As schools open their doors for students, it’s time once more to begin thinking about the year ahead. For many kids, and especially those with ADHD, summer is a huge relief from academic and social pressures. Most of them don’t relish the return to classes and would rather think about anything else. How can you set your child up for success?
Children and teens with ADHD spend their days at school trying to pay attention in classes that often seem uninteresting and doing work that is unfulfilling. Throughout the day, they have to use their weaker executive functioning skills such as impulse control, working memory, planning, organization and motivation (typical challenges related to having ADHD). Even when they enjoy a subject, they still struggle with staying on top of assignments and remembering to turn them in.
Most parents of kids with and without ADHD harbor a number of goals for their children related to school: learn and retain information, obtain good grades, behave appropriately, etc. These are all important facets of a thorough education. But children and teens with ADHD need something more. Struggling academically and/or socially, they benefit from goals that address their strengths while shoring up their challenges. If your son doesn’t like math but loves creative writing, how can his interest be incorporated into learning algebra? If your daughter adores art and doing things with her hands, how can she do science or history projects that capitalize on her skills? Approaching this year with an eye towards including such possibilities will improve your child’s engagement and performance.
Setting a positive course for this year depends on collaborating with your son or daughter to establish clear goals and useful strategies. Kids with ADHD spend a lot of time listening to what they could do differently from caring adults, friends, coaches, etc. They often believe that feedback is a euphemism for criticism. Well-intentioned suggestions may not fit with how their ADHD brains think and make it tough to follow through. If kids with ADHD aren’t able to express what makes sense to them and have it become part of a problem-solving process, any sound advice will likely fall flat. I’m not saying that a young person should dictate what’s going to happen. Rather, I’m advocating that you include some of their opinions in whatever program you create to ensure their buy-in. When they feel like their ideas matter, these kids are far more likely to cooperate.
Start this school year with a calm, honest family conversation. This chat sets the tone for how you will work together to make it a success. Before you sit down with your son or daughter, consider your responses to these questions:
- What do you hope for your son or daughter this year?
- What went well last year and why?
- Can you identify any behaviors or decisions that made a positive difference?
- What were some of the challenges? What improved them?
- What type of teacher feedback did you receive that would be useful this year?
- Do you have any concerns about this year?
When you’re ready for your conversation, ask them these same questions. Write down their answers so you can refer back to them. Offer some of your reflections and see if you can agree on some goals for this year. Write these down too, once you’ve picked the one you both think is most do-able, use the tips below to help you achieve it:
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1. Create clear routines with simple steps and post them: Kids with ADHD benefit from visual cues. If you want to reduce the countless times you remind them to do this or remember that, make a list and write it down. Together, lay out the morning, after-school and evening routines in a simple list or chart. Break tasks down into basic steps--the simpler the better. For example, if your goal is to leave the house on time each morning, “get ready for school” is too broad of an instruction. Instead, simplify it into “get dressed, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, and grab your lunch and backpack.” Use incentives that matter to your son or daughter as rewards for successful efforts. “If you’ve done all of the things on your list by 7:45 with no arguing, then you can watch a show for 15 minutes” or “If you’re on time for school all week, you can extend your curfew by 30 minutes.”
2. Make sure everything has a place: Whether it’s a designated box for gloves and hats or a particular file for homework, kids with ADHD perform better when they know where things should go, even if they don’t always put them there. The biggest issue is using their own ideas about organizational systems in conjunction with yours to come up with something practical and useful. Perhaps your daughter likes to color code her academic subjects into separate notebooks with folders. Maybe your son prefers one large binder with a homework tab for each class. Talk with them about what’s helped in the past and what could be useful now. If you try a system and it’s not working, regroup and try something else. It’s not a big deal; it’s just information about what’s most useful.
3. Establish a homework program with timed work periods and breaks: Most kids with ADHD come home from school needing a break from studying. Whether it’s playing with a friend or participating in sports, their brains need to do something different. For children and teens who take stimulant medication, balancing the need for this break with the benefit of doing homework while having some of the medicine in their systems can be tricky. It’s best to give a short break of approximately twenty minutes and make sure to convey that homework, free of social media, texting and Youtube, lies on the other side of it.
In advance of doing any homework, ask your son or daughter how long they think they can work without getting distracted. For kids with ADHD under 10, this period can vary from 10-20 minutes. For kids between 10-14, it’s usually 15-30 minutes and for teens between 14-18, it’s likely 30-50 minutes. Then, set up a plan that you BOTH agree on. This plan includes establishing work periods for these agreed upon amounts of time which are then broken up by TIMED breaks of no longer than 10 minutes. Breaks can are times for things like snacks, texting, checking social media, a quick phone call, walking around the house or going to the bathroom. At the end of the desired study period, your son or daughter earns a reward that you’ve already agreed on. External incentives are the best way to foster cooperation for kids with ADHD.
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First on a weekly basis at first and then a monthly one, review your child or teen’s progress on the goals and strategies. If everybody agrees that things are moving along well, you can mutually decided to add another goal or just continue what is already working. Whether your goal is less conflict at home in the mornings, a neater notebook with fewer misplaced assignments or avoiding the nightly homework battles, including your son or daughter in the creation of any program leads to the successful outcome you both desire.