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Helping a Child With ADHD Succeed in School

Child sitting alone in school

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common behavioral disorders in children. Once called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the more common term is now ADHD. There are three types of the disorder: inattentive, hyperactive, and combined. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 9.5 percent of children, or 5.4 million children aged 4 to 17, have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2007. Boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with ADHD (13.2 percent to 5.6 percent).

Children with ADHD struggle with core symptoms such as the inability to focus or stay still for a long time, and impulsive behavior. They have a physiological difference in their neurology that makes these problems pervasive and potentially disabling. Also, they experience more obstacles in their path to success and more challenges in school than the average student. In the classroom, children are required to sit still, pay attention, and follow instructions, but these are the very things children with ADHD struggle with daily. With the proper guidance and ongoing persistence, however, they can remain on track to achieving academic goals. These eight tips offer advice and resources to helping your child succeed in school.

Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

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Not only do the core symptoms create an extraordinary challenge in school, but 20 to 30 percent of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability. Most of what they are asked to do each day in a traditional school -- being consistently attentive and concentrating on tasks despite an extremely distracting environment -- is very hard for them, creating a significant threat to their self-esteem. It is important to advocate for your child's special needs in school, but it's equally important to address more than just their weaknesses.

Determine and focus on your child's strengths, automatically removing the focus from their struggles and limitations. "The combination of identifying strengths, creating a chance to succeed, and fueling the process with optimism and excitement leads to success and happiness most of the time," say Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and Peter S. Jensen, M.D., in Superparenting for ADD. What does your child enjoy? What is her strongest subject in school? Put your energy into developing that strength and build your child's self-esteem for future successes. Be sure to get the teacher on board. If your child is passionate about science, offer books on science topics for weekly reading assignments. If he's inspired to build with Legos, incorporate Legos in his math lesson. If she is a star athlete, give her every opportunity to exercise and train. The more you cater to your child's interests, the more he will focus on the lesson or assignment.

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Schedule a meeting with your child's new teacher before each school year starts. Most teachers will welcome information about their students. "Put together a collection of articles. You can then give teachers articles that pertain to a certain issue when the need arises," recommends Gina Robuck, M.Ed., in her article, "Raising a Teacher's Awareness About LD and AD/HD - Parents as Educators," on greatschools.org. Start with a few expert articles on ADHD management in the classroom and then go into detail over time. Put together a document detailing your child's learning style, categorized by environment, struggles, behavior management, and sensory needs. Be sure to include strengths and interests in addition to needs, and incorporate everything you've learned about your child.

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Most students with ADHD and other learning disabilities require tailored instruction and classroom accommodations to overcome their need for extra stimulation, lack of focus, difficulty with organization, trouble following multistep instructions, or specific language disabilities in reading and writing. Schools districts are required under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all eligible students. Many children with ADHD do not qualify for special education services under IDEA, though; the school must agree that the ADHD negatively affects learning and educational performance, which is not always the case. If your child doesn't qualify for services under IDEA, request classroom accommodations through a 504 Plan (this refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) to create an equitable learning experience and to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability under any program or activity receiving Federal inancial assistance.

If your child is struggling in school, determine if she is eligible for school services and accommodations. Request an initial evaluation for special education services in writing. There are stringent procedures that must be followed to pursue Special Education placement or a 504 Plan. Sample letters to request initial evaluations can be found at LDOnline.org, Peppinc.org, and ADDitudemag.com. Or check ASKresource.org and ADHDparentsupport.com for sample letters about the 504 Plan. The evaluation process can take up to four months or more so; while you're waiting, read everything you can about your child's rights in school. A great place to start is Wrightslaw.com.

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Children with ADHD are born with differences in their brains that manifest in distinctive ways in each child. The commonality is that these differences cause challenging behavior, often due to a lack of inherent skills like problem solving and adaptability. "Challenging behavior occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a kid's capacity to respond adaptively," says Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., Founding Director of Lives in the Balance and author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School. "We now know that [these children] are lacking skills, not motivation...skills like flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. That knowledge makes it possible for us to help these kids in ways that are much more humane, compassionate, and effective."

Fortunately, the problems are highly predictable, so Dr. Greene advises that parents and teachers proactively and collaboratively solve them through a process he calls "Plan B." Plan B consists of three ingredients: The Empathy step (where caregivers gather information and understand the child's concerns or perspective on a specific problem); the Define the Problem step (where caregivers enter their concerns into consideration); and the Invitation step (where the adult and child brainstorm realistic solutions that will address concerns). "Motivational procedures -- such as sticker charts and time-outs -- don't teach kids the skills they're lacking...nor do they solve the problems that are reliably and predictably setting in motion challenging episodes," Dr. Greene says.

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Work closely with the teacher to create a rewards system by which your child can achieve success, key to a beneficial behavior plan. Students with ADHD often struggle with planning and contemplating future rewards and consequences. This makes it very difficult for them to achieve success with long-term rewards programs that are common in elementary school. If a student with ADHD can't earn accolades and rewards like her peers, it will weaken her self-esteem and cause her to stop trying to regulate her behavior and meet goals altogether.

The most widely recommended classroom behavior management system for ADHD is a goal chart with daily rewards. To implement this system, choose two to three behaviors your child needs to work on regulating and state them in the affirmative; that is, wait until you're called on to speak, begin assignments within three minutes of being told, etc. There should be multiple checkpoints for each goal so that regulating a challenging behavior most of the time gets rewarded. Start with daily goals that are easy for your child to accomplish and add more difficult goals as he masters them. Track positive progress by marking times throughout the day only when a goal is reached. Keep the chart on the student's desk so he can see his progress and stay motivated. At the end of each day, give him a small reward when a certain number of goals are reached.

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With consistency and determination, planning and organization skills can be taught. A typical struggle is executive functioning delays, which affect physical organization and cerebral organization skills such as time management, thought planning, and scheduling. Executive functioning delays are evident in students when they have trouble planning projects, knowing how much time a task might take, communicating a sequence in oral and written stories, and initiating tasks. If your child is struggling with these things, it's time to take action. Discuss expectations for organizing and completing assignments, turning in homework, exchanging parent-teacher communications, and so on.

Once these expectations are clearly defined (for instance, you will attempt to complete every assignment, you will turn in all homework including incomplete assignments), create a system that will maintain organization. "Most children who are truly disorganized will not be able to change their behavior in several areas at once. Focus on one area at a time and encourage your child to work on the tools that are easier for her to manage," says Donna Goldberg, author of The Organized Student. Continue to communicate with your child's teachers to make sure they are implementing and supporting the system at school until each step becomes habitual. If the system isn't being put into practice at school as well as at home, it will not work.

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Homework is often the number one battle between a child with ADHD and her parents. Parents usually feel strongly that assignments be completed, but a child with ADHD can't always be expected to perform the same as her peers do, especially not in the same time constraints, usually because she is easily distracted and may have a slow processing speed. A general rule of thumb is that children do 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. If your child is in second grade, he should spend about 20 minutes on homework; in fifth grade, she should spend 50 minutes on homework. Talk with the teacher if your child continually struggles to complete homework. Suggest reduced assignments or ask for modified assignments that are better aligned with your child's strengths, like creating a shadow box project or giving an oral presentation in lieu of a written book report.

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When I was young, my parents expected me to do my schoolwork, follow the rules, and bring home only A's and B's on report cards. When my son started school, I had to accept that his ADHD and learning disabilities meant he was unlikely to earn all A's and B's under general education standards. Although he has a high IQ, his inability to finish classwork in the time allotted for "typical" students his age, his dysgraphia (a neurological disorder that causes him to write incorrectly or in a distorted style), and his inability to work independently prevent him from earning good grades in every subject. Instead of carrying over the expectations of my parents, I maintain an entirely new vision of school success tailored just for my son, revolving mostly around his self-esteem and happiness. After a couple of years of battling with the school and trying to change my son's, I adopted a come-what-may attitude -- I can't change him and I don't want to. The less anxiety he feels, the better he will do academically. Provide the necessary tools and accommodations and allow your child to find his own version of success in life. Accept him for who he is and never give up.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

Penny Williams is a WEGO Health's Health Activist and the creator and editor of the blog A Mom's (and Dad's) View of ADHD (aMomsViewOfADHD.com). When not writing, she can usually be found behind a camera (etsy.com/shop/PennysPictures).

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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