UNCG Program for Students With ADHD Shows Early Success

A structured program of group therapy and individual mentoring is having a positive impact on college students who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

The success of the program is important because about five per cent of first-year college students have ADHD. Although not yet well documented, preliminary findings have indicated that only about nine per cent of students with ADHD graduate from college compared with 60 per cent of students without ADHD. College students with ADHD are also more like likely to experience higher levels of depression, anxiety and other types of psychological distress.

The UNCG program is called ACCESS (Accessing Campus Connections and Empowering Student Success). Results of the first two years of the program were recently reported in an article in the Journal of Cognitive and Behavioral Practice authored by Dr. Arthur D. Anastopoulos, professor and director of the ADHD Clinic at UNCG, and Dr. Kristen A. King, a licensed psychologist and assistant director of ACCESS.

“When students with ADHD go to college, they can experience a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances that presents some real challenges,” Anastopoulos said. “In high school there is a support network that can include individualized educational plans and parent involvement. Parents also take on the burden of managing schedules and finances. When students go to college, they lose this support and also have to deal with the stresses of adjusting to college life that all students experience.”

Anastopoulos said that many students do not fully understand or accept their ADHD and are reluctant to seek out the campus support services available, especially because they do not want to be different from their peers.

Over the past three years, 64 undergraduate students from UNCG have participated in the ACCESS program. They were recruited through a variety of programs on campus as well as through orientation and referrals by others. More than 80 per cent of participants successfully completed the program and improvements were seen in nearly all areas measured including ADHD knowledge, use of organizational skills and reduction in negative thinking. 

ACCESS has evolved over the past three years and now includes an eight-week active program following by a maintenance phase. During the first semester participants meet weekly for 90 minutes of group cognitive behavior therapy and also receive eight 30-minute individual mentoring sessions. The mentoring sessions are designed to meet the broad educational, psychological, social and executive functioning needs of college students with ADHD. The same type of support is available in the second semester although with less frequency.

Each group session includes a section on ADHD knowledge, time management and other behavioral skills and cognitive therapy. Anastopoulos said the team found it was important to have some of each treatment component in every session to maintain student interest and participation especially since students had different individual needs.

ADHD knowledge is an important component, he said, because for college students, their understanding of ADHD is limited, often based on what their parents and teachers have told them. “For others,” he said, “ their acceptance and ownership of ADHD is also limited, sometimes due to resistance to whatever parents and other adults tell them and also due to a preference not to embrace a label that can have negative connotations, especially as it relates to acceptance by others.”

In the group sessions, students are encouraged to support each other and more experienced students share their experiences and tips with less experienced students. All groups are led by Dr. King, a licensed Ph.D.-level psychologist. 

Anastopoulos said ACCESS is not intended to address all the challenges facing college students with ADHD. He said it is designed to empower students with the knowledge and skills necessary to better manage their ADHD including other interventions such as medication management, counseling and tutoring.

He’s excited about the program and thinks it has potential for being used in many different college and university settings. “Programs like ACCESS can serve as a protective factor that increase the likelihood that students with ADHD can be more successful not only during college but also as they transition into the adult world.”

ACCESS is the UNCG student support piece of College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access, and Retention), a project of the University of North Carolina system designed to support students with learning differences and to disseminate best-practice teaching methods to faculty members for promoting the success of students of varied learning styles and backgrounds.

College STAR is also being implemented at East Carolina University and Appalachian State University with those two campuses focusing on different types of learning disabilities other than ADHD. It is funded by the Oak Foundation of Geneva, Switzerland and the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation. The UNCG program receives additional local support from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, the Cemala Foundation, the Weaver Foundation, the Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation and the Michel Family Foundation.