For children and teens with ADD or ADHD, summer can be a much–needed and most–appreciated break, with many taking a “drug holiday” from their medications and enjoying the freedom from school schedules and homework. Life is manageable. The start of a new school year, though, often means added anxiety and stress for the whole family. For many parents of kids with learning or behavioral disabilities, the start of the school year can feel like unwelcome reruns of a bad show.
And I know how you feel—I’m the father of a son with ADHD and I’ve worked with kids who have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD for decades. I’m here to tell you that school doesn’t have to be an exhausting re–tread of last year—rather, think of it as a chance to start off on the right foot with your child so he can have a more positive, productive year.
Here are 5 back to school tips for you and your ADD or ADHD child to make this a better year.
Setting some reasonable goals for the school year sets the tone and gives clear expectations that can lead to a successful academic year. Goals could revolve around completing assignments and turning them in, getting ready for school on time, good reports on behavior at school, and getting to bed on time. Each family will have their own views on what is important; meet as a family to work these out. It works well when all children in the family have their own unique list of goals. You might also have a goal related to all of the children being able to get along without fighting.
Goals are great, but motivation for achieving goals is enhanced by the anticipation of rewards. Reward and celebrate meeting goals. Remember that rewards can come in all forms. Staying up late on the weekend could be a reward for going to bed on time. Extra time for media use (video game, iPhone, computer, TV, etc) could be a reward for getting homework done well and on time. Whichever child is ready for school first could earn “shot gun” in the car on the way to school if you’re driving. Be creative.
Think about a special outing or some other reward for a good report card each quarter. Start with average marks. If that is reached, look for slight improvement from one marking period to the next. The key is making sure the goal is reasonable and obtainable.
In addition to rewards, provide praise and encouragement. Teach your child how to feel good about achievement on his or her own. When success is not achieved, be their coach and teach or re–teach strategies and behaviors that can increase the likelihood of success. It’s been shown in studies that ADD and ADHD kids respond much better to positive reinforcement than to criticism, so try to play to their strengths and catch them being good and remark on it whenever possible.
Getting the day off to a good start can set the tone for the day for the whole family. At a family meeting, discuss when everyone needs to be out the door. List all the things that need to take place to make this happen, then figure out how much time each task will take. From there, determine a schedule and what time each person needs to get out of bed. Once you have a plan, give it a dry run to see if it is workable. You could use a stopwatch to see if the goal can be met. Make any necessary adjustments and then post the schedule so everyone can see it. Consider a once–a–week family activity to celebrate if you are successful for a week. (If you are successful for a few weeks, you could space out the celebrations to once a month.)
Other things to consider might include selecting clothes for the next day before going to bed, making sure everything is in each kid’s backpack and putting the backpacks right by the door.
Afternoons can include after–school activities, chores, homework, play time, computer time, reading, evening meal and getting ready for bed. While mornings are usually the same from day–to–day, you may have to make a schedule that varies for each day of the week. Again, get input from the family and revise as needed.
Family mealtime has been found to very beneficial to all members of the family. Try to schedule the evening meal so everyone can sit around the table (no TV) and interact with each other. Start using the “roses and thorns” approach to encourage interaction. Each family member shares one positive experience (rose) and one not so positive experience (thorn) when it is their “turn” to share.
Make arrangements to meet with your child’s teacher as soon as possible. If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan then you can meet to discuss how you can best work with the teacher to implement the plan in their classroom. If the school is not aware of your child’s ADD or ADHD, just meet as an interested parent first.
During the meeting, find out about any major projects or other assignments that are coming up during the year. Learn about the teacher’s expectation for homework. Find out how you can communicate with the teacher to keep track of completed and outstanding assignments. Showing that you are interested and want to play an active, supportive role can form a relationship that can help keep your child on track and make it easier to work out problems if the need arises.
Once you know what to expect for homework, you can work with your child to establish a homework routine that works for all concerned. Decide if your child will have free time before homework. Agree to the time homework should begin and a schedule for completing daily or weekly assignments for each subject as well as a plan to complete any larger projects. If your child has a lot of homework, you may want to schedule some brief breaks in between subjects.
Decide how you will be involved as far as checking for accuracy and completeness. Develop a system that works for you for keeping track of assignments and their completion. Some parents use a notebook or have a chart where they check off each assignment. Also, develop a system to help your child remember to turn in the completed assignments. It’s not unusual for ADHD kids to complete assignments and then forget to turn them in.
I know that parents are very busy and spend a lot of time helping and taking care of their children in addition to working and running a household. I know that some days you may feel depleted and/or defeated. From time to time your child most likely feels the same way.
In my 30 years of practice as a child psychologist, I have always recommended that parents take a few minutes out of the day (10–20) to make time to do something fun with their children. Find out what your child likes as well as suggest new things they might come to enjoy as well. Playing a short game, making something together, reading a story, going for a walk, tossing a ball or Frisbee in the backyard or at the park—and anything else that works for you and your child and family—will strengthen the bond. When your children are close in age, spending time together is great, but from time–to–time also make time for one–to–one as well.
The start of the school year doesn’t have to be a time of dread. Anxiety is our reaction to fear. In this case there is the fear of the unknown (How will things go?) as well as a fear of the past (Will there be a repeat of previous school year experiences?). The best way to handle anxiety is to confront the fearful situation and develop a plan to handle it in a way that will result in a positive outcome. Then stick to the plan, revising only when necessary.
Finally, take one day at a time. Take time for yourself to relax during the day and appreciate the small, good moments whenever possible. This recharges your battery and restarts your brain—and helps you find renewed joy in your child, in being a parent and in life in general.
Dr. Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD - ADHD) and learning disabilities. Dr. Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr. Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, childdevelopmentinfo.com. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.