Make A Plan: Start Early To Ensure Back To School Success For Children With ADHD

August 18, 2014


Parents of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and those with other special learning and behavioral needs are often challenged (more than others) by their children’s transition back to school. One of the best things that parents can do to set their child up for school success is to be more proactive before each new school year begins.

Three specific ways to prepare children for going back to school are to:

  1. Set good routines and daily schedules.
  2. Establish a regular dose of medication (if the child is taking an ADHD medication).
  3. Make a plan with the child’s teacher and other educators at the child’s school.

Begin good school habits early:

One of the biggest challenges for children when returning to school is adjusting to a new routine. To help make this easier, begin a sleep-wake schedule for your child two weeks before the start of the school year. If your child has been keeping late hours over the summer break, you may have to do this gradually, setting earlier bedtimes every other night.

A week before school starts, your child should be going to bed each night and waking up each morning at the same times that he or she will during the school year. This will allow you to work out all the kinks related to the potential fatigue, irritability, alertness, and general level of energy that are affected when children return to school. In addition to the sleep-wake schedule, prepare regular healthy meals, provide outdoor activities, limit screen time, and set a daily reading routine that is similar to your child’s after school homework schedule.

Although it’s tempting to squeeze in one last vacation right before school starts, try to avoid going on an end-of-summer trip or even a long weekend to the beach. Instead, schedule your last summer vacation before the last three weeks of summer. That way, your family can enjoy one last end-of-summer “fling” while also showing your children the importance of the whole family gearing up for the new school year.

During the weeks leading up to the first day of school, you may also want to re-set clear expectations for other daily routines. For example, you might set a bedtime routine for your child with a checklist of things to finish the day and to prepare for the next, such as:

  • Taking a shower.
  • Putting clothes in the laundry basket.
  • Brushing teeth and hair.
  • Selecting clothes for the next day.

Set specific start and end times for these routines and motivate children to complete their routines on time. For example, if all bedtime routine activities are completed by 8 p.m., you might allow your child to watch 30 minutes of television before bed. Also, consider being more involved in the bedtime routine during the two weeks before the start of school and to provide positive feedback by “noticing out loud” all the things your child is doing right to stick to the routine.

Finally, consider the power of an effective tuck-in. Just before saying good night, take some time to look back on the events of the day with your child and talk to him or her about plans for the next day. This is helpful for children with ADHD who tend to struggle with organizing their thoughts (“quieting” their minds) and settling their bodies at the end of a fast-paced day. This also helps continue a positive, parent-child connection while showing your child how to practice reflection and planning.

Plan now for restarting medication:

Children with ADHD may have very high intelligence, but they still struggle with consistent behavioral and academic performance because of their problems with inattention and controlling their behavior without help. Many of these children take “medication holidays” during summer months, but their medication is an important part of their ongoing treatment and academic success.

To ensure that children are getting the most benefits with the fewest side effects from their medication, schedule a visit with your child’s pediatrician three to four weeks before the school year begins. Pediatric clinics get very busy toward the end of summer with well-child exams, vaccinations and pre-athletic physicals. Your child’s pediatrician may not have an appointment available if you wait, so schedule your visit before the end of summer.

During this visit with your child’s doctor, discuss a plan to restart the medication at the lowest possible dose to allow time for you to observe your child and for his or her body to physically readjust to the medicine before they have to handle the daily demands of school life. Restarting medication before school begins allows your child to deal with problems related to the medication without having to balance that with the newness of academic demands, social experiences and after school activities.

Make the teacher your partner:

Parent-teacher collaboration is essential for a good back-to-school transition for children with ADHD and other types of behavioral and learning needs. Children spend more time at school than they do at home during the academic year, so establishing a good relationship with the teacher and a plan for effective school-home communication should be an important priority for parents.

Children with ADHD have a strong desire for “newness,” which typically helps them have a very positive start to the new school year. But instead of waiting for the end of the “honeymoon period,” or waiting for problems to start, reach out to your child’s teachers and take charge of your child’s success early. Once the novelty and excitement of a new situation wears off, children with ADHD often become less attentive to their work, because school becomes more routine and may begin to feel a bit boring.

To help prevent this, request a brief parent-teacher conference during the first four to six weeks of the school year to establish a “foot in the door” with the teacher. Consider your child’s teacher the “classroom expert,” and let him or her know you are interested in supporting their lead role in your child’s academic success.

To support the teacher’s classroom goals, ask about the teacher’s preferred method of communication and how often he or she likes to communicate (e.g. weekly emails, bi-weekly phone calls, etc.). Express your interest in being an “active and supportive part” of your child’s education, but explain that you do not want to “get in the teacher’s way or become over-involved.” This will show that you are being supportive and that you respect the teacher’s time and other responsibilities.

The first meeting with the teacher is really to set a good working partnership with him or her and to discuss your child’s strengths and areas for growth. The next parent-teacher communications can then focus on helping the child stay on the right track. In these discussions, you should discuss what has worked in the past to help your children do well in class.

Share any past documents related to classroom accommodations and support, examples of behavior plans previously used for your child and any other materials that may keep the teacher from “reinventing the wheel” to help your child. You can also ask about the teacher’s past successes with children with ADHD to learn more about what the teacher may suggest to support classroom goals.

When working with the teacher to establish behavioral goals for your child, consider a few key points. Set goals that promote good behavior rather than reduce problem behavior. Also, start small: instead of making a list of several behaviors for your child to work on all at once, let him or her focus on just one. Children with ADHD can benefit more from an intensive focus on one new behavior at a time. Make sure all target behaviors and goals are clearly explained in a way both the teacher and the child understand.

Get help to get started

Preparing early, making a clear plan and giving your child positive encouragement will get them off to a good start in the new school year – and help is available. If setting routines and scheduling activities to handle daily tasks feels overwhelming, get the help of a child psychologist, social worker, family counselor or an ADHD coach. These specialists can assist the family in finding better ways to cope with ADHD-related challenges, determine what support is available at your child’s school, and ultimately, help improve the family’s communication and relationships.

This blog was co-authored by Dr. Sarah R. Elkins.

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