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Why School is Hard for Kids with ADHD—and How You Can Help

By Anna Stewart

“Can we talk about Daniel,” you say to your child’s teacher, a knot of fear in your belly. “He’s starting to say that he hates school and it’s stupid.”

“I wanted to talk to you, too,” the teacher says. “Daniel’s behavior in class and on the playground is very concerning.”

Now that knot is in your throat as you think, “What did he do now?” The big fears run through your mind:

“Will he stay in school?”

“Will school let him stay?”

“If he can’t turn in his homework now, in third grade, how will he ever keep a job?”

“If he keeps getting sent to the principal’s office, how will he learn to read and write?”

When a child is struggling at school, it hurts. When it’s a child with ADD or ADHD, the pain can create lifelong wounds.

Daniel has ADHD and he is not alone. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2007 and 2009, an average of nine percent of children between the ages of five and seventeen were diagnosed with the disorder. Think about how that number impacts schools. Nearly one in ten kids has ADHD, which means practically every classroom in America will haveone to three kids with the disorder in them. That’s a lot of impulsivity, distractibility, hyperactivity and organizational/planning issues in one room. It’s also a lot of potential for behavioral challenges, conflicts and concerns, creating a perfect storm of issues for kids with ADHD and ADD—and the teachers responsible for educating them.

Related: Distractible child with ADD or ADHD? Here’s how to help him focus.

If your child or teen has a diagnosis of ADHD and/or a learning disability, then you already know that school –with all the expectations to follow the rules and perform—is difficult for unique thinkers, and it gets more challenging each year. While each child is unique and should have an individualized approach to treatment and management of their ADHD, there are some universal elements that make school hard to navigate. Getting teachers to agree to changing their classroom or teaching style is often challenging.

As a public school based advocate for kids with behavioral and learning disabilities I know how hard ADHD issues can be for kids, families and teachers. I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it’s like for ADHD kids at school, what to do when your child zones out or panics, and also give you real strategies and tips for helping them find greater success at school.

What It’s Like to Live without a Filter

The ability to filter out sensory input is both innate and learned. Children with ADHD haven’t learned how to be selective about what comes in so it all comes in—the hum of the overhead lights, the birds outside, the truck driving by, their classmate kicking their chair, the teacher talking, the scent of uneaten lunches in the cubbies and the reflection of the light on the aquarium. And most if it goes right out because it does not get put into your ADHD child’s long-term memory. Your child really doesn’t know what the teacher just told them to do. They want to know, they tried to know but it didn’t stick. The brain can only take in about 2,000 bits of information per second. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t because only a little can get through. Unfortunately, when it’s filled up with birds, fans, wet coats, and shadows, what the teacher wants you to pay attention to gets squeezed out.

What’s more, the brain selects what comes in based on survival value. Say a fox emerges from his den and looks around. He knows the trees and grasses around him but the hawk overhead and the mouse nearby are new. Which will he focus on? Not the food, but the threat. He will wait until the hawk has passed before going for his breakfast. Now imagine this is a child and he can’t tell which is which. This will increase his anxiety so even less input comes in, causing decision-making to become reactive. The end result is that your child just wants to get out of there. Not a good state for learning, is it?

Related: Does your ADD or ADHD child act out at home and at school?

Students always pay attention, but not always to what the teacher or parent wants them to select. Here are a few tips to help the desired input to come in:

TIP: Limit distractions. Keep distractions and variables around your child to a minimum while he’s studying . Ask the teacher if he can use headphones or an iPod during test time. Perhaps his desk can face a blank wall, or he might be allowed to wear a hat or hoodie in class. Kids with ADHD should stay away from windows and doors and things to watch if possible. All of these can be done at home as well as at school.

TIP: Use novelty to engage curiosity. If getting your child to pay attention is a challenge during homework time, you can do something different — put on a hat, walk backwards towards your child, or set them up on a beanbag or on the trampoline outside, ask them to sing the alphabet at random or use other ‘fun surprises’ to refocus. Don’t do it every day or you will wear yourself out but you could have Monday Madness for instance so your child knows that something different will happen that day. Hopefully, she or he will start using some of the techniques themselves.

TIP: Plan transitions in advance. For kids who get upset by transitions or new or unexpected activities, partner with the child and her teacher to plan in advance or to have them do it with the teacher. Don’t surprise them with changes if possible.

Fight, Flight—or Freeze?

Now you know that Daniel can’t filter out the input that he doesn’t need, you can see that all that input can easily swirl around in his brain and then just as easily, swirl right back out. The ability to allow the info needed to enter the brain is the first step to learning. When the input is too much, the higher functioning parts of the brain lose control, anxiety takes over and the reacting is Flight, Fight—or Freeze. In a child this usually looks like acting out or zoning out. The brain is saying, “This is too hard, and the chance for success is too low, so I’ll just stop trying.” You can see this is a key place for “behaviors” to occur. Here are some ways to combat that reaction:

TIP: Get the brain to engage curiosity. Connect the lesson to something the child is interested in. Make a bet on what the outcome might be. The brain loves to be right—it feels great to set things up to have the student care about the outcome. Parents can do this by getting a syllabus from the teacher and getting related books and movies, checking out YouTube videos, or going to museums or locations that support the study unit. You can also make a bet with your child (it sounds odd but it really works) about what they will learn or what grade they will get. Pay out so the brain will experience pleasure.

Related: ADHD Infographic-Do ADHD Kids Have "Dimmer Prospects" in life?

TIP: Create achievable challenges with frequent, positive feedback. Elements include having a consistent process in place that provides a safe learning environment and rewards for good work. All adults need to have similar expectations so there is a predictable understanding of expectations.

TIP: Simplify instructions. Simplify instructions by breaking down assignments or chores into manageable steps for homework or classroom work. Use multiple ways to share the information including outlines, lists, and graphic organizers. Parents have reported success with using music and dancing or playing catch while memorizing multiplication tables or state capitols. It engages the brain’s pleasure center—and the movement and songs/chants use a different part of the brain. You can also teach your child how to access information by quietly tapping their foot to retrieve it.

Related: Simple ways to teach your ADHD or ADD child to focus and behave more appropriately.

Real Strategies That Can Help Your Child Be More Successful

School is hard for students like Daniel. They have to be explicitly taught how to self-regulate, filter sensory input, hold learning in long-term memory—and all the while made to feel safe, engaged, and hopeful. It’s a tall order.

An often overlooked strategy that can increase success is working with the child themselves. Most kids with ADHD are sensitive, self-aware and very creative thinkers. Ask the child what they need to make school work better. It may not be what adults would suggest, so be open and willing to problem-solve together. Here are some quick tips:

TIP: Start with one small thing with a high probability for success. If academics cause your child a lot of stress, consider opportunities at school that are not during work time such as at recess or during music or art. Maybe they could be in charge of the soccer ball or jump ropes that go from the classroom out to recess and bring them back. Look for simple things that give them a sense of purpose and belonging.

TIP: Engage the teacher in the process. Work with the teacher to ensure there are positive feedback systems in place. Before talking to your child’s teacher, consider the teacher’s perspective and approach her or him with compassion and appreciation, rather than frustration, blame or anger. Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes first.

TIP: Supply your child’s teacher with a list. One successful strategy I have seen when teachers are feeling overwhelmed by a child’s behavioral needs is to give them a list of 10 or so strategies that work at home and allow them to choose which ones to try. That means you have to be okay with the list of ideas and not attached to which ones they choose. You can also ask for a meeting in 6-8 weeks after they have tried some things and then discuss what did and didn’t work and bring out the list again. Bite-sized pieces of information are usually easier to receive and use than a full book, especially to a busy teacher.

TIP: Link pleasure with learning. Fill up the child’s brain with pleasurable, engaging, successful activities outside of school and try to link the two together whenever you can. Many kids with ADHD are drawn to computer and video games. They offer immediate feedback, a clear purpose, lots of visual engagement and an external way to regulate. With your child, look for cool educationally based games and then offer your own feedback (not praise) about how their performance in the game is similar to their school work. Choosing games with your child will increase their investment to actually use the game.

There are many factors all wound together that impact a child’s school experience. By understanding them, you can begin to influence them and work with the school staff to make school work for your child.

Related: How to parent an ADHD or ADD child more effectively.

When a child is struggling at school, it hurts. When it’s a child with ADHD, the pain can create lifelong wounds. There are many Daniels in our schools and communities, and it’s up to us to change the things we can do to make it work better. We can change our understanding, our expectations, our habits and our beliefs. Kids with ADHD are not lazy, willful or stupid. They are simply people who happen to think differently and learn uniquely. By changing our classrooms and living rooms to make it easier for them to show us their brilliance, we are creating a welcoming place for our kids with ADHD.

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About Anna Stewart

Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD.

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