Managing a child with ADHD is a challenge—but not impossible. Use these tips to help your ADHD child succeed at home and in the classroom.
Mary Lou Burton swears she could wallpaper a room with the accident reports her son racked up in preschool.
“From the time Alex was very little, he’s always had a creative mind, been very energetic, very on-the-go and accident-prone,” says Burton. “With him being my first, I just thought this was normal.”
After meeting with the principal four times within her son’s first month of kindergarten, though, she knew something was wrong. Even so, having her son’s teacher suggest that Alex be assessed for ADHD was not easy.
“At first we were like, ‘Ohmigod, there’s something wrong with our child. Why us?’” Burton says.
That was seven years ago. Both medication and behavior therapy have since made a tremendous difference in Alex’s life. Now Burton is proud of the great strides her sixth-grader has made in coping with a disorder that she recognizes as challenging her during her own childhood.
“I remember the first day I found out and how sad I felt,” the mother of four says about her son’s diagnosis. “There have been a lot of obstacles, but I look at him now and I’m so proud. It’s not a disability. It’s an ability, if you learn to work with it.”
So how do you work with ADHD children to help them succeed at home and in the classroom? Here are some tips garnered from both parents and ADHD professionals:
• Provide structure. Planning out the steps it takes to accomplish daily tasks – for instance, getting ready for school or completing homework – lets everyone know what expectations are. “With many kids, you can take each day as it comes and there may not be a huge amount of structure,” says Linda Pfiffner, Ph.D., author of All About AD/HD: The Complete Practical Guide for Classroom Teachers. “But that’s really hard for these kids. You can get in a tug-of-war over that and have a lot of frustration.”
• Keep instructions brief. An ADHD child’s attention will drift if instructions for anything are too long and rambling, Pfiffner says. For both parents and teachers, this means it’s best to break down tasks into little pieces.
• Emphasize the positive. “These kids hear ‘no’ 50 times a day,” Burton says. “My biggest challenge is pulling out what my son’s doing right and focusing on those things.”
Pfiffner suggests using “labeled” praise, which clearly defines what is positive about a child’s actions. For instance, “You did a great job of cleaning up” would be more effective than simply saying “Thank you for helping me.”
• Work as a team – with the child, parents, teacher, physician and caregivers all involved. “Collaboration between home and school is essential,” says Brian Inglesby, a licensed educational psychologist and Schwab Learning consultant. "It's important to have everybody on the same page."
• Use token economies. Setting up a system to use in the classroom and at home for children to earn points they can exchange for other rewards or privileges – such as computer time or an activity – can provide kids with great incentive to adjust behavior. And Inglesby suggests involving the child by allowing him or her to develop a menu of rewards.
• Become educated. Keep reading and learning more about ADHD, but take into account the source of your information.
“Remember that on the Internet, not all of the information you read is accurate,” says Alison Schonwald, M.D., a pediatrics instructor at Harvard Medical School. “And everything you hear is not true.” (See the Resources accompanying this article for sources of reliable information.)
• Know that you are the expert on your child. “ADHD is just one of those controversial subjects that everybody and his brother has an opinion on,” says Kristin Stanberry, the mother of a 13-year-old son with ADHD and a writer/editor for Schwab Learning. “Tune out what’s uninformed. Trusting your instincts and keeping open communication with your child about how he’s doing and really being observant is invaluable because you’re really a case manager.”
• Beware of labeling. “Remember that you have to look at the whole child – he’s got his own temperament, his own talents and interests,” Stanberry says. “It’s easy to let the label overshadow everything.”
And beware, too, of lumping other problems that often occur in children with ADHD – including depression, anxiety and learning difficulties – under the single diagnosis of ADHD.
“We’re getting better at understanding the differences between learning disabilities and ADHD,” Inglesby says. “Sometimes they can overlap and that can be tricky and complicated to dissect.”
ADHD is different for every child, he adds. It’s important to understand which problems are truly part of ADHD and which are not, so that each problem can be dealt with appropriately.
• Give yourself a break. It takes a lot of energy to live and work with kids who have ADHD, Pfiffner says, so try to give yourself some space occasionally – either by using a sitter or by relaxing your demands for a particular time period – so that you can have some time off.
Updated August 2012