and keep encouraging it throughout university,” Peddigrew recommends. “Allow your child to be in the driver’s seat because learning disabilities are very specific to each individual.”
McNamara says this research “brings light to important issues concerning students’ first-year experience,” and he echoes Peddigrew’s encouragement to engage with supports and her emphasis on the critical skill of self-advocacy.
“For individuals with learning disabilities, the university experience can be daunting, but it can also be very exciting and rewarding,” he says. “By exploring individuals’ actual experiences, Emma’s work highlights some important strategies that students can utilize as they begin their university journey.”
McNamara also notes the role that instructors play in supporting students.
“As a professor, it is important also that I encourage and engage students in conversations about how to succeed,” he says.
For more information on Brock’s accommodation services, visit the Student Accessibility Services website.