Surviving the first weeks of uni. A parent’s guide.

Congratulations!  You are the proud parent of a college student.  Together, you have survived the inflexibility of formal state education. This is the beginning of real life, and your student may be somewhat anxious and apprehensive. All students feel like this.  All of them.  Even the seemingly uber-confident ones. For the first time, your student will have to think independently about negotiating a larger, noisier and unfamiliar environment.  They will have to be able to get to class, figure out the timetable, find books and other texts to study in the library, decide when and where to study, submit assignments, and prepare for exams.  They need to complete these tasks whilst meeting new people and managing new relationships.  Believe it or not, the next four years (or more) will fly by, so here is my survival checklist for parents.

Be informed.  If your student is over 18 years old they are an adult, and therefore all correspondence and communication will go directly to them, and not to you.  Find out if the college offers a parent meeting or orientation, and learn as much as you can about how ‘the system’ operates. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of experts.  ASK if you can attend / accompany your son or daughter to an initial Needs Assessment appointment, and by that I mean ask both the Disability Office in the college, and also your student.  You may be surprised to learn that your son or daughter would prefer to go alone.  Make a list of questions, together.  Download the College Transition Checklist for Parents and Students to take to the meeting.  Let your student do the talking.  If necessary, practice this.

Be involved but not too involved.  This is a hard one.  You have been the primary motivator, advocate and driving force throughout the life of your young adult.  Keep an eye on how things are going in college.  Talk to your student about all aspects of college.  If you think they may be struggling, point them in the direction of disability support services, counselling, academic advisers or tutors, the course director, or an external professional who may be able to assist with mentoring.  Discuss how this should be approached, work out a ‘script’ or ‘To Do’ list if necessary.  Ask your student how they got on with their task list.  If some aspects didn’t work, re-think the strategy and work out a new one. Support, but do not take over.  It is an essential life skill and therefore absolutely critical that your son or daughter learns how to work their way through difficult situations, and how to self-advocate.  Above all, do not take control of your student’s college email account.

Be an adviser.  Help your student to balance independent life skills, academic work, leisure activities, and social life.  Going to college is a job not a hobby, and it will help your student if you help them to approach it from this perspective.  Think about the parallels between college and employment: travel, time-keeping, roles, responsibilities, formal and informal rules, interpersonal skills.  Talk about these similarities, and the consequences of not engaging with responsibilities as a student or employee.  This is an important shift in freedoms and expectations, and something that young people will not be used to after many years of being told what to do, and how and when to do it!

Be observant.  Keep an eye on comings and goings, changes in behaviour, work / life balance, and mood.  Talk to your student about changes that are making you feel uneasy.  Don’t make assumptions, try to explain things away, or blame peers or college staff. Monitor the balance and initiate ‘just in time’ conversations, not when things have reached crisis point.  Talk to someone who can give you an independent or ‘outsider’ perspective.

Be flexible.  Very often, when students fail to engage with college and in particular their chosen course, it is indicative of losing interest, or discovering that they have made the wrong course choice. This is not unusual.  A significant number of students withdraw from college within the first term.  Student life and studying in college is not for everyone, and that may be the case for your son or daughter, and if this is the case, you must accept it. On the other hand, if a re-think is necessary, it is possible to transfer to another college, change courses within the same institution, or to re-apply through the CAO. There are formal procedures and financial penalties attached to these options, so a robust and HONEST discussion is required.

Between now and the beginning of the course.  Practice and familiarise.  Download a map of the campus.  Identify key buildings, entrances and exits.  Visit and explore places to eat, libraries, shops, transport hubs.  Practice the journey.  Discuss ‘what if’ situations and figure out solutions.  Check the reading / book list.  Talk about the most efficient method of completing academic tasks: using pen and paper, a laptop, or a tablet.  Go to your local library and explore the Dewey catalogue system, practice locating subject sections.  Investigate clubs and societies.  Look at the ‘Fresher’s Week’ activities.  Learn the jargon, for example, semester, tutorial, seminar, fresher etc….

And above all…. be confident.  They made it this far.



(I’m writing this from Dublin so college links are specific to Ireland.  However, an industrious soul in Sweden has a preliminary list of Disability Services in UK universities.  If anyone has a more comprehensive list, please do share.

Book flyer for web


The College Transition Checklist is a resource extracted from Chapter 6 of Planning Transitions for Young People with Special Needs and Disabilities).

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