The invisibility of students on campus struggling with ADHD is a pervasive problem that Wellesley desperately needs to confront. It is imperative that the information and proposed solutions presented in this article are acknowledged by the Wellesley College community and administration, if not shared and immediately acted on.
There are no resources available, nor genuinely helpful accommodations, for students with ADHD. The college’s official Mental Health Online Screening Program offers no option to test for it; if a student feels concerned about any other common mental illnesses, however, the College’s screening program is equipped to handle it. In classrooms, students open about ADHD are met with stigma and judgment by peers and professors.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a mental disorder often categorized by difficulty with task completion, poor time management, lack of focus, procrastination, disorganization and forgetfulness, among other traits. These symptoms, in college, may look like an inability to meet deadlines, frequent lateness to class and meetings, tangential exploration of content in discussion-based classes, intense interest in certain readings or units, or forgetting crucial assignments or projects altogether. At Wellesley, ADHD frequently means failure.
While ADHD is not classified as a learning disability in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the disorder’s presence in an individual frequently coincides with learning disabilities and other mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. ADHD alone can have an irrevocably damaging effect on a student’s ability to effectively experience and complete college. Combined with other factors, including disability and mental illness, but also race, sex and socioeconomic status, ADHD and its often-debilitating effects can worsen, go unnoticed or lead to a student dropping out.
Classroom expectations seem to be established wholly and similarly for all students, without mental illness or differently-abled students in mind. In addition to the common effects of ADHD more obviously detrimental to student performance, like lateness and disorganization, symptoms such as hyperfocus, an intense concentration on a certain topic or subject, can be just as disadvantageous. For a student with ADHD interested in their studies alone, conquering the non-major requirements of a liberal arts education may seem nearly impossible. It seems to Wellesley students that submitting a simple paper on time can get them the coveted A — but enthusiastic, intense and sincere engagement with the material at a slightly slower, sometimes meandering pace is conflated with laziness and immaturity.
What official accommodations are available to Wellesley College students with ADHD do little to assist with workload management over the course of the semester. After going through Disability Services, students are allowed an hour and a half of extra time on exams; without proper help throughout the semester, however, there is no way to ensure the student with ADHD will even make it to exams — let alone study for them, arrive on time at their designated exam room, or perform any better at all. An hour and a half at the end of the semester does not make up for the days and weeks leading up to the exam in which a student with ADHD may struggle keeping up with classes.
In addition to the lack of overhead guidance, Wellesley’s classrooms pose another challenge for students with ADHD. According to those the Wellesley News reached out to, disappointed looks, frustrated emails and tense or awkward office hours appointments are a common experience with less-accommodating professors. Educators should be trained in recognizing the signs and symptoms of ADHD among other mental illnesses, and thus adjust their teaching style accordingly for the benefit of the individual student. In some cases, professors leave it up to the student with ADHD to explain their symptoms in mortifying detail, and expect them to either magically cure themselves and perform as consistently well as their peers — or drop the class.
There are professors at Wellesley much more attuned to the needs of ADHD students. For instance, one professor allows all student papers to be rewritten, as many times as needed, for an improved grade — the only deadline for rewrites being the last day of finals. Classroom structures such as these take the pressure off of students with ADHD, who often struggle with perfectionism and procrastination; flexible deadlines and room for improvement allows students to turn in work that may not yet be 100 percent complete without fearing adverse consequences or feeling pressured to move on from a topic that fascinates them. This type of grading policy incentivizes the kind of intense, slow learning that students with ADHD are especially adept at navigating.
One Wellesley student with ADHD shared with The Wellesley News: “I wish more professors knew how much I cared about their class, how hard I was trying to improve, and how deeply I was actually interacting with the material, despite my disorganization and difficulty completing assignments.” While the ability to hyperfocus is an important and useful skill, and lends itself to the development of excellent researchers, writers and artists, there still exists the stigma of students with ADHD as being inattentive overall. On the contrary, these students often incite passionate class discussions, write intellectually thorough papers and interpret their studies into lives that extend far beyond the classroom.
The students with ADHD in contact explained they assumed the role of the “problem child” of the classroom despite their reality of feverish, hour-long discussions on the subject’s minutiae, overly enthusiastic class participation, and frequent, sometimes obsessive attendance of office hours. These symptoms may seem conducive to the learning environment, however, are often met with worse realities like being the last to turn in projects, or sometimes not turning in projects at all, or neglecting office hours for weeks on end. Here, where students are evaluated solely on their ability to meet deadlines, follow directions, and make relevant, structured comments in class, students with ADHD tend to fall behind.
Steps can be taken by professors to encourage students with ADHD, including the establishment of negotiable deadlines, providing the option to be creative with alternative assignments and allowing more excused absences than officially dictated. In many cases, all a student needs is a confirmation of empathy on behalf of their professors. Like many schools, Wellesley is built on an outdated educational model; an adaptive and flexible classroom structure is a benefit to all students, especially those with ADHD.
In addition to changes in college policy and classroom expectations, it is vital that therapists at the Stone Center are trained to recognize the symptoms of ADHD. As a historically women’s college, Wellesley must hire therapists who understand how the disorder manifests differently in women. Dealing with higher education armed with a diagnosis can be extremely discouraging, but being misdiagnosed or not having a diagnosis at all is debilitating.
ADHD is a medical condition the result of genetics and differences in brain development that affect a person’s attention and self-control. Every aspect of the affected student’s life is lived through their disorder — and this mediation will continue into adulthood, as ADHD is incurable. It is the responsibility of the College to educate its students regardless of ability, and compassionately facilitate the students’ individualized journeys through academia towards eventual success. Developing strategies and coping mechanisms for students with ADHD, and educating professors on the mental illness’s effects could mean the difference between college dropout and college graduate for many affected students. The Wellesley College community, first, needs to add students with ADHD to its list of growing priorities.