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For many families with kids who learn and think differently, getting through high school can feel like a big challenge. But what about the challenges after high school? How can families prepare their high-schoolers for what comes next — whether that’s college, a trade school, a job, or a combination of things? 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Jennifer Correnti, a high school counselor and 504 plan coordinator in New Jersey. Tune in for Jennifer’s advice on how to prepare kids for life after 12th grade. Learn what accommodations colleges and workplaces might be able to provide, and how to ask for them. Get tips on supporting kids during this transition time, including teaching them to self-advocate. 

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today we're talking about how we can help our high schoolers who learn and think differently and prepare for what comes next.

Gretchen: Maybe that means college or a trade school. Maybe it means work. Or maybe some combination of these things. The key is helping them get the information and skills they need to figure out their goals and to achieve them.

Rachel: With us today to share advice on how to do that is Jennifer Correnti. Jennifer is the director of school counseling and the 504 coordinator at a high school in New Jersey.

Gretchen: The student population there includes many new immigrants and kids of all different backgrounds with a wide range of expectations and hopes for their future.

Rachel: It's Jennifer's job to support them, advocate for them, and help prepare them for whatever comes next.

Gretchen: We're so happy to have her with us today. Jennifer, welcome to "In It."

Jennifer: Thanks for having me.

Gretchen: So, as you know, today we're talking about helping kids who learn and think differently, prepare for the transition after high school. So, I'm wondering, how do you start that conversation with the students at your school? What do you want them thinking about when they first come in as freshmen?

Jennifer: Every student has intentional conversations with their school counselor about what their plans are. And we have to begin with the end in mind, right? So, when a student walks into a high school, we need to start asking them, "What do you think you might want to do when you leave here?" And when I say that I don't mean give me an exact role that you want to have when you walk out of the door in June of your graduation year. We're talking about what do you enjoy? What do you want to capitalize on? What are some things you don't like? Right? Because you can't always talk about the likes, you got to talk about the dislikes.

And we also, you know, rely on the behaviors that we see. Like, if you're telling me that you want to do something, that we need to start walking those walks and get those skills early. If you tell me that you want to have a job, like working on the railroad, well, the railroad, right? Conductors have to be on time. We have to do things and you keep walking in 10 minutes late. That's going to be really upsetting for the people who want to get to work on time. So, you know, those are the things that we are working on. So, it's behaviors. And then also, you know, likes, dislikes.

Gretchen: Yeah. You know, all kids, no matter where they're going to go after high school, need to develop some skills, right? Some like life skills, being out in the world. So, what are some of those skills you're trying to teach your students while they're in high school? And how do you do that?

Jennifer: Well, sometimes I do it better than others, honestly. But, you know, the biggest are those executive functioning skills, you know, can really be central to a student. You know, the ability to put your things in order or the ability to keep a calendar, your time management. Because that time management piece is easy at the high school level, right? Because bells ring and they tell you when to move.

Gretchen: Right.

Jennifer: That's not going to happen when you're at college and you're sitting at the table with your friends in the student center, you know, eating Taco Bell and it's time to go to class. There's not a bell that's saying, "Oh, I got to go to class." Like you need to be able to get there, you know, being on time. But the biggest one that we have to constantly work on is advocacy, right? You need to say what you need. We need you to find a way and outlet. It doesn't have to be necessarily your voice. Maybe you need to learn how to craft an email that says what you need. Like, maybe you need to just write it down and give it to me, whatever.

But you need to be able to say to your teachers, to the people around you, to your principals, anybody, "Can I speak to you? I need to talk to you about this. Can we grab Mrs. Correnti and ask her to come in?" Because they know that I might be the person that will help support the words that they're looking for.

So, we're doing a lot of like, role modeling and like role-playing down at the high school level where, you know, if I have students that need to advocate for themselves, I'm going to often say to them, "Hey, why don't we bring your teacher in? The three of us can sit here. We'll rehearse it first. Your teacher will come in. You could say what you need, and I'm there to help if you get stuck."

Those are the things that we really need to focus on for the kids. But time management advocacy, point A to point B, executive functioning, like those are just heavy hitters.

Gretchen: Yeah, I feel like a lot of our listeners are going to want to know about the time management piece. So, how is it that you're teaching some of these time management skills? What's the secret recipe there?

Jennifer: I don't know that there is any. I think that what we try to impress upon the students, right? is that at the end of the day, this is how like you need to move forward through this world. And I am doing what I can do here with you. I'm working with you on these plans. If we can't remediate here, then I might want to bring a parent in, a caregiver in, and ask them what they think that we can do together. Maybe I'm going to bring your teacher in.

So, I'm going to keep bringing that team together to find out what we can do better. Does it always work? Sometimes it doesn't. I hate to say that, but it doesn't. Some of my toughest lessons in my life were learned, you know, outside at the college level.

Gretchen: So, let's focus for a minute on those students who know they want to continue their education after high school, whether that means a two-year college, a four-year college, a trade school. Who should they talk to as they try to figure out what school would be a good fit for them?

Jennifer: Everybody.

Gretchen: Talk to everybody.

Jennifer: Talk to everyone. Talk to the admissions rep that visits your school. You know, you don't have to do it in front of everybody. You could write, I've had students do this where they write the question down and they want me to ask it. And if you choose to tell your story, that's your disclosure. Like, that's cool for you.

But your school counselors are not going to walk around saying, "Hey, we have a student sitting right here who has whatever. Can you talk about how you're going to..." So, we will ask students ahead of time if they want to write something down for all students. Maybe there's a shy kid, you know, who just doesn't want to ask the question. So, we will do that. And we would encourage you to have those conversations with everybody. I mean, even your teachers, right?

Your teachers went to college, usually for a content-specific area. What was it like for them? Did you have to do this? Did you have...? Having those conversations makes the kids feel better about what's to come.

Gretchen: Mm hmm.

Rachel: So, what kinds of questions would they be asking or writing down for you to ask?

Jennifer: So, I mean, we've had kids ask, "Is there an Office of Students with Disabilities on campus?" We've had students ask, "What kind of accommodations could be offered?" You know, we have kids ask about like, "Are there jobs on campus?" Because, you know, the transportation is an issue for them. We talk about job placement, if there's an internship, study abroad options, like who's eligible to go on those. So, those are the variety of areas that we've had students ask those questions.

Rachel: That's great. And those questions really help them figure out if a school is the right fit for them or what their next step might be, what might make sense.

Jennifer: You could tell, I often say to kids, like when you're with the admissions people, you have to get a feel of how that school's going to take care of you. If you have an admissions person who's just reading off material and going through the next slide and doesn't have answers, then you need to just take a minute and think about, "Is this the way they're going to treat me when I'm on campus?"

So, I encourage the students to really hear what people are saying to you. If they say, "Oh, you got to contact the Office of Student Disabilities, they don't know anything," that worries me.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: Well, you just started to answer my next question, but I have a feeling there's more. What are some signs that a school might be just a bad fit for someone with learning and thinking differences?

Jennifer: First, I would probably, any schools that don't get federal money, which I can't even name a lot of them because I can't imagine there's anybody really surviving without some federal money. But like, you know, 504s are federal mandates. So, that's an important thing. You may also look at what they're able to say about the accommodations that they provide.

There are different levels for schools like level one, level two, and then a structured experience. So, there's actually a book K&W that will list the schools and how much resources they will give a student. That's helpful. We have that book in our office.

Gretchen: I'm sorry, can you go back to this level one level too? Like I don't know what that is. I'd love to know what that is.

Jennifer: So, there are like levels of support that schools offer and like, some level ones might offer just basics, right? Some level two schools might offer like a little bit more resources. Maybe they have headsets for you. Maybe they pay kids to take your notes. And then there's like the structured schools that are geared towards individual education plans that are geared towards more structured experiences focused on students with disabilities.

So, there are different levels of schools. We are seeing more and more schools begin to incorporate higher levels of resources for students with disabilities.

Gretchen: How do you find out, though, what sort of level of school is? How would you know that information?

Jennifer: So, that K&W book tells me a lot.

Gretchen: K&W.

Rachel: OK. I just looked it up. Here's the full title, if anyone wants to make a note of it, it's the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences.

Jennifer: That's, yeah, I just called it the K&W, but that's one of the, they'll tell us a lot about, I think you know about the schools in the area that might be supportive. So, a lot of times I'm going to look on the websites and I'm going to see what the resources are, you know, what offices they house on campus that will help our students and give that information to the students and the parents to see if it fits.

Gretchen: So, then if I'm a parent going on a website for a college my kid is interested in or a trade school or whatnot, what is the name of the office that I'm looking for? Like, is there one specific name or do they go by all different kinds of names?

Jennifer: They name them all kinds of things. Mostly they like to make them so like they have like cute little names, like oars or, you know, because like, they're helping you.

Rachel: Oars, like rowing a boat?

Jennifer: Yeah, like rowing oars, but it's like the Office of Accessibility Resources, right? Like they try to make you cute. So, what I usually do is in the search bar is type in disabilities, and it's going to pop up, right? So, it's going to show me, you know, what the name of the office is, Montclair State just started an Office of Student Belonging.

So, again, I think that we're seeing this Office of Student Resources branching out to cover a variety of resources, right? Not just like the learning disabilities, but also mental health issues that might emerge, social, emotional.

The majority of schools that we see are looking to support students, right? Because retaining students past freshman year is important to a school. And so, they're going to do what they can to keep those students engaged in the college process.

Gretchen: Aren't post-secondary schools and colleges required to provide some sort of services for students with learning disabilities?

Jennifer: So, yes, they can, they have to provide services, right? But they don't have to provide them at the extent that maybe you saw when you were in high school. So, an example would be we don't often see extra time on projects at a college level because you got your syllabus in the beginning of the semester and so you knew when everything was due.

So, that's one that colleges like we don't see often, but we will see extended time on time tasks in terms of like standardized testing. One of the things that we do in preparation for something like that with students is at the high school level begin to put like 50% extra time, you know, 100% extra time, not untimed, because untimed is something that you'll not see at the college level.

But again, using those skills starting in ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th grade allows you to build up a stamina for that testing that's inevitable.

Rachel: Once your student is out of high school, to what extent do past IEPs or 504 plans, like the actual paperwork, matter? Are those pieces of paper or documents important? Does anybody want to see them?

Jennifer: Yeah. So, the first thing I say to students when they're about to leave us is to take that information and put it where their parents put their, like, marriage certificates like anything else in the fire-safe box. Because you are going to be asked to draw on those again.

And when you go like, let's say the student is going to go off to college, you have to bring the documentation because they will take that and they're going to use that as the basis. They're going to see how long the plan was in place for, right? They're going to get a lot of good information. But that's only going to be the first step for some of those schools. Some of them are going to say, "Well, this is three years old. You need to get another evaluation," and that's on you, right?

So, like, that's going to be something that you will have to take on as a family to get those evaluations redone. That's my quick tip. I often like to make sure that anything that like my students are using evaluation wise are going to be from junior and senior year because it at least be within the three-year mark.

Gretchen: So, when they go, for example, to the Office of Student Resources or Student support, whatever it's called, somebody working there is going to look at those materials and are they going to use them then to recommend accommodations or, because there’s not going to be an IEP in college, right? Can you explain a little bit about that?

Jennifer: So, you are going to have a conversation, again, advocacy. And it won't be you and your parent, right? They're not going to talk to your parent, right? It's going to be you. They're going to go through the information that's presented and say what they can provide for the student.

Again, onus is on the school in high school, but it's not the same level at the college. So, in an IEP, you may see some modification to curriculum. You won't see modification to curriculum at the college level, right? They're just going to try to find ways to help give you the access to that curriculum. And that might be audiobooks, text-to-speech, like someone assisting writing your notes. Those are the things that they're going to accommodate.

So, you will go into that office and go back and forth about why you need something. If you got 50% extra time for like tasks like standardized tests, they're going to say, "Oh, you've had this for four years. Clearly, there's something to this. We can offer that."

Gretchen: So, if I go and I talk to the person at this office and we discuss this, "OK, I think, you know, yeah, maybe you'll have a little extra time on tests, or you need text to speech." How do my professors know this? Do I have to tell them?

Jennifer: So, schools may do it different ways. Most schools, they work with you on your schedule because one of the accommodations that you may get is priority scheduling. That's a nice one, too. So, they will work with you on making sure that there are professors are knowledgeable, are able to get these resources. A lot of times the school is working with the professors to say, "Hey, the student is on your roster, and they need this," like they're not going to say what the issue is.

Gretchen: OK.

Jennifer: That's confidential. Again, disclosure is on the person is not on the people administering the plan. So, they wouldn't say what the issue was. They would say "This is what the student receives."

Rachel: Got it. So, I think a lot of students with learning and thinking differences and also sometimes their parents don't even think that post-secondary school is an option. Do some of your students or their families need confidence boosting in this area? And what do you tell them when they come to you with kind of that perspective?

Jennifer: We're going to kind of break down some of those, you know, misnomers that might be in their minds about what is possible, what's not possible, and try to break down what the, what's the real hang-up like, what are you worried about? And then backtrack from there and try to figure out what we can do to either ease the fear or work towards a different angle. Maybe they're right. Like, maybe their fear is very real.

And we need to do a bit of balancing. And if we still have a family that's feeling unsure about what they want to do, then I'm going to encourage them to look at the community colleges in the area. You may want to maybe take a class, maybe take two classes, but still you're entitled to the services, or especially after the pandemic, we're seeing a lot of students not go directly to college.

Like we are seeing students who go off into the world of work and who are joining like real estate because they have an entrepreneurial spirit and that's what's leading them. And like I said, if we're working with the students from ninth grade to 12th grade, we've done an interest inventory and we begin to highlight the areas that the students feel the most confident in or they feel the most connected to and build off of that. And we give them options like, you know, here's a career that needs a little bit of education, needs a little more education, needs lots of education.

You know, sometimes you have to say to a student, "You want to be in the medical field, do you want to be in school for eight-plus years? And if you know, that's something you don't want to do. We need to find something else in the medical field that could still give you what you're looking for without maybe that much education. Maybe you can't afford eight years of education." You know, that's the truth, too, you know.

Rachel: When you're having that other conversation. So, the non-post-secondary school conversation, but you're talking to the student who says, "I'm going to go get my real estate license" or "I'm going to work in some other capacity," do you talk with them about accommodations at whatever their next stop is going to be?

Jennifer: Yeah. So, depending on the size of the company determines whether or not they have to follow the federal mandate. So, that's something that you may want to find out, like before you're interviewing for a space. Again, something that we talk about with students when they're about to go into the world of work.

Because don't forget, like jobs, like careers and stuff like that, their responsibility is a little different. The burden isn't placed on the employer, right? They're going to do their best to accommodate you, reasonable accommodation, and that's what they're responsible for. So, let's go down the real estate rabbit hole there, right?

So, if you are having open houses, you know, like you need to make a flyer for the open house, but like, that's not something you're, you know, you don't know how to kind of handle that or how to get it and on time like, so maybe you need to do text-to-speech, that might be reasonable. They might be able to have a program that has like text-to-speech. But there are some companies that may not offer that. Those are things you have to consider.

It's also interesting because at the high school, we're compelling you to be in classes from 8:00 to 3:00 and do all the classes that we're telling you are necessary to get your high school diploma. When you go to the world of work, you're doing what you want, like in your space of like of your concentrated area. You know, you may find that some of the things that were a burden because you were 8 to 3 with us and us telling you what to do, are no longer so pressing on you because your attention is not divided.

You may still need, you know, your desk away from high-traffic areas, right? That might be something that you need to get your job done. But that's easy to do for a job. You know, that's what we have to think about, you know, what's the whole picture of that occupation?

Rachel: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Gretchen: OK. I think our last question is going to be to ask you about success stories. So, we're wondering if you can share any success stories of students with learning and thinking differences who've come back to visit after graduation and have done a especially good job of navigating the challenges outside of the protective sphere of your school.

Jennifer: So, we have had students come back and join even our, you know, the staff, you know, have become educators. We have students that come back and tell us about the store that they opened after they got their business degree. Oftentimes, though — and this is something that, you know, maybe we should have mentioned a little bit earlier, too — we try not to put the time that you should graduate from.

Like people will say, "Oh, you should graduate college in four years." Like, I don't really hold to that standard any longer. I think that there are a lot of people for a lot of reasons who don't do college in four years, who do it in five, who do it in six. Sometimes, like, you need to understand what you can handle and maybe you can only handle three classes a semester.

And so, you know that it's going to take you a little bit longer. And so, we have students that come back who may have been six years removed and who just got their bachelor's. And that's amazing, you know, like, that's amazing, because you persevered, and your stamina grew and you did what you needed to do so that you could have what you wanted. And it's always amazing, no matter what the story is, we're always excited to hear what our students are doing.

Gretchen: Yeah. So, Jennifer, before we wrap up, are there any points that we didn't get to that you'd like to mention here?

Jennifer: I think the most important thing that I'd want everybody to know is that you should use your school counselors as a resource. You can rely on your school counselors and your school counselors love your students.

Rachel: Well, I think that really came through in this conversation.

Gretchen: Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer.

Rachel: Yes, thank you. This was a great conversation.

Jennifer: It's my pleasure.

Gretchen: Wow. We just got so many awesome tips from Jennifer. Yes. Before we go, I want to add one more. You know, Jennifer mentioned that colleges are going to want a relatively recent evaluation for incoming students with learning and thinking differences?

Rachel: Yeah.

Gretchen: Well, Andy, one of our in-house experts, reminded me that if you try to get one of those after your kid has graduated from high school, you're looking at a 6- to 12-month wait and maybe a very steep price tag and one that insurance might not even cover.

So, you really, really want to get that evaluation done before your kid graduates. Since schools are obligated to provide an evaluation and they're going to do it at no cost to the family. But here's the catch, you need to get that process rolling early, anywhere from 18 months to two years before your kid graduates.

Rachel: Wow. Yeah, that's a great point. And those are free and up-to-date evaluations would probably be important for any graduate with learning and thinking differences to have, even those who are not college bound. So, definitely put that on your to-do list if you have a rising junior.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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