Helping Your Child with Attention Difficulties to Create Success at School

school, ADHD, parenting

October is a time for pumpkins, Halloween costumes, fall festivals, football games and homecoming. It is also a time when your child’s school sends home the interim report for the very first quarter of the school year. This can be difficult if your child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder/ Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD/ADD). Even with psychiatric medications, children and teens diagnosed with ADHD/ADD can continue to struggle with completing homework, organizing their materials, keeping track of time, and losing things such as school supplies, gym clothes, and coats.

Understand Your Child’s Perspective:

If your child is having difficulty managing the academic and social skills demands of the school setting, it may be time to try new techniques at home that can strengthen their executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are strategies that we all use to retain information, complete tasks, check our work, plan ahead for large projects, organize our belongings, and manage our emotions. Children and teens with ADHD/ADD tend to struggle with these skills, experiencing the mental demands of a typical school day as exhausting and, at times, overwhelming.

When you think about all of the “brain energy” it takes to get ready in the morning before getting on the school bus, it is no wonder that some kids already have “empty tanks” before they walk through the door of their first class! What seems like a simple request from a parent, such as “go brush your teeth” can actually be an energy drainer to a child with ADHD/ADD. We forget that brushing teeth is not a simple, one step task, but a chore that requires the ability to remember multiple steps, while also filtering out distractions (i.e. the family pet, a pesky sibling, a favorite toy) on the way to the bathroom.

It is important to note that even though your child was able to brush her teeth with no problems yesterday, it does not mean that she will  be able to consistently complete this same complex task every morning. No, she is not trying to “drive you crazy” when she says “I forgot”, or when it seems to take an hour to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush. She is genuinely trying to cope with a brain that functions differently and is not always conducive to our fast-paced world.

To build your child’s Executive Function Skills, try the following tips and techniques.

Morning Routine:
• Sit down with your child or teen to create a to-do list for the morning (i.e. get dressed, wash face, brush teeth, eat breakfast, take medication). It will be important to know what your child’s learning style is, since a visual schedule or checklist may work better for some while an audio recording may be more effective for others.
• Use a timer to prompt your child throughout the morning so that he knows how much time is left to complete tasks before it is time to leave the house. Remember, children and teens with ADHD/ADD tend to be poor estimators of how much time it takes to complete a task.
• Use incentives for successful task completion such as extra play time, extra time on electronics, picking what is for dinner, extra one on one time with mom and dad, later curfew, etc.
• Remember to be patient with your child. We all have our “off days” and being rushed can make it more difficult to think clearly and complete tasks.
• Make sure that your child or teen’s environment is organized. Use baskets in her room for laundry, toys, and other items so that they are easy to track and find when needed.

School Day Strategies:
• Make sure that your child’s teacher is aware that your child/teen has been diagnosed with ADHD/ADD. Teachers can make accommodations for students that will assist them with learning and retaining new information, taking tests, and keeping track of supplies and homework.
• Have your child keep a homework planner. Teachers can also assist with making sure students write the correct information in their planners each day. Check your child’s planner when she gets home to support her with homework commencement and completion.
• Keep a large calendar or other visual reminder out at home for long term projects. Assist your child with breaking down large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks with interim due dates.
• Use color coded binders and notebooks for each subject to make it easier for your child to get the supplies he needs for each class.
• Some children find it helpful to doodle or listen to music when studying or learning.  If this is true of your child, check with her teacher to see if this is an option during class.  
• Ensure your child has a variety of healthy foods throughout the day to maintain steady energy and overall wellness.  Some children may also have food sensitivities worth discussing with a pediatrician or nutritionist if they seem to affect energy, attention, and/or behavior.

Evening Routine:
• Review homework planners each day and support your child in organizing which task to do first, second, third, etc.
• Have your child review the notes that she took in classes throughout the day so that she can better integrate new information.
• Set a timer and give your child breaks at the completion of a task. Physical activity breaks are especially helpful for children and teens with ADD/ADHD, as it prepares their brains for re-focusing. Also, remember that children and teens struggle with time management and with the concept that homework does not last forever; there is a beginning and an end. Imagine going to work each day thinking that it will last forever with no end or weekend in sight!!
• Limit access to electronics and use them as an incentive for task completion. Since kids with ADHD/ADD may have difficulty with self-motivating, having this immediate incentive can prove to be quite helpful.
• Make a list (visual or audio) with your child of things that need to be done before bedtime (i.e. homework, dinner, playtime, bath, set clothes out for the next school day, pack lunch, chores, etc) and check these off together.

If your child or teen continues to have difficulty with being successful in the school setting, consider having a meeting with your child’s teacher and guidance counselor, talking to your child’s psychiatrist, or seeking the help of a professional mental health provider who specializes in ADHD/ADD.  Such professionals can help your family execute the strategies that work best for your child.

Written by Heidi Kloss, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.