Back to School with ADHD - 5 Tips to Start the School Year with Success.
Today is the first day of school here and I love seeing the flood of 'first day' pictures on my newsfeed. My first reaction is 'they grow so fast - it feels like time is flying by'! But, I am also very familiar with the feeling of anxiety and unease that many children and families feel as another year of homework battles, parent teacher meetings, playground disagreements, tears and frustrations looms ahead.
Parenting a child in school can be tough in the best circumstances, and when your child has ADHD, there are times that it can feel overwhelming. But, the beginning of a new school year can be a great time to sit down to revisit your strategies and have conversations with the important people in your child's life to make sure you are all on the same page to help your child have a successful school year.
Here are 5 tips to help make this school year a successful one:
Meet with your Child's Teacher
Don't wait for them to reach out. This is a busy time of year and even with the best of intentions, meetings can slide down the list of 'things to do' for teachers. The beginning of the school year is an important time to make sure your child's teacher is aware of their Individualized Education Plan/504 Plan. Review the accommodations that your child should be receiving and ask questions about how this might look in the classroom. Let the teacher know about successes other teachers and caregivers have had with different accommodations and strategies. Ask questions about academic and behavioural expectations in the classroom. Set up a plan for ongoing communication and discuss how you can keep track of assignments that are due or incomplete.
Then, meet with the teacher again. About 6 weeks into the school year, request a follow up meeting. Ask the teacher how things are going. By this time they will have had a chance to make some observations and let you know about any concerns they have. If needed, develop a concrete plan to follow up with supports. Setting up this open and active communication from the beginning of the school year, will help you address any issues right away before they become too big or spiral into scenarios that impact your child's learning or self-esteem.
Develop Morning and After school Routines
Visual routines can be a helpful tool for children with ADHD. During a family meeting give your child a chance to participate in developing a concrete morning routine. Remember that breaking down tasks into smaller pieces can be challenging for an ADHD brain. One way to make this easier is to work backwards from the time you need to be out the door, adding each task and the time it takes, until you reach the required 'wake up' time. Once you and your child have discussed these tasks, put the list in a visible, accessible location that your child can refer to daily. And review it often - with an ADHD brain, you can't just do something once and expect it to stick. Point to the list, talk about the list, celebrate when your child has been successful with the list.
On another day, follow the same routine to create an after school routine. Trying to develop both lists at one time, will likely be overwhelming. One important after school priority should be hydration and a snack. Children are far less likely to successfully regulate their emotions and stay focused if they are hungry. As a family, decide what is expected and don't be afraid to give your child tasks that involve pitching in in age-appropriate ways. Feeling needed around the house helps develop self-esteem.
Preparing a Homework Space
Whether your child is in high school and needs a desk, or they are in kindergarten and need a comfortable place to do some read alouds, creating an appropriate work space can make a difference. Organization, focus and staying on task are all areas that can be difficult for children with ADHD. Sometimes we need to set up the environment in a way that allows them to succeed. Creating a workspace that has minimal distractions, that has all the necessary tools (without being overloaded with gadgets that will become toys), that has good lighting and ambient noise can all help. An appropriate ADHD work space is not necessarily one with no distraction and no noise. For some people with ADHD a low hum of 'non-distracting' music or white noise can be helpful. Allow your child to create a homework/study playlist and guide them in choosing music that will stay in the background - this is often music with no lyrics, that has a lot of pattern and repetition. Fun fact - Video game music is specifically designed to help players concentrate and keep playing!
Daily One on One Fun Time
Parenting today is hard and parents are often multi-tasking a never ending list of tasks, but carving out 10-20 minutes of dedicated fun time each day is a powerful way to support your child and can have long term benefits. Children with ADHD go through the day receiving a lot of negative feedback - messages that they 'need to work harder', 'stay more focused', 'be in more control of their actions'. Receiving 10-20 minutes of your positive attention and focus can have a big impact - even better if this time can be spent outside! At your next family meeting, take a minute to talk about a few activities your child might like to do with you for 10-20 minutes each day. You can ask them to go for a walk, lay on the grass and talk, toss a ball, go for a jog, do a craft, or make a snack together!
The positive attention your child receives from you in just 10 minutes can counteract a lot of the negative feedback they may have received during the day, and the physical activity can improve attention and reduce ADHD symptoms!
Develop a Evening Wind Down Transition for Bedtime (ADHD Friendly Nighttime Strategies)
Summer is a time when routines and schedules fall away. It's a nice break, but it can be difficult to transition back - especially for children with ADHD who often have more trouble with sleep. To make the first days of school a bit easier, begin your evening wind down routine a couple weeks before school starts.
Putting all electronics to bed 2 hours before lights out time will give your child's brain time to quiet and settle. If they are accustomed to using electronics right up until bedtime, making this change will be a lot of work up front - but the benefits are worth it. As you make this change, you might find that you need to replace some of the entertainment with guided suggestions - playing a quiet game together, looking at recipes to help choose some new meals, reading together, or doing a quiet craft. Gradually, you can encourage your child to take some time on their own to do an activity in place of electronics.
An evening wind down can include a checklist of all the things your child can do tonight to make tomorrow morning easier. This might be prepping lunch and snacks (or at least mentally prepping and telling someone the plan), picking out clothes, packing homework, and setting any extra things they need to remember at the door.
When prep for tomorrow morning is complete, the transition to bed can begin with bedtime self care (teeth, face, pj's, etc.). While screens do not support sleep, a quiet story can help. Children with ADHD often struggle to fall asleep and parents can become sleep coaches by modeling strategies and slowly guiding their children to more and more independence in using these skills.
Breathing exercises, guided meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are all strategies that children can learn and, eventually, use on their own as they grow. In early years, parents can model and practice taking deep slow belly breaths with their child. Kids often love a guided meditation (warm sun body scan). You can can also guide your child through some progressive muscle relaxation and encourage them to use these tools any time throughout the day when they need to find some calm.
All New Routines Take Time To Build
New routines don't happen overnight! It is normal and natural for your child to resist change, so be patient with yourself and with them, and acknowledge that this is hard work! Take each of the tips as a suggestion and break it down into small chunks that feel manageable, gradually introducing them over time. Talking with other parents about what works for them and struggles they are having can help you feel less alone. Joining a local or online group can lead to new ideas and support. There a many options online including my Understanding and Parenting ADHD Workshop where you can continue to learn strategies and connect with other parents of children with ADHD.