The buzz of overhead lights. A classmate kicking a chair. The tick tock of the clock. The smell of lunch being readied. While the subtle sights, sounds and smells of a typical classroom may fade into the background for many students, they can be debilitating distractions for kids who struggle to stay focused, like those with ADHD.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common childhood conditions, includes three subsets: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, predominantly inattentive and a combination of the two, which is most common.
Children affected by ADHD struggle with “executive functions” which are skills related to organization, problem solving, reasoning, working memory and the ability to control behavior – all of which are crucial at school.
“We tell our parents that in kids with ADHD, you can expect a 30 percent delay in the amount of support they need. So a third-grader may need the type of support you expect a first-grader would need,” says Chelsey Brophy, a psychologist at Children’s Resource Group who regularly works with families of children with ADHD.
Experts say focusing on routine and organization at home, advocating for accommodations and maintaining consistent communication with teachers can help students with ADHD avoid common classroom pitfalls.
A good school day starts at home
Well before the first school bell rings, students with ADHD have already had a mental workout: picking clothes for the day, packing up school work, remembering to eat, etc.
Lori Jones knows the struggle firsthand as the mother of a son with ADHD. She is also Assistant Head of School at Fortune Academy, a private school in Indianapolis for students with language learning differences.
She suggests parents create a visible morning schedule with pictures of the tasks that need to be done. Putting together outfits for the week beforehand and organizing the child’s backpack the night before can also help ease the transition between home and school. “They may do their homework but forget to take it back to school the next day. It helps a lot if the student has a daily planner that’s organized and color-coded for each class or activity,” Jones says. “With regular support, they can develop a lifelong skill.”
It is also important for parents to reach out for help for themselves if they need it. ADHD is often a genetic trait, so parents may struggle with some of the same issues that their child faces.
Set them up to succeed
Once at school, parents can help a child with ADHD navigate daily challenges by making sure formalized support systems are in place.
Some special considerations could include scheduling difficult classes in the morning before a student’s attention begins to wane, providing noise-canceling headphones when it’s time to work independently and ensuring the child is seated near the teacher and by students who can help keep them on track.
Both Brophy and Jones also stress the need for frequent breaks for students with ADHD.
“There are great teachers out there who find tricks to help the kiddos burn off energy, like having them pass out papers to the class or run things to the office,” Brophy says. “It’s just not realistic that they’re going to sit in their chair during lengthy academic lessons or tasks.”
Stay in the loop
Consistent check-ins with teachers and other staff is also important for keeping students with ADHD on the right track. Talking frequently by phone, email or text can help spot any potential problematic issues early on, Jones says.
“I’ve been on that parenting journey, and it’s one that never really ends,” Jones says. “It’s important to understand how your child’s brain works so you can help others understand.”