Whether you are the parent of a school-age child with ADHD or an adult looking to make change yourself, these back-to-school tips have something for everyone!
1. Be a part of your child’s team at school. Whether your child has a Section 504 Plan, an IEP, or neither, it is essential to his school success that you be involved in his education and be his advocate. Do your best to develop a positive relationship with his teachers; offer to help them in any way you can. Tell the teacher about your child and respectfully let them know what has and has not worked for your child in the past. Most of all, be involved and watch for signs of problems in school before they get out of hand.
2. Figure out how your child learns best and work with it. We all know that what works best for one person, may not work at all for another, but it’s essential to keep in mind that your child’s unique brain wiring may not be best suited to “traditional” learning environments. If you don’t know what works for him, try different study situations: Does your child need a quiet study space free of distractions? Does your child prefer music, background noise and/or commotion when doing homework? Does your child focus better when moving, walking, standing on a balance/wobble board, or sitting on an exercise ball? Does your child need a “body double” in the room with them? Does your child need to take a break every few minutes, or are they better working straight through? Make sure whatever you set up really works for them, not you! And don’t be afraid to change things up from time to time. (Adults: this goes for you as well!)
3. Help your child learn to use a planner for school assignments, extracurricular activities and social engagements. Time and task management are not second nature to most ADHDers due to executive functioning and working memory challenges. If they can write, it’s not too early for them to learn to use a planner! If the school does not provide one, find or create a simple planner for your child to use to jot down homework assignments, test dates, team practices, social events, etc. Try to make it fun and reinforce its use by consistently rewarding any attempt. Your child will find the way to use it that works best for him, but you will likely need to help him get in the habit of using it consistently.
4. Make evenings work for you. Do what you can to help them get in the habit of getting their things ready for school the night before. Mornings can be hectic for everyone, and no one likes to start their day on a negative note. There is not much worse than putting your child on the bus after a stressful morning filled with yelling. (Been there, done that!) Make packing up school books, backpacks and lunches, laying out clothes and shoes, etc. a part of the evening routine to make mornings as smooth as possible! You’ll be amazed at how much better your day can start!
5. Create Routines. Help your child make a list of what needs to be done every morning and every evening. Depending on the age of the child, it could be as detailed as: get dressed, dirty laundry in the hamper, shoes on and tied, eat breakfast, clear table, brush teeth, comb hair, backpack on, out to the bus! Some kids enjoy checking off the steps as they go, so the list can be turned into a chart/table and used as a checklist. It can be helpful to have one for before school, one for the evening. For older kids, it could be as simple as a set period of time to play or sports before homework is started. Keep it simple, make it fun, and consistently reward its use until the routine becomes “auto pilot.”
6. Use a timer in the morning. This one is huge in my house! We ADHDers are notorious for having a poor sense of time: both kids and adults alike. Having a visual reminder of the passing time can be a huge help to keep the morning flowing. And don’t forget to build in a few extra minutes of “buffer time” after it beeps!
7. Use a timer in the evening. This is another biggie in my house. With a poor sense of the passage of time, an ADHDer can inadvertently get caught in certain “black holes of time:” video games, surfing the web, or reading a good book can cause us to hyperfocus and lose track of what we need to do. Setting a timer at the onset of these activities will break the trance and remove the “nag factor” of mom or dad always being the meanie! And don’t forget that buffer period for transitioning after the timer goes off!
8. Go out and play! Make sure your child gets as much fresh air and physical activity as possible each day. The benefits of exercise to the ADHD brain cannot be overlooked. Among others, Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark touts the positive effects of exercise for all of us. Moreover, recent research published in The Journal of Attention Disorders has shown that children who simply took a walk in a park had improved levels of concentration similar to those from taking methylphenidate! This gives new meaning to the command to, “Go out and play!” (Adults: this one’s for you, too!)
9. Enforce bedtimes and good sleep habits. Sleep is incredibly important to all of us, but much more so to those of us with ADHD. Lack of sleep can significantly exacerbate ADHD symptoms and make your child struggle even more in school. Remember: it takes a lot of energy for a child with ADHD to focus, attend and generally “keep it together” in school all day! Encourage lots of exercise during the day, but limit stimulating physical activity and things like video games and television in the hours prior to bedtime. While many ADHDers (like me) have a difficult time quieting their brains at bedtime, it is important to help your child learn to fall asleep on their own (not with the television or with you) by developing a relaxing bedtime routine including a bath, reading, soft music or whatever he finds soothing. If you suspect that your child suffers from sleep disturbances, talk to a physician.
10. Catch them being good! This is probably the most important thing you can do for any child, any time of the year. Positive reinforcement has been proven time and time again to be the most powerful learning tool we have. Although sometimes it can seem nearly impossible to find something good about the way our children are behaving, try as hard as you can to make the positive comments far outweigh the negative. Be clear. Be concise. Be sincere. I know it may feel ridiculous to hear yourself saying something like, “Good job not hitting your sister when you walked passed her” or “I like the way you got out of the car without pushing your brother,” but it actually may improve your child’s behavior over time.
Okay, one more . . .
11. Take care of yourself, Mom or Dad! Parenting a child with ADHD is the toughest job you’ll ever love (to borrow an advertising slogan). Try to find time to do something to feed your brain, body and soul every day—and don’t forget your own relationships. There’s a reason the flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others. Your children will be better off for it!