Navigating School with Your Child With ADHD
FFor children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, everyday school tasks like remembering the due dates of homework assignments or staying focused in the classroom can be a challenge.
As its name suggests, this neurodevelopmental disorder is characterized by prolonged inattention and hyperactivity. According to Russell Barkley, a retired professor of clinical psychiatry at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and the author of “12 Principles for Raising a Child with ADHD,” these are the most common early symptoms of the disorder.
As children with ADHD grow older, their hyperactivity may decline. But Barkley says that deficits in their executive functions – for example, working memory and impulse control – typically become more evident. ADHD-diagnosed children also struggle to keep track of time and may even have difficulty forming close friendships.
Stephen Hinshaw, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming “Straight Talk about ADHD in Girls,“ wrote in an email that people with ADHD are also likely to experience something called “hyperfocus,” which is the opposite of inattention. When hyper-focusing on a task – a common one is playing video games – children will direct all of their attention to it, at times letting hours go by before moving on to something different.
All of these symptoms can lead to profound educational challenges. Barkley says that children with ADHD typically have trouble completing assignments that take more than a few minutes and commonly fall behind their peers academically.
When Leslie Josel’s son was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5, she reorganized her “whole house, top to bottom, so he could function and thrive at his best,” doing things like moving his clothes into clear plastic bins to make it easier for him to immediately identify what was inside. Josel, now a columnist for “ADDitude Magazine” and an ADHD parenting and student coach, wrote in an email that parents should focus on helping their children develop skills that will mitigate the challenges caused by reduced executive functioning, rather than focusing on their grades.
“No one is going to care what your child got on their Mesopotamia test in eighth grade later in life,” she says. “But their professor or boss will care if they show up late for class or work or turn in the assignment late.”
Whether a child has just started kindergarten or is going into high school, extra support from parents and educators can help. Here are a few of the ways parents can help children with ADHD succeed in school.
Understand How ADHD Works
While children with ADHD often face difficulties in school, ADHD is not a learning disability.
Symptoms like inattention and disruptive behavior can, however, make it difficult for children with ADHD to process and store new information as effectively as somebody without the disorder. Barkley says patience is key in helping your child navigate school.
“When kids are having trouble, it’s not because they’re lazy. It’s not because they don’t care, or don’t work hard enough. It’s not a difficulty in character,” says Maggie Sibley, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “It’s something about their brain that works differently.”
Josel says it’s important to differentiate between the executive function challenges that children with ADHD face and any academic challenges they might be having – there’s a difference between being too distracted to finish a math problem and not understanding how to do the problem. A trained specialist such as a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, or ADHD coach can help children develop strategies to complete school tasks and potentially perform as well as their peers.
In addition to therapies and management techniques, medication can also be an important part of dealing with ADHD, Barkley says. “Nothing comes close to what the medications do to help these kids.”
Reach Out to Your Child’s School
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, make sure to let classroom teachers and school staff know.
Psychologist Stephanie Lee, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, wrote in an email that collaborating with your child’s educators is important for making sure your child is supported at school.
Communicating with teachers will help them understand your child isn’t being disruptive on purpose. And you can let them know what specific challenges your child has, and what might help. For instance, Lee says parents may want to request an extra set of textbooks and workbooks to keep at home if remembering to bring books home is an issue.
If you feel your child needs more support, you can request a special education assessment. On its own, ADHD does not typically warrant an IEP, a plan for special education services, although students may qualify for one if they have an additional disability or if their ADHD is especially disruptive to learning.
More often, children with ADHD can receive support services through a 504 plan. These can include things like extra time on tests or help from the teacher to stay focused.
Teach Organization and Long-Term Planning Skills
Parents and educators of children with ADHD will often find that these students forget to complete or even submit assignments. A particularly common challenge that children with ADHD face are time management, which can make it difficult to remember deadlines.
“Their internal clock is shot,” Barkley says. “It’s not a problem with reading a clock, it’s a problem with their subjective sense of time.”
Barkley suggests helping children with ADHD break down assignments and goals into smaller tasks that are easy to complete within a short period of time, as children with ADHD often have poor long-term planning skills.
“That way, you don’t tax the sense of time quite so much,” he says.
Parents should also take into account their child’s age when working to develop and improve their organizational skills. Sibley says younger children in elementary school should primarily rely on the adults in their life to help them develop these skills.
So if your child is missing a lot of homework assignments, you’ll want to establish close contact with the teacher to know what assignments are due and when they’re due. Sibley says rewarding young children when they complete a task is a particularly good way to reinforce these skills.
As children with ADHD enter middle school and high school, Sibley says they can be a bit more independent about employing these strategies. Teaching them to write checklists and keep a daily planner can help them keep better track of their assignments so that they submit their work in a timely manner.
Work on Boosting Self-Esteem
Sibley says children with ADHD may develop self-esteem issues as a result of repeated negative feedback from their environment. Because of their lowered impulse control, Barkley says kids with ADHD may act in ways that others deem inappropriate.
It’s not uncommon for children with ADHD to reach second or third grade without having formed any close friendships with their classmates, Barkley says. Social isolation, paired with negative feedback from educators or parents, can significantly reduce a child’s self-esteem, so parents should remember to be compassionate.
Hinshaw says it’s particularly important for parents to identify their child’s strengths, in order to help foster their self-confidence. He says ADHD doesn’t just entail a series of deficits, but also strengths – in addition to their high energy levels, research suggests that individuals with ADHD may be more resilient than those without it.
By focusing on a child’s strengths and creating an environment in which they feel successful, Sibley says parents can help increase their child’s motivation and overall psychological well-being.