School busCredit: Federal Way Public Schools #222 by Atomic Taco, on Flickr,

For parents of kids with ADHD, “back-to-school” can conjure images of homework hassles, bedtime struggles, sluggish mornings, and messy rooms strewn with papers, missing homework, and backpacks filled with pencil stubs and spiral notebooks whose sharp, tugged out wire coils have become health hazards. 

During the eight years I worked as a Special Education teacher, much of my day involved making modifications to the school environment – classrooms, desks, lockers - as well as finding supplementary supports, such as organizational tools, ball chairs, and chewing gum, to help bring out students’ potential and allow them to learn. 

While parents are hands down the experts on their children – their strengths, their struggles, their emotions and disposition – many of the techniques I used in the classroom can be adapted to help families at home, as well.  This article outlines suggestions you can use to help any child with daily routines, responsibilities, and homework, and are particularly well suited for kids with ADHD. 

 Break Things Down

 Kids with ADHD often need multi-step tasks broken down into smaller parts. For a five year old this may be the bedtime routine.  For a teenager it might be how to do the laundry.  Think of writing down the steps the way you would write a recipe, include numbers (i.e. 1st, 2nd, etc.), and post it so it’s visible.

 Make Time to Move

Ball ChairCredit: Gaiam Balance Ball Chair by Will Bostwick, on Flickr,

 Almost everyone learns best by taking frequent breaks when studying.  For kids with ADHD, these breaks might be most effective by including some movement.  This could be anything from riding their bike to playing a movement-based video game (think the Wii or Dance Party).  Other “tools” that involve movement and can be done while studying include stress balls, ball chairs, and sugar-free gum. Some kids even work better when they are standing up or pacing. 

 Keep Things Calm

 While we parents are only human, and prone to the same exasperation as anyone, when we get angry and frustrated it comes through in our facial expressions, the tone and volume of our voice, and our body language – and kids pick this up.  In fact, the content of what we are saying gets lost because children will typically have their own stress reaction to our stress reaction.  In neuroscience-speak, we have reverted to our limbic system and brainstem - our reptilian brain – that is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze reaction and, yes, is so primitive that we share its structures with reptiles.  No real problem-solving can occur when we are having this kind of reaction – for you or your child.  Best thing to do? Take a break to chill out and calm down – go outside, take some deep breaths, get a drink of water, pet your cat, think of all the things you feel grateful for. Encourage your child to do the same 

Use Visuals and Charts                                           To Do ListCredit: To Do List Chalkboard by Mufidah Kassalias, on Flickr,

…and post them in places that your child will naturally see everyday, like on the refrigerator, on their door, by the T.V., etc.  These can be used for household chores that need to be completed, for multi-step tasks or routines (e.g. getting ready for school), as well as for school-related skills and strategies (e.g. a visual showing the steps of long division or a break-down of how to write a research paper). 

Show, Rather Than Tell

 Too many words!  This is a problem I witnessed many times in the classroom, when well-meaning teachers would talk on and on, describing an assignment, project or procedure, not realizing that they had lost their audience’s attention after the first thirty seconds.  Parents frequently fall prey to this misstep, as well, and that's when we see that familiar zoned out look cross our child's face. Demonstrating how to do something, whether it’s picking up toys or raking leaves, is infinitely more effective than just talking about it.

 Be Age Appropriate

 Your teenager will probably not appreciate a chart that looks like it belongs in a third grade classroom, even though she may still need a visual to help her stay organized or on task.  Consider using more age appropriate tools as your kids get older.  For example, lists, charts and visual reminders can be programmed into your teen’s phone.

 What are you Modeling?

 I admit that since getting my smart phone, I have a hard time not reaching for the dang thing whenever an empty moment arises.  I know I am not alone.  Unfortunately, I wonder what I am modeling in those moments, when instead of being able to just be still for a minute, I feel a compulsive urge to play inane games or sift through pages of irrelevant information.  My point is that I think I, myself, exhibit an ADHD-like attention span, as do many adults in this technologically hyper age.  But those “empty” moments are also opportunities to slow down, to look around, to pay attention, and model the kind of mindset and behavior that we want our kids to emulate.  I know that this, alone, will not rewire the brains of children with ADHD, but I don’t think it’s fair for us to ask them to do as we say, not as we do. We matter to them, and even kids with ADHD are paying attention to what their folks are doing.

Help Kids Develop Self-Awareness

 This is the most important tip I can give you and your child.  Help them to understand what does and doesn't work for them.  Do they need to move around after ten minutes, or fifteen?  Do they work better when they can do their homework standing up? How do they learn best - by seeing, doing, hearing, putting something to music, or a combination of those?  The more kids are aware of what they need in order to be successful, the more they will be able to be responsible for their learning and experience their success as their own. There are a ton of online resources that can help your child figure out their learning style (search for “learning style quiz” or “learning style inventory” and you will see what I mean). 

 Build a Good Relationship

What will enhance all of these strategies is a respectful and encouraging relationship between you and your child.  Model the kind of communicating and problem-solving you want your child to learn, and show genuine curiosity, interest, and respect for their feelings, their strengths, and their worldview.