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A successful transition for RARC

The Regional Assessment and Resource Centre continues to help students with invisible disabilities or mental health challenges prepare for postsecondary education.

A teen girls uses a laptop
Due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre (RARC) moved its introductory workshop for two of its programs online. (Unsplash / Annie Spratt)

For the past 15 years the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre (RARC) at Queen’s University has been helping high school students with invisible disabilities such as specific learning disabilities or mental health challenges prepare for the transition to postsecondary education. As with practically everything else, COVID-19 has forced a change of plans with how the program is delivered.

The two programs involved – On-Line to Success (OLTS) and Successful Transition Online and Mentoring Program (STOMP) – are both primarily provided online over a six-week period. However, one of the key ingredients for both has been a two-day introductory workshop that is conducted in-person and allows the participants to meet with RARC staff as well as their peers in the program.

Under the current circumstances this was no longer possible, so the staff and clinicians at RARC pivoted quickly and, with the support of IT Services at Queen’s, moved the introductory workshop online.

With this being a first there were some concerns on being able to replicate the vibrancy and engagement of the in-person experience.

Thanks to the team effort, the results have been very positive.

“Because we were not able to have our face-to-face workshops this year, we’ve added new video content to the website, including recording our presentations, adding video introductions for all moderators, conducting one-on-one phone and video calls to students and starting a weekly interactive riddle contest with prizes,” says Marie McCarron, Clinical Services Manager. “We are also starting some group conversations over Zoom to facilitate more student-student interaction.”

Safe transition

PROGRAMS
OLTS and STOMP are designed specifically to target and address areas that research has shown are problematic for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, ASD and/or mental health disorders as they make the transition to postsecondary education. There are several modules in OLTS and STOMP that cover different topics such:
• Understanding yourself
• Differences between high school and postsecondary education
• Researching your school/Finding your way around/resources
• Study Strategies
• Time Management/Scheduling/Work-Life Balance
• Accommodations at postsecondary
• Self-Advocacy

For this group of students, having a safe place to talk with peers and to feel less alone is important, McCarron adds. The programs have proven very successful, with participants enjoying a much higher overall success rate in post-secondary than their disabled peers who did not participate in such a transition program.

One of the strengths of the program is its online flexibility; it allows participants to manage their own schedules, become accustomed to online learning environments, and complete the course at their own pace over a six-week period.

“The online format works quite well, as it allows students to take this course on top of their schoolwork, without having to do it during the summer or on weekends. They are able to choose when it fits in their schedule, whether it’s during a spare or in the evenings, or on weekends if they want,” says Alison Parker, Transitions Coordinator at RARC. “It also allows students to go at their own pace, which is especially useful for students with disabilities that effect their reading, writing and attention. For some of our students, there is also some comfort in being able to type out answers – to review them before they share, and to offer a little less spotlight and attention then if they were speaking in front of a group. Many of our students also realize that completing online courses is an incredibly useful skill as they approach post-secondary school, and they’re happy to take this opportunity to test it out.”

Learning opportunities

The program also receives support from teacher candidates from the Queen’s Faculty of Education who moderate the course as part of an alternative practicum placement provided by RARC. The placement also provides the teacher candidates with valuable experience in the areas of online teaching and learning, and training in how to support students with learning disabilities, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and mental health disorders who are participating in an online learning environment.

“To me, this course offers a win-win to both teacher candidates and students with disabilities” says RARC clinical director, Allyson G. Harrison, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “The teacher candidates receive direct instruction and practice in learning how to deliver content online and to assist students with disabilities as they navigate this platform, and the high school students need to learn the skills of how to interact and participate in an online environment.”

University 101

Dr. Harrison says that the beauty of the online programs that RARC has developed is that the content could easily be used to assist all students making the transition to university.

“Almost all of the content of this transition course is like the University 101 courses offered in many institutions in the U.S., and would make transition to a university environment easier for most students. The fact that we’ve modified and improved this course with student input over the past 15 years means that it is extremely engaging, dynamic, and easy to do,” she adds. “We’d be happy to share this course with any department or program on campus, and given the current COVID-19 crisis this might be an ideal time to expand what the university offers to all incoming students”.

Over and above the two transition programs, the RARC team also developed an online transition resource guide to help all students in Ontario with disabilities make the transition from high school to college or university.

RARC operates as part of the Queen’s Division of Students Affairs.

To learn more about the programs and services, visit the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre (RARC) website.