For my next two blogs pieces, I will focus on what the parents, guardians or caregivers of students who have ADHD can do at home to help their students achieve academically. Since not all learning happens at school, I have created a two-part “series” listing tips and strategies for helping students who have ADHD better manage homework and become more prepared for each school day. The first blog installment lists several “in general” or big picture suggestions. In the second installment, I will list more specific tips that can be used to help your student be more productive, efficient, and successful in the academic arena.
- Define the challenge. ADHD is divided into three types: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, and combination type, which includes both types. It is helpful to have the professional who diagnoses your child describe which type they have identified your child to be.
Next, work with your child to discover, as specifically as possible, where she is getting hung up. Some children have a hard time getting started, which usually is due to a type of processing issue. (To learn more about processing issues, please visit https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/add-adhd/understanding-adhd) Some students have a hard time staying focused. Others have difficulty following directions and/or completing all of the steps of the assignment. Then there are some who have a hard time sitting still long enough to complete their work. The more specifically you can pinpoint the problem, the easier it will be to find a solution.
- Define the goal. With your child, define the goal(s) you want to achieve. Be specific. “Get more organized,” is not a quantifiable goal, it is too vague. Plus, what you think “getting organized” is may be very different from what your child thinks it is. Instead, once you have defined the challenge, create measurable goals. “Begin homework by 5:00 Monday through Thursday” may be a goal for the student who is having difficulty getting started each day. Just remember to define what “begin homework” means. To you, it may mean that he is seated at his desk, with the correct book and notebook out, pencil in hand, actively working on an assignment.” To him, it may mean that he has gotten his backpack out of the car. It may seem tedious at first; but defining even the smallest details in the beginning will lessen the possibility of future clashes about the terms.
- Ask the student! Many parents become frustrated trying to get inside the mind of their child, trying to figure out the problem or the solution when the easiest thing to do may be to go directly to the source. He may be very well aware of the issue, particularly for older children. Even if the child is unable to pinpoint the exact area in which he is getting stuck, getting him in the habit of purposefully thinking about the process is an excellent exercise that will benefit the child as he matures.
Once the problem has been identified, the very first thing I recommend doing is asking the student what she thinks the best solution is. It helps her buy into the process and gives her a sense of ownership. After she has identified a potential solution, let her try it. Even if you do not agree with it or think it will work, give her a shot at it for a specific and defined amount of time. It may very well work and the experience will have given her confidence in her ability to find solutions for herself. It may not work, but she’s most likely not going to believe that until she proves it to herself. Coming up with solutions for her without her input creates a learned helplessness that could paralyze her in the future.
- Manage your expectations. Expect some bumps in the road. Often times, it takes several attempts at different measures to find the one (or the combination of more than one) that is going to work for the long term. Try not to get discouraged if the first (or second. Or third) solution does not achieve the result intended. Remember, finding out what is NOT going to work is just as important as finding out what does. Also try to keep in mind that as long as the student is trying, he is making progress. If a proposed solution does not work, he has not “failed,” he has simply learned to not rely on that method in the future. In these instances, praise the effort.
I think the most important advice about expectations I can give a parent or caregiver is to let go of the notion that it has to be done your way. Yes, it works brilliantly for you, but if you do not have ADHD, your brain doesn’t work like hers does. Even if you do have ADHD, your brain may not work in exactly the same manner. While my son and I both have ADHD, we had very different….and I mean, very different…ways of getting things done. It was maddening for me to watch; however, his method was landing him on the Honor Roll every semester, so I bit my tongue. Okay, fine. I may have made some…shall we say…”suggestions” along the way. But they were all ignored, and he is now attending the college of his choice. The only things my “suggestions” did was annoy him and make him think that I didn’t have faith in him. Huge mistakes on my part that I have learned from and don’t mind sharing in hopes that it will help others.
- Remain positive. If there was only one thing I could tell parents or caregivers to keep in mind when working with students who have ADHD (and other learning differences), I would tell them to continuously and repeatedly reinforce the positive. So often, these students are reminded of what they are NOT good at and what they can’t do. We even joke and make light of it. “He saw something shiny,” is the joke many people use when students who have ADHD get off task. The problem is, he’s probably as frustrated that he’s gotten distracted as you are, so it’s really not funny to either of you. Making light of it or dismissing it is not helpful and makes the child feel ridiculed. Enough ridicule and any student will give up in time. Instead, gently redirect him to the task at hand.
Instead of focusing on the negative, her weaknesses, continuously remind her of her strengths. “You’re really great at following directions when you take your time,” is better than, “You always rush through your homework.” Reinforce her accomplishments instead of pointing out the areas in which she is struggling and build on what’s working. Getting her in the habit of thinking about solutions instead of letting her get bogged down in the problem will help her throughout her academic career (and beyond).
- Reward, don’t punish. I could probably do a bunch of research and site a number of statistics about how much more effective reinforcement is than punishment; however, I have generations of experiential evidence upon which I rely instead. Every woman in my family is an educator, including me, and this has been true for generations. What my role models taught me and what I continue to find for myself is that students are much more willing to work for a reward than they are to avoid a punishment.
By “reward” I am talking about either a negative or positive reinforcer. When we take something away, or negatively reinforce behavior, we remove something that is unwanted—like a chore, for example. When we positively reinforce something, we add something good—like praise, or extra time playing video games, or a treat of some kind. Punishment is when something bad is added or something good is taken away—the loss of a cell phone, an earlier curfew, or putting a child on restriction. Positive reinforcers are more effective than negative ones and both are more effective than punishment. The more immediate the reward (or punishment), the more effective it will be.
For the record, by discouraging punishment I am NOT suggesting that you should not discipline your child. I saved “punishment” for the very worst offenses—biting, hitting, lying, etc. and used it sparingly. Try to be on the lookout for what they are doing right, or as my mother used to say throughout her 25-year teaching career, “Catch them being good.”
When beginning work with your child to change his behavior, I recommend small rewards in exchange for even the smallest achievements. For example, you can add 5 minutes of video game playing time per day each day he turns his homework in on time. Once he does this everyday for a week, give him a bigger reward at the end of the week, something more meaningful, but not huge. A one hundred dollar reward for successfully turning homework in for a week would be extreme, but maybe letting him have two friends sleep over on Saturday night instead of just one would give him the motivation he needs. Try to keep the rewards small but meaningful in the beginning as you reward smaller achievements. Save “bigger” rewards for bigger accomplishments—a new video game, money, or a slumber party for an improved grade at the end of a grading period, for example. The rewards don’t have to be expensive—or even cost money at all—they just have to be meaningful to the student. Sometimes a simple “kudos” works wonders. Children long for our approval and hearing “Good job! I’m proud of you!” may be all the reinforcement some children need. Discuss with your child what rewards would motivate him to achieve his goal. If your child has picked out his own potential reward but fails to earn it, remember, he hasn’t failed–the method for achieving it needs simply needs rethinking.
- Try one thing at a time. For students who are struggling in several areas, pinpoint the most exigent issue and attack it first. For example, coming up with a schedule to complete a project on time is an exercise in futility if her difficulty in getting her homework started each day isn’t addressed first. If you have identified several challenges, list them in order of importance and work from the top to the bottom of the list. You may discover that it eventually takes a few strategies to deal with one challenge; but add additional ones piecemeal. Keeping things as simple as possible is crucial, as students who have ADHD are often easily frustrated.
Identifying the challenge(s) and goals are the first steps towards helping the child with ADHD become more successful academically. Asking for the student’s input along the way will help him buy into the process. Managing your expectations and staying positive throughout the process will help the student feel supported. Implementing one potential solution at a time will help you pinpoint what works and what doesn’t. Finally, remember to reward the efforts, not just the achievements, and use punishment sparingly. Remember that ADHD can be frustrating for those who suffer from it, so discouragement can be defeating. Encourage your child and stay focused on solutions rather than problems.
These are some “big picture” suggestions to keep in mind when attempting to combat some of the challenges some students with ADHD face. In my next blog entry, I will list several more specific hints, tips, and tricks you can begin using immediately at home to help your student become better prepared for each school day.
Have questions? Feel free to contact me at 770-686-2991 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here to help and would love the chance to work with you and your child!