Going to college is an exciting time for almost every student. It is filled with new environments, academic challenges, adventures and friends. But it can also be a difficult time for many students as they adjust to new demands without their traditional family and friends support system at hand to help. Most learn to cope and thrive while at school. Some, however, find it especially hard to adapt to their new worlds. Yes, they might be prepared academically to succeed, but they may still lack to emotional maturity, self-assurance and execution function skills required. These gaps or shortcomings can lead to all sorts of problems—some relatively simple and short-term, others which may put an enormous amount of unhealthy stress on a new student. Alissa Cappelleri is well versed on these potential pitfalls. As an executive functioning coach at New Frontiers, she works to help students identify their particular needs and challenges and set up customized strategies for these individuals to succeed. Ms. Cappelleri recently spoke to WellWell about what these students face and how they can better prepare themselves to thrive in their new environment.
What is New Frontiers, its mission and your background?
My background is primarily in special education, specifically with individuals with emotional and behavioral disabilities. I taught before I realized there are a ton of skills that we expect our students to know that we never explicitly instruct them on. The big question that gets posed is how you can hold someone accountable for what you didn’t provide. I discovered New Frontiers does this with a comprehensive, customized and individualized approach. We are able to address a lot of the challenges that life can throw your way and leave our clients with tools that allow them to tackle challenges, whether their academic life, social, general life management and then even further in their lives.
Starting college is an exciting time for students and their parents, but it also presents a lot of challenges. For students, does it go beyond just being homesick or a little nervous?
Most definitely. We’re sending students off into a new environment, and they don’t have a frame of reference for it. College is a big ask, not necessarily just because of the increased rigor of academic work. We’re asking them to level up in that way, but at the same time, manage their own schedule and all of their social relationships and foster new ones and within the realm of being hygienic and taking care of ourselves. It’s not just going off to college to learn things; it’s also juggling these things that I’ve never had to do independently.
Are some of these challenges a little more serious than others?
The most challenging issue everyone faces is the different landscape and being able to be an architect of that space. If we have not acknowledged that it is a different landscape where we struggle with creating that structure, the consequences of not setting yourself up to be successful can be grave. All those executive function skills are organization planning, prioritization, time management, and even self-regulation and self-monitoring. Those challenges, if not identified and supported, can lead to a very difficult time transitioning.
Why do you think students face these challenges? Are they not prepared for them?
It’s a bit twofold. Some are not aware it’s going to be different or the realm of how grave of a departure from what they’re used to. Part of that is a lack of awareness, and then other times, it’s a skill deficit where they haven’t had to flex that muscle before. In all cases, there is a lack of identifying the current landscape and readily adapting to something that yields the outcome we’re looking for. We see with that flexibility, sometimes they can’t envision doing something a different way. Sometimes there’s a lot of anxiety and fear that also comes. It’s scary to do something new and not be armed with the tools to support it. That can be very difficult.
Are parents plowing too many roadblocks in grade and high school and perhaps not preparing their children for what they may face in college?
I’ve heard that phrase before, and at one end, who would like to watch someone suffer if I can eliminate that? I would want to, but there’s also something to acknowledge. Look at what opportunities were available to prepare an individual for this new context. There are opportunities we can give them to practice now before they go when the stakes are really low. You can intervene once you start seeing things go off the rails without too much consequence. We also have to look at the COVID impact. There is a group of kids that only ever witnessed something done for them, but now they are in a position where they need to do it for themselves. There’s a missed opportunity for those chances. Recently, I encountered a client and a task as simple as going to return a shirt. Drop it off at Macy’s, his mom says. He’s never done that before, so it’s breeding this anxiety. The fact that what we don’t know creates that heightened sense of urgency and poses the issue. Those who struggle with executive functions can present more difficulties with transitioning to school. Mental health also impacts because stress impacts cognition. When it comes to preparing individuals to go, it’s about highlighting the areas they haven’t had the opportunity to practice seeing if that is an area of struggle. It might not be. We might be full steam ahead, but if we never get the chance to flex those cognitive muscles, how do we know?
COVID shut down a lot of society and especially schools. Do you see this as a contributing factor to a lack of development?
I would say so. Look at every interaction as an opportunity to practice a skill. When those opportunities were not available, you had fewer chances to practice. We see this a lot socially. We talk about academics when we go out to school, but we also talk about living alone and surrounded by strangers. How do you build yourself a community? There was this time when everyone was virtually learning where they didn’t have those small moments of acknowledgment of personhood that they would get if they were in the school building. You go to the class and line up outside of the door, and maybe chitchat with someone standing next to you when you enter the classroom. You sit down and someone says hi to you. For a good chunk of core development time, they were sitting in a Zoom room waiting and now we’re putting them physically in a dorm.
Is a student who has an identified challenge facing most of these problems? Are there a lot of students who are just not aware of what they will face?
The unfortunate answer is it’s a little bit of both. I’d like to be able to say yes, we have a clearly identified population and we can automatically support them. But a lot of individuals don’t notice that this is an area until asked to perform, and that’s when you know. Without a doubt, individuals with learning differences, communication challenges and mental health issues experience this difficulty. It’s all they’ve identified as having a need for support, and they’re able to advocate a little bit more readily because there’s some documentation. But for a lot of individuals that have never struggled before, and now we’re encountering a difficulty that’s a big question of the self. I thought I was good at school, but I’m not doing well now. That’s not me anymore. Who am I? What am I good for? What do I do? That creates a whole host of other issues.
What type of resources do you see available at colleges and universities? What can parents and students do ahead of time to better prepare themselves for some of these challenges?
We can be prepared by giving our students the opportunity to take ownership of things they might not need to do by themselves or with independence at this given moment. It would be a great chance for them to try their hand at it and receive feedback. It’s a lot easier to learn how to do laundry right here while I’m home rather than calling me from your dorm because you accidentally turned everything pink or shrunk socks. If we can practice when the stakes are low, two things come from that. We have confidence in the students that they are able to do it when no one else is around and we build confidence on the parent side; when I drop him off like he’s going to be good because I’ve witnessed him successfully execute this task. Seeking out support early is really helpful because, at the start of a semester, everything is new and needs to be organized. You’re getting a lot of information.
What about students who may be facing some emotional challenges about going away? Is there some way to begin to help them prepare for that transition?
Building metacognitive lines is super important because you have to be aware of yourself in a given space. You need to be able to take a minute and get a read of how you are doing, what you are doing, what you need to be doing differently and if you need anything. Waiting to build that skill when you feel like the world is on fire and everything is extreme is not a good idea. I support building out that self-rating scale beforehand, not in crisis. That way, you can identify what am I like on my best day? What am I like when I am at the lowest of the lows? What does that look like? What does that feel like? Being able to identify an expectation of what I could accomplish if I articulate what a five out of ten looks like, an eight out of ten, a three out of ten and then you know yourself and have time to advocate for support.
What about the colleges themselves? What do they have to offer and how do students engage these services?
Yes, all universities are required to have some office of accessibility or disability. It depends on each university what they call it. The baseline of accommodation is so that everything is IDA compliant and to make sure the needs are being met. The one caveat of that is you have to ask for it. No one is approaching you in college and seeing you’re struggling here, asking if can I help? There’s no expectation of that. Sometimes, you get great professors who notice a dip, but that’s relying on a school whose size allows you to be in a class where your professor knows your name if you’re not in a massive lecture hall. There are those offices that allow a student to get their accommodation and support the advocacy of communicating that with the professors, but it’s up to the individual to really make sure that they are put into action. Other schools are also putting together supplemental programs because usually, when it comes to those offices of accessibility, there’s a very rigid protocol in securing your accommodation. You need testing, neuro and psych evaluations and documentation from therapeutic professionals. That can be difficult to secure and get together. There are more universities putting together an add-on cost you can request your student be a part of. There are also more free coaching options. We’ve been consulting with a few universities in the Northeast to support the development of transition and student success coaching programs, which is awesome.
Technical advisors at universities and colleges tend to be academic in their focus. Do they proactively check on someone’s emotional well-being?
Usually, that’s for academic planning, making sure you’re taking the classes you need to check off the credits towards your degree structure. They can help with advocating for communication with different professors. They’re not going to sit down and be like, how were you studying? Why is it not going well? What’s a different way for you to put together that paper? That’s not necessarily the rule. They situate themselves more in an administrative space, which is an important space to be in.
Is there a way for parents and students to identify or assess how well a university handles or can provide these services? How do you go about assessing that?
When we go through the college process, we are looking to make ourselves an attractive applicant, but the schools look to make themselves an attractive choice. When you’re trying to make the decision, we get the polished presentation of this is what the school offers. That’s where we have to dig a little bit deeper. One thing to look out for is the accessibility of that support staff. Can students go and make appointments readily and allow for walk-in meetings or do they have very rigid scheduling parameters? If you are struggling in any of these executive function areas, sometimes making the appointment is part of the challenge. You might not even get to the point of being able to access the support. Who’s on the school’s team? What is available in terms of just baseline resources that all students have access to or exclusive ones you either have to submit an application or be selected? If there are any conversations parents can have beforehand with that staff, I always advocate for that. If you can get on the phone or schedule a meeting with someone in an office of accessibility or hear more information from the mouth of someone doing student success coaching, it gives you a better idea of the level of support your student will be able to receive. But just because they have someone identified, it doesn’t mean they’re always available at the time they need them to be available. On paper, it looked like a great supportive space for me. In action, maybe not. As much time as you can get with any professional in those offices is always helpful.
Is there some general advice or things that parents and students should be thinking about?
First off, I would make sure everyone knows who their resources are on campus. It doesn’t hurt to build out a resource matrix, identifying who is this person, where they are physically located, how you contact them and what support they can offer. When we are stressed, we are not thinking with the most clarity. We want to make sure we build out and understand who all of the potential supports would be before you even get on campus, so when you are encountering a challenge or are overwhelmed, you don’t have to do the work of identifying and can look at your matrix. It removes the barrier to access that might get put up when we are in a heightened state of stress. The other thing that would be helpful for someone getting ready to go to college is to look at the expectations. Not necessarily just within academics and what it means for you to be a good student, but also parceling out what it means to live independently. What do we have to do to take care of ourselves socially? How do we navigate social situations when we’re expected to be an adult? When you’re younger, if something is not going well, you can bring in a teacher, parent or guardian. You now have the expectation you’re stepping to the plate and handling it. Knowing what it is and taking the time to think about what all of those potential scenarios can be and coming up with a barometer of how confident we feel in being able to master it. Having a game plan can be very helpful because it’s all about creating that frame of reference.
About Alissa Cappelleri
Alissa Cappelleri is a graduate of The College of New Jersey and holds a master’s degree in teaching in the field of special education. A certified special education teacher and an executive function coach, she works with the admissions and services teams at New Frontiers to ensure a smooth transition for new clients so they receive the coaching support
they need to succeed. Please visit here to learn more.
About New Frontiers
New Frontiers specializes in helping adults and students of all ages develop executive function skills through a collaborative, creative and flexible coaching model that helps them reach their life goals. Please visit here to learn more.