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Would Your Child Benefit From A Gap Year

May 09, 2024 12:54 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

ADDitude by John Wilson M.S.

The concept of a gap year makes perfect sense: Your stressed-out teen with ADHD takes a year off to mature, gain independence, build skills, and find direction before entering college or starting a career. But isn’t it risky to step off the hamster wheel? Here, an education expert explains why the answer is, “No.”

What IS a Gap Year?

A gap year is, essentially, a temporary break from formal education. And some of the students who take that sabbatical desperately need the time off. They’ve endured high-stress academic environments in high school or college, they're searching for direction, and they feel jumping back in to school could do more harm than good. This is the case for many students with ADHD. Others simply don't feel ready for college or a job. Maybe they are less mature than their peers. Or not independent enough to live alone. A gap year provides the opportunity to travel, volunteer, study, intern, work, perform research, and generally take some time to grow — mindfully.

What a Gap Year IS NOT

A gap year is not a full year to hang out, play video games, hit the European party circuit, lounge on the couch, or sit passively by waiting for something to happen.

If you decide a gap year is right for your family, use the following advice to make sure the time off is worthwhile.


Gap year programs help young adults clarify their career goals, and discover new interests and passions. If the gap year involves travel, it can broaden perspectives and provide insight into other cultures – a more globally aware teen is a more conscientious teen.

A gap year can help renew your child's passion for academics — something commonly lost along the way to commencement day. It can help them appreciate the opportunities that learning brings, and give teens a sense of maturity and self-confidence, along with improved organizational life skills. (Yes, we're talking about doing their own laundry, cooking their own meals, and paying their own bills.)

Students who spend their gap year wisely, do something extraordinary and gain practical life experience from it — an asset valuable to any future employer or professor.

Why a Gap Year?

Young adults with ADHD tend to be somewhat impulsive and reactive. They're also easily distracted, disorganized, and unable to finish what they start. Does that person sound ready for college? Or could she benefit from another year of seasoning, maturity, and growth? Research done by the Frostig Center, called Life Success Attributes, sought to identify predictors of future success by studying the attributes shared by successful adults with attention challenges and learning disabilities. These attributes included self-awareness, the ability to be proactive, perseverance, the ability to use effective support systems, and good emotional coping skills.

A gap year can help develop all of these qualities, namely a strong sense of personal responsibility and heightened resilience. It’s a year of self-reflection to figure out what really matters, what really motivates them, and how to move forward with conviction.

Designing a Gap Year

A good gap year is structured, goal-oriented, and adventurous. Make plans with an eye toward, “What’s next?” It should combine:

  • Travel (foreign, domestic, or local – within 3 hours of home)
  • Work/internships
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Specialty classes

The idea is to help your child stretch beyond her comfort zone, because that is where growth occurs.

Where to Start

Organizations like and can help your teen find work opportunities within the larger community. In addition, no shortage of volunteer opportunities exist with youth organizations, animal shelters, and organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

Mini-courses and certifications can expose teens to interesting career opportunities. For example a SCUBA certification could trigger an interest in marine biology. Learning CPR or advanced first aid could lead to a career as a wilderness first-responder or an EMT. Community colleges and online programs offer all kinds of how-to courses that build life skills — for example, how to work on a car, how to change your oil, or how to manage your personal finances.

The larger role your teen takes in designing his gap year, the more powerful (and educational) the exercise becomes. Planning should start midterm of the teen's junior year (at the latest). It takes time to conduct research, investigate opportunities, and stitch together a year-long plan, especially for a teen with executive function deficits.

How Do I Find a Gap Year Program?

Seek out additional information from these experts in gap years:

  • Judy Bass with Educational Services (
  • Holly Bull the  preeminent expert on the U.S. programs (
  • Doré Frances with Horizon Family solutions (

We also recommend these two websites:

  • USA Gap Year Fairs: Nationwide events afford teens the opportunity to speak with organizations that host gap year programs to learn the similarities and differences
  • American Gap Association: Information about gap year programs and research opportunities

The more varied — and independent — the experience is, the better. It’s important for your child to experience new environments, and learn how to deal
with the anxious and uncomfortable emotions that come along with that.

4 Recommended Programs

Dynamy Internship: A great residential internship program with a strong reputation, this resource offers individuals aged 17-22 an opportunity to do a semester internship

Rustic Pathways: Programs include community service, experiential education, and international adventures for young adults

Where There Be Dragons: This is the most well-known program. It operates in 17 different countries in Europe, Central, and South America. It offers summer semester programs for high school and college students, with a focus on cultivating global citizenship, leadership, and self-awareness.

SOAR: The only gap year program specifically designed to meet the needs of young adults diagnosed with ADHD, it includes a residential component, an adventure travel component, and an international component. Some of the programs offer the opportunity to take college courses for credit. The program focuses on developing life skills – like basic vehicle maintenance, cooking and nutrition, how to resolve conflicts with peers – and has a fiscal management component along with community involvement – volunteering at local things that matter to kids. It straddles the college and the adventure expedition world

What's After a Gap Year?

If you receive an acceptance letter from Harvard, it reads, "Welcome to Harvard. Now consider taking a gap year." Research out of UNC indicates that individuals who take advantage of a gap year are more likely than other students to graduate in 4 years, have a higher GPA, and move into leadership situations more quickly than students who don’t.

In short, teens who take a gap year tend to learn more about themselves, what matters to them, and how to approach the world. It's fairly commonplace now to apply to college during your senior year of high school, then choose to defer enrollment for a year. It's also possible (though perhaps more scary) to wait and apply with the gap year on your child's resume.

But college is not for everyone. Part of the gap year is figuring out your child's ideal direction, what that might look like

Is a Gap Year Right for Us?

The two biggest factors for parents to weigh are money and time. Can your teen stay at home? What programs can you afford to pay for?

A gap year can cost between $15,000 and $50,000. But often, it's a huge cost savings. A teen without direction or drive is not going to graduate college within four years. Taking a year to focus on what's next can prevent her from dragging out graduation for 6 or 7 years.

In addition, a teen who struggles and flounders their first year of college should consider taking a gap year as well. Some colleges will let a failing student be reinstated after meeting some academic or other criteria.

Finally, students are not less likely to go to college if they wait a year. Some students even take a gap year after graduating college or before grad school with programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps.

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