Helping kids with ADHD set up a successful school year | Sharon Saline | 6 Min Read

Now that the rush of starting school has passed and students are settling into a familiar routine, it’s time to evaluate what your child or teen with ADHD needs for academic success this year.  Kids with ADHD spend their days at school trying to pay attention in classes that often seem uninteresting and doing work that is unfulfilling. Throughout the day, they have to use their weaker executive functioning skills such as impulse control, working memory, planning, organization and motivation (typical challenges related to having ADHD). Even when they enjoy a subject, they often struggle with staying on top of assignments and remembering to turn them in. 

Fostering progress at school and self-reliance at home means sharpening kids’ executive functioning skills. Executive functioning is a term used to describe the directive capacities of the brain located primarily in the prefrontal cortex. They connect, prioritize and integrate cognitive functions moment by moment and, in neurotypical brains, mature around the age of 25. In kids with ADHD, there is a lag of up to three years in this maturation process. There are 11 executive functioning skills that range from impulse control to time management to sustained attention. Some of these skills are conscious (hot skills) and others are unconscious (cool skills). (see chart below)

While medications for ADHD can improve executive functioning skills because they act on the neurotransmitters that address concentration, interest, alertness, and satisfaction, pills don’t teach skills. They help ADHD brains be more available to learn and retain them. Research shows that learning these skills depends on direct instruction, not miracle osmosis or passive observation. Many parents and teachers get frustrated with the necessary repetition and patience required to teach these tools. As your child or teen with ADHD settles into school, now is the perfect time to set up the structures at home and at school to facilitate the development of effective executive functioning skills. This means collaborating on realistic goals, organizational systems, and practice routines that your children understand and want to follow.

Most parents of kids with and without ADHD harbor a number of goals for their children related to school:  learn and retain information, obtain good grades, behave appropriately, etc. These are all important facets of a thorough education. But children and teens with ADHD need something more. Struggling academically and/or socially, they benefit from goals that address their strengths while shoring up their challenges. If your son doesn’t like math but loves creative writing, how can his interest be incorporated into learning algebra? If your daughter adores art and doing things with her hands, how can she do science or history projects that capitalize on her skills? Including such possibilities will improve your child’s engagement and performance. 

Now that the year is in motion, you have a better idea of what will be expected of them. Setting a positive course depends on collaborating with your son or daughter to establish clear goals and useful strategies. Kids with ADHD spend a lot of time listening to what they could do differently from caring adults, friends, coaches, etc. They often believe that feedback is a euphemism for criticism and want to be part of a problem-solving process. This participation ensures their buy-in and increases their cooperation. 

Set a time for a weekly calm family conversation that is time-limited. This chat sets the tone for how you will work together to make this year a success. Use these tips to guide you:

  1. Establish collaborative goals:  Most adults can only improve one, maybe two, things at a time and it’s no different for kids, especially those with ADHD. Ask your kids what they would like to improve this year and what conflicts they would like to avoid. Think about something that you’d also like to see improved. Most likely, it will be on their list too. Then, working together, brainstorm how you can work on this skill together. All ideas are fair game. When the brainstorming is finished, create a plan that incorporates some of their ideas and some of yours. Try it out, expect that you will have to edit it and make appropriate adjustments along the way. 
  1. Create clear routines with simple steps and post them:  Kids with ADHD benefit from visual cues. If you want to reduce the countless times you remind them to do this or remember that, make a list and write it down. Together, lay out the morning, after-school, and evening routines in a simple list or chart. Break tasks down into basic steps — the simpler the better. For example, if your goal is to leave the house on time each morning, “get ready for school” is too broad of an instruction. Instead, simplify it into “get dressed, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, and grab your lunch and backpack.” Use incentives that matter to your son or daughter as rewards for successful efforts. “If you’ve done all of the things on your list by 7:45 with no arguing, then you can watch a show for 15 minutes” or “If you’re on time for school all week, you can extend your curfew by 30 minutes.” 
  1. Make sure everything has a place: Whether it’s a designated box for gloves and hats or a particular file for homework, kids with ADHD perform better when they know where things should go, even if they don’t always put them there. The biggest issue is using their own ideas about organizational systems in conjunction with yours to come up with something practical and useful. Perhaps your daughter likes to color-code her academic subjects into separate notebooks with folders. Maybe your son prefers one large binder with a homework tab for each class. Talk with them about what’s helped in the past and what could be useful now. If you try a system and it’s not working, regroup and try something else. It’s not a big deal; it’s just information about what’s most useful.  
  1. Establish a homework program with timed work periods and breaks: Most kids with ADHD come home from school needing a break from studying. Whether it’s playing with a friend or participating in sports, their brains need to do something different. For children and teens who take stimulant medication, balancing the need for this break with the benefit of doing homework while having some of the medicine in their systems can be tricky. It’s best to give a short break after school of up to 20 minutes and then convey that homework, free of social media, texting, and YouTube, lies on the other side of it. Set up a few work periods based on how long your child or teen can focus before they need a short timed break for a snack, movement, or going to the bathroom. After two or three of these work sessions, they can earn a reward that you’ve already agreed upon. 

At your weekly family meeting, talk about the progress that is being made on your mutually agreed upon goals and, if things aren’t going smoothly, what might need to be adjusted to improve your plan. Whether your goal is less conflict at home in the mornings, a neater notebook with fewer misplaced assignments, or avoiding the nightly homework battles, including your son or daughter in the creation of any program leads to the successful outcome you both desire. 

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain.

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