The Ultimate Back-to-School Guide for the ADHD Student
By Jenna Wattenbarger, certified coach for HomeworkCoach
A few nights ago, my six-year-old asked to set the table. I left the kitchen to put on America’s Got Talent. When I came back, my daughter had loaded the table with Bavarian dessert plates, melamine Hello Kitty dishes, Japanese rice bowls, plastic champagne flutes, and a family heirloom–a 1910 deviled egg platter–that I’ve been looking for since the Fourth of July before last. She had abandoned the place-setting to scrub maniacally at a brachiosaurus sticker that has never come up since my three-year-old stuck it there after a trip to the museum. For this task, she was using two rags, a scrub brush, and about a quart of water. She looked up at me, did a backward somersault off of the high-backed chair, and burst into tears when her knee banged against a cabinet.
As you may have guessed, my daughter has ADHD. If your child also struggles with this invisible disability, I think this guide will help. This back-to-school toolkit is the culmination of years tutoring ADHD kids, plus a comprehensive review of the best current literature on ADHD tools and best practices.
Fostering a Sense of Importance in the Work
As a homework coach for kids with ADHD, I don’t always expect much out of the first tutoring session with a new student. I often walk in to find my new pupil clearing space in a bonus room, tracking down his laptop, ransacking a junk drawer for a ballpoint pen, and yelling, “Mom, what’s the Wifi password?”
This is usually when I explain to parents what I’m about to tell you: if you want your child to take his schoolwork seriously, you have no idea how far a clean, organized, dedicated workspace will get you!
This is not just for organization–though ADHD students really do need help here. A personal workspace makes children feel like their work matters. It makes them feel important. It gives them a sense of ownership.
If you have room in your home office or even a spare kitchen nook, set up an inviting homework space. Fill a nearby cabinet or rolling storage cart with little baskets and totes for pens and pencils, paper clips, loose leaf paper, binders, and other supplies.
While many kids use their parents’ home computers, I usually recommend that they have their own. Kids take their work more seriously when they don’t feel like they’re working on a borrowed computer. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Google Chromebooks are lightweight, simple, and reliable; plus, they’re less than $200 a pop. Make sure to bookmark important websites, such as school portals and an online dictionary.
Younger kids and extraverted kids often do well at the kitchen table. In this case, you can imbue the space with importance by having a caddy nearby with supplies, folders documenting finished assignments, and cork boards and family calendars hung up just high enough for them to access and see. By the time kids reach high school, they do better in a quiet office or a desk in the bedroom. Introverted children often relish the private, studious rush of excitement in their own personal space.
ADHD children benefit from something called proprioceptive input. They fidget and squirm because it helps them focus. For this reason, you may want to buy your child a special seat. Younger kids do great in a HowdaHUG. This chair allows them to rock gently, and they tend to stay a lot more focused. Some of my older students swear by exercise balls. I have also seen success with exercise bike chairs such as the DeskCycle.
It Takes a Village–So Go Out There and Build One
We all know that first impressions matter. That’s why it can be nerve-wracking to tell your child’s teachers, right off the bat, about her ADHD diagnosis. But things really do go more smoothly when you get it out in the open.
I usually recommend that you write down the most important information ahead of time–especially if it isn’t obvious.
Last year, one of my fellow tutor’s students, whom we’ll call Julie, was going from a small private middle school to Westpoint High School in Connecticut. Along with ADHD, Julie suffered from social phobia and agoraphobia (a fear of crowds). Julie’s mother explained to her teachers that they would probably see this manifest in ways they didn’t expect. Julie sometimes came to class late. Or, she would forget to get her homework from her locker. Because her teachers knew that she was not only forgetful–a hallmark symptom of ADHD–but also unsettled by crowds, they didn’t assume that she was being careless or lazy. They were more careful not to reproach her in front of her schoolmates. And they allowed her to sit in the back of the classroom where she would not feel as exposed.
Our understanding of ADHD is advancing all the time. Teachers are usually too busy to keep up with the latest research. Because you, the parent, know your child best, you will be doing everyone a favor by discussing what works and doesn’t. If your child acts like he doesn’t care to cover up shame and embarrassment, his teachers can really work with that. If he learns better with a discreet fidget cube in his pocket, that’s good information, too.
Here are some other examples of great talking points:
- Discuss such options as 5-minute movement breaks, an extra set of textbooks, copied notes (perhaps in collaboration with another student), a pocket fidget cube, etc.
- Ask to be introduced, perhaps via email, to other parents of classmates with ADHD.
- Go over the details of whatever IEP or 504 plan you have set up with the school to make sure the teacher’s understanding of what is required matches yours.
If your school sends home the contact information of other families, send out some emails until you are able to designate a “phone buddy” list. ADHD children are constantly leaving books and papers at school and forgetting to write down instructions. These extra contacts will be lifesavers in those moments. If your child is old enough, have her get the names, numbers, and addresses herself: one for each class.
Corkboards, Calendars and Clocks
Remember how cool office supplies seemed when you were a kid? All those brightly colored sticky notes; those important-seeming “While You Were Out” pads with the yellow and pink receipts. Office supplies can bring a sense of fun to schedules, agendas, routines, and to-do lists. They can make those lists seem like something more than a jumble of information in their brains and a mess of paper stuffed into their book bags. Here are some tips:
Write morning, afternoon, and homework checklists on chalkboards or dry-erase boards within eye level of your child. That way, instead of asking in that strained voice why his shoes aren’t by the door, you can say, “OK honey, go ahead and check your after school board to make sure you remembered everything.”
Get a corkboard, thumbtacks, and flashcards for things that need to get done at school, from turning in a research outline, to getting a classmate’s contact information for a science project. After school, ask your child what he did. Let him take those items off the board herself!
For kids with ADHD, it isn’t enough to simply write down due dates on a calendar. There are some really fabulous academic planners that will help you and your child diagram the minutiae of her life into a schedule that works. One award-winning planner by Order Out of Chaos has such clever features as an after-school 2-9pm planning section and a vertical index design that allows students to write down their school subjects just once.
Other tools that are well-known for helping ADHD students include color-coded binders, sticker charts and analog clocks and timer — choose analog so that your student can visualize the passing of time. You can even go shopping together and let her pick them out herself. Target has some seriously cute office supplies.
Leaving Summer Behind
When I was in highschool, my friend Cam dared me to try and drive his dad’s Miata. We were hanging out at his house. We wanted to hit up Wendy’s for our favorite snack–french fries and a Frosty. I had never tried to drive a stick shift before. I figured it was just a mile away though, and he said he would buy my food if I made it there without wrecking the car. We spent at least ten minutes in the driveway as I tried to engage the clutch, stalling the car over and over instead. Then I almost hit his mailbox as the car lurched sideways like I’d hit a patch of ice. I made it to the end of the neighborhood, then tried to turn onto the main road as an ominous grinding growl sounded from deep inside the car’s metal entrails. We jerked halfway into the road then stalled, oncoming traffic approached, Cam screamed, I screamed, I hit the gas, and we careened into a ditch. This was the beginning and end of my career driving stick shift.
This experience may not have been my most proud formative moment, but it did prime me for the task of parenting a child with ADHD. No, they are not more likely to go joyriding in their dads’ precious sports cars. But they are more likely to struggle terribly with transitions.
Psychologists call this problem cognitive inflexibility. This is the inability to flow smoothly from one task to another, to multitask effectively, and to try a new strategy when the old one no longer works. As anxiety levels rise, kids can act out or become uncooperative.
Cognitive inflexibility can cause your child anxiety as the school year looms closer. Just when you need to start getting them to bed earlier, limiting their screen time, and reigning in their nightly Nutty Buddy consumption, you may encounter way more pushback than you expected.
The best way I have found parents work around this problem is by making external changes without the power struggle. They may put up a new family schedule on the fridge, for example, and when their children resist, they refer to the schedule itself as the “bad guy.”
Conversations can go something like:
“I’m sorry, I wish we could watch another episode of Heartland, too. But it says on the schedule, no screen time after 7.”
“I know, I don’t want to make you do your homework, either. It’s just that it’s on the schedule for right after school today, so we have to do it.”
“No, we can’t go to the pool after school. The schedule says bedtime is at 8. But we do get to take the boat out into the harbor on Labor Day. That will be fun, right?”
Ease your child into the year by talking about the good things late August will bring. Anything you can do to drum up excitement–new lockers, better cafeteria food, basketball tryouts, brand new back-to-school clothes–can alleviate fears. Walk through the new routines often. Talk about how your child will put out clothes at night for the next morning, and how your morning will go from wake-up call to walking out to the bus-stop.
Perhaps the best thing you can do, though, is help your child get a good sleep schedule.
You can tuck your child in at 8, but that doesn’t mean they will go to sleep. ADHD kids are far more likely to suffer from sleep-onset insomnia. This isn’t a side effect of ADHD medication, as unmedicated children also have this problem. Their minds race as they try and go to sleep, only to drift off into a shallow, fragmented state often punctuated by nightmares. Many of my students admit that they have a real fear of going to sleep. Maybe that’s why they tend to catch that after-dinner second wind that’s so pervasive in the ADHD population.
If you are wary of the idea of a melatonin supplement, take a look at the research. It’s well-studied as safe and effective for treating insomnia in ADHD kids. Just check in with your pediatrician first.
Your To-Do List
Let me end by modeling how you should often end a discussion with your ADHD teen. Don’t expect them to hold many thoughts in their working memory. Instead, write them a brief, actionable to do list. Here’s your back to school checklist:
- Create and stock an appealing homework space
- Prepare well for a conversation with your child’s teacher, then make sure it happens
- Put together buddy list you can call when your child loses a book or is confused about an assignment
- Create a family calendar showing daily routines and extra-curricular activities
- Ease the transition by frequently talking through back-to-school routines
Jenna Wattenbarger is a certified coach for HomeworkCoach, a tutoring agency for students with ADHD and organizational challenges. Homework coaches work in the homes of their students two or more days a week, helping the student stay on top of their assignments while building such Executive Function skills as organization, planning, problem solving, time management and control of focus.