I did the math, and for 27 of my 32 years on this planet, the month of September has meant back to school for me, either as a student or as a teacher. While I’ll admit it has felt pretty darn good to continue on my indefinite break from working a stressful, full-time job, there is a part of me that is missing the exciting, hopeful blank slate that a new school year provides. One of the most gratifying parts of my job when I was teaching was building relationships with my ADHD students and their parents, as I could relate intimately to their frustrations and struggles because I, myself, have ADHD.
With the beginning of a new school year in mind, I thought I’d change it up a bit and write a post for the caregivers of students with ADHD. I figure that since ADHD tends to run in families, some of my readers with adult ADHD are likely to be raising children who have the disorder as well. I wrote this post with elementary and middle school students in mind because that is the age level I have experience teaching. However, many of these tips are applicable for older students, from high school to college and beyond. With no further ado, here are my top 7 back to school tips for ADHD students and the people who love them, from myself, a former teacher with ADHD.
1.) Build a open, communicative relationship with your child’s teachers from the start.
Be sure to introduce yourself to your child’s teachers and tell them about your child’s ADHD diagnosis as early in the school year as possible. Depending on what type of ADHD your child has, they may be a bit of a handful in the classroom. They may be hyperactive, disorganized, talkative, and have a hard time paying attention and managing their impulsivity. Disclosing your child’s ADHD diagnosis to their teacher early in the school year will help provide context to some of their more trying behaviors, which is likely to improve the teachers’ patience towards your child. Similarly, be sure to keep your contact information (cell phone number and email address) up to date with your child’s teachers. Together, you make up up your child’s academic support system, and staying in close contact throughout the year will prove invaluable to your child’s academic success.
2.) Establish and maintain daily before school routines to fight against “time blindness.”
Routines are beneficial for all children (and most adults, too) but they are even more important for children and adults with ADHD. ADHDers often suffer from a phenomenon commonly referred to as “time blindness.” That is, we operate within the time orientation of “now” and “not now,” rather than understanding time as a linear, progressive concept. Recent research suggests that those with ADHD cannot sense or use time as adequately as others in their daily activities, such that they are often late for appointments and deadlines, ill-prepared for upcoming activities, and less able to pursue long-term goals and plans as well as others.
Setting and sticking to daily routines can help us ADHDers combat time blindness. The goal of before school routines is to get your child out the door and to school on time so they can begin their day in a calm manner and not miss out on any of their classroom’s morning routines. Thus, any tasks that can be performed the night before, such as bathing, choosing clothing, and packing lunches and backpacks, should be integrated into your nightly before bed routine. Also, because children with ADHD are highly distractible, it’s best to keep the television off and the smartphone or computer out of reach in the mornings. Children should be in the habit of waking up, eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, and leaving the house at the same time every morning. Consider co-creating a chart with your child outlining the sequence of your routine, and, depending on your child’s age, reward them for successful, low drama mornings.
3.) Designate a place in your home to be your child’s one stop homework center.
On the island where I’m living, off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico’s Maya Riviera, many people believe in Mayan mythical creatures called aluxes. Aluxes are mostly invisible, though they are said to be able to take physical form when they want to, and when they do they are reported to be knee high beings that resemble and dress in the manner of the ancient Mayans. Aluxes are blamed all sorts of mischief around here, the most common being hiding personal belongings so that they can’t be found when most needed.
Students with ADHD, regardless of where they live in the world, seem to be constantly plagued by their own pesky aluxes who steal their pencils, move their textbooks, and hide their homework. One way to fight back against the aluxes is to designate one distraction free area in your home where your student with ADHD always does their homework. Stock up this area with paper, pencils, erasers, highlighters, a calculator, and any other tools your child’s teachers might suggest. If your child always does their homework in the same place, then there is a lot less room within which those mischievous aluxes can maneuver!
4.) With the support of your child’s teachers, establish an organizational system for your child’s papers that is simple enough for your child to take ownership over.
Another area that causes students with ADHD a lot of trouble is paper management. Elementary aged children with ADHD often struggle managing their papers for all their different subjects, and this task becomes significantly more daunting when a student enters middle school and begins moving between different classrooms. Often teachers ask that their students have a separate folder for each individual subject, but this doesn’t work for all students. If your child is prone to misplacing or forgetting to bring home the various different folders they need to do their daily homework, you might consider consulting with their teachers and your child and establishing a paper management system that is more likely to work for them.
One paper management system I’ve helped my former students with ADHD establish fairly successfully makes use of an accordion folder. Have your child designate one of the pockets in the folder as the “homework and notes home” pocket, with the rest of the pockets designated for each of their different school subjects. Any papers that they will need to complete their homework for the night, regardless of subject, go in the “homework and notes home” pocket, as do any correspondences from the school or teacher to caregivers. All the other pockets are designated to hold those papers associated with each subject that are not that night’s homework assignments.
This system works well for a few reasons. First, your child only has to remember to pack and keep track of one folder, rather than the four to six individual subject folders. Secondly, if they forget to put a particular piece of paper that they need for the night’s homework in the “homework and notes home” pocket, they still have access to it. Similarly, if they make a mistake and misfile a particular piece of paper, they just need to do a thorough search of the various pockets of their accordion folder to find it. It’s a good idea to get an accordion folder with an appropriate amount of pockets, as a lot of them have too many, increasing the likelihood of misfiling. A downside to this system, however, is that as the year progresses the accordion folder fills up and undergoes a lot of wear and tear, so it’s a good idea to invest in a durable folder like the Five Star Expanding File, Customizable, 7-Pockets, 13.75 x 10.75 Inches, Teal (72506) and work with your child to clear out old papers at the end of each unit or marking period.
5.) Build breaks into your child’s homework time.
ADHD children, just like ADHD adults, struggle to maintain focus on tasks about which they are not particularly excited. Furthermore, many children with the hyperactive form of the disorder struggle to stay in one place for long periods of time. Thus it’s helpful to build breaks into your child’s homework time. I suggest using a visual timer so your child can see how much time they have left working on a particular task before they get their break, or how long they have left on their break before it’s time to get back to work. Such timers are useful because they make time visual and help to fight back against ADHD related time blindness.
Breaks should be short, from about 10 to 15 minutes, and should take place outside of the designated homework area so as to avoid introducing distracting activities to your child’s sacred work zone. Break activities should be those that recharge the brain and make your child feel happy and energetic, rather than drained. Such break activities might include walking the dog around the block, drawing or playing an instrument, or getting a quick, healthy snack. Activities such as watching the television or going on social media are not ideal as they have an addictive quality that might make your child resistant to going back to work when break time ends, and they are likely to leave them irritable and distracted.
6.) Emphasize and reward your child’s persistence and growth rather than their grades.
One of the most heart breaking parent-teacher conferences I experienced was with the mother of a child who had significant learning challenges. The child had been working hard to practice the reading strategies she was learning and to improve her reading stamina, and had, as a result, been making significant progress. However, she was still reading significantly below grade level, and the reading grade on her report card reflected as much. No matter how much I emphasized the child’s significant effort and admirable growth, her mother remained dissatisfied with her daughter and stubbornly fixated on the child’s final grade.
For many children with ADHD, school is exceptionally difficult. As the loving adults in their lives, it is the job of caregivers and teachers to teach habits of mind such as persisting and managing impulsivity. If our children continue to develop these qualities, they will find success. In the long run, developing such habits of mind in your child will have a far greater effect on their life outcomes than any single grade ever could.
7.) Encourage your child to develop their passions and talents, including those outside of academics.
Every child is unique, with their own particular strengths and interests. Encourage your child to pursue those endeavors that come naturally to them and about which they are passionate. ADHDers do best when we are engaged in work that excites us. Leverage your child’s ADHD superpower, hyper focus, by encouraging them to develop that which lights the spark within them, whether it be basketball, guitar, ceramics, or producing their own youtube channel. Excelling in something they enjoy will build your child’s self-confidence, and perhaps prime them for a career doing something they love. What more could we ask for?
Are you raising a child with ADHD? What tips do have for other caregivers raising children with ADHD for the beginning of the school year?