Why School is Hard for Kids with ADHD—and How You Can Help


“Can we talk  about Daniel,” you say to your child’s teacher, a knot of fear  in your belly.  “He’s starting to say that he hates school and it’s stupid.”

“I wanted to talk  to you, too,” the teacher says. “Daniels’ behavior in  class and on the  playground is very concerning.”

Now that knot is  in your throat as you think, “What did he do now?” The big  fears run through  your mind: “Will he stay in school?” “Will school let him  stay?” “If he can’t  turn in his homework now, in 3rd grade, how will he ever  keep a  job?” “If he keeps getting sent to the principal’s office, how will he  learn to  read and write?”

When  a child is struggling at school, it hurts. When it’s a child with ADD or ADHD,  the pain can create lifelong wounds.


Daniel  has ADHD and he is not alone. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for  Disease  Control and Prevention found that between 2007 and 2009, an average of  nine  percent of children between the ages of five and seventeen were diagnosed  with  the disorder. Think about how that number impacts schools. Nearly one in  ten  kids has ADHD, which means practically every classroom in America will  haveone to three kids with the disorder in them.  That’s a  lot of  impulsivity, distractibility, hyperactivity and organizational/planning  issues  in one room.  It’s also a lot of  potential for behavioral challenges,  conflicts and concerns, creating a perfect  storm of issues for kids with ADHD  and ADD—and the teachers responsible for educating  them.

Related: Distractible child  with ADD or ADHD? Here’s how to help him focus.

If your child  or  teen has a diagnosis of ADHD and/or a learning disability, then you  already  know that school –with all the expectations to follow the rules and  perform—is  difficult for unique thinkers, and it gets more challenging each  year. While  each child is unique and should have an individualized approach to  treatment  and management of their ADHD, there are some universal elements that  make  school hard to navigate.  Getting  teachers to agree to changing  their classroom or teaching style is often  challenging.

As a public  school based advocate for kids with behavioral and learning  disabilities  I know how hard ADHD issues  can be for kids, families  and teachers. I’m  going to tell you a little bit about what it’s like for ADHD  kids at school,  what to do when your child zones out or panics, and also give  you real  strategies and tips for helping them find greater success at  school.

What It’s Like to Live without a Filter

The ability to  filter out sensory input is both innate and learned.   Children with ADHD haven’t learned how to be  selective about what comes in so  it all comes in—the hum of the overhead lights,  the birds outside, the truck  driving by, their classmate kicking their chair,  the teacher talking, the scent  of uneaten lunches in the cubbies and the  reflection of the light on the  aquarium.   And most if it goes right out because it does not get put into  your  ADHD child’s long-term memory. Your child really doesn’t know what the  teacher  just told them to do. They want to know, they tried to know but it  didn’t  stick. The brain can only take in about 2,000 bits of information per  second.  That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t because only a little can  get  through. Unfortunately, when it’s filled up with birds, fans, wet coats,  and  shadows, what the teacher wants you to pay attention to gets squeezed  out.

What’s more, the  brain selects what comes in based on survival value.   Say a fox emerges from his den and looks  around. He knows the trees and grasses  around him but the hawk overhead and the  mouse nearby are new.  Which will  he  focus on? Not the food, but the threat. He will wait until the hawk has  passed  before going for his breakfast. Now imagine this is a child and he can’t  tell  which is which. This will increase his anxiety so even less input comes  in,  causing decision-making to become reactive. The end result is that your  child  just wants to get out of there. Not a good state for learning, is it?

Related: Does your  ADD or ADHD child act out at home and at school?

Students always  pay attention, but not always to what the teacher or parent  wants them to  select. Here are a few tips to help the desired input to come  in:

TIP: Limit distractions. Keep  distractions  and variables around your child to a minimum while he’s studying .  Ask the  teacher if he can use headphones or an iPod during test time. Perhaps  his desk  can face a blank wall, or he might be allowed to wear a hat or hoodie  in class.  Kids with ADHD should stay away from windows and doors and things to  watch if  possible.  All of these can be  done at home as well as at school.

TIP: Use novelty to engage curiosity. If getting your child  to pay attention is  a challenge during homework time, you can do something  different — put on a  hat, walk backwards towards your child, or set them up on  a beanbag or on the  trampoline outside, ask them to sing the alphabet at random  or use other ‘fun  surprises’ to refocus.  Don’t do it every  day or you  will wear yourself out but you could have Monday Madness for  instance so your  child knows that something different will happen that day.  Hopefully, she or he  will start using some of the techniques themselves.

TIP: Plan transitions in advance. For kids who get upset by  transitions or  new or unexpected activities, partner with the child and her  teacher to plan in  advance or to have them do it with the teacher. Don’t  surprise them with  changes if possible.

Fight, Flight—or Freeze?

Now you know that  Daniel can’t filter out the input that he doesn’t need,  you can see that all  that input can easily swirl around in his brain and then  just as easily, swirl  right back out. The ability to allow the info needed to  enter the brain is the  first step to learning.  When the input  is too  much, the higher functioning parts of the brain lose control, anxiety  takes  over and the reacting is Flight, Fight—or Freeze. In a child this usually  looks  like acting out or zoning out. The brain is saying, “This is too hard,  and the  chance for success is too low, so I’ll just stop trying.” You can see  this is a  key place for “behaviors” to occur. Here are some ways to combat that   reaction:

TIP: Get the brain to engage curiosity. Connect the lesson  to something the  child is interested in. Make a beton what the outcome  might be. The  brain loves to be right—it feels great to set things up to have  the student  care about the outcome. Parents can do this by getting a syllabus  from the  teacher and getting related books and movies, checking out YouTube  videos, or  going to museums or locations that support the study unit. You can  also make a  bet with your child (it sounds odd but it really works) about what  they will  learn or what grade they will get.  Pay  out so the brain will  experience pleasure.

Related:  ADHD Infographic-Do ADHD Kids Have “Dimmer Prospects” in life?

TIP: Create achievable challenges with  frequent, positive  feedback. Elements include having a consistent process in place that  provides a safe  learning environment and rewards for good work. All adults need  to have similar  expectations so there is a predictable understanding of  expectations.

TIP: Simplify instructions. Simplify instructions by  breaking down  assignments or chores into manageable steps for homework or  classroom  work.  Use multiple ways to share the  information including  outlines, lists, and graphic organizers. Parents have  reported success with  using music and dancing or playing catch while memorizing  multiplication tables  or state capitols. It engages the brain’s pleasure  center—and the movement and  songs/chants use a different part of the brain. You  can also teach your child  how to access information by quietly tapping their  foot to retrieve it.

Related: Simple ways to teach  your ADHD or ADD child to focus and behave more appropriately.

Real Strategies That Can Help Your Child  Be More  Successful

School is hard  for students like Daniel. They have to be explicitly taught  how to  self-regulate, filter sensory input, hold learning in long-term  memory—and all  the while made to feel safe, engaged, and hopeful. It’s a tall  order.

An often  overlooked strategy that can increase success is working with the  child  themselves.  Most kids with ADHD are  sensitive, self-aware and very  creative thinkers. Ask the child what they need  to make school work better. It  may not be what adults would suggest, so  be open and willing to problem-solve  together. Here are some quick tips:

TIP: Start with one small thing with a  high probability for success. If academics cause your child a lot of stress, consider opportunities   at school that are not during work time such as at recess or during music or   art. Maybe they could be in charge of the soccer ball or jump ropes that go   from the classroom out to recess and bring them back. Look for simple things   that give them a sense of purpose and belonging.

TIP: Engage the teacher in the process. Work with the  teacher to ensure there  are positive feedback systems in place. Before talking  to your child’s teacher,  consider the teacher’s perspective and approach her or  him with compassion and  appreciation, rather than frustration, blame or anger.  Put yourself in the  teacher’s shoes first.

TIP: Supply your child’s teacher with a  list. One  successful  strategy I have seen when teachers are feeling overwhelmed by a  child’s  behavioral needs is to give them a list of 10 or so strategies that  work at  home and allow them to choose which ones to try. That means you have to  be okay  with the list of ideas and not attached to which ones they  choose.  You can also ask for a meeting in 6-8 weeks  after they have tried  some things and then discuss what did and didn’t work and  bring out the list  again.  Bite-sized  pieces of information are usually easier to receive and  use than a full book,  especially to a busy teacher.

TIP: Link pleasure with learning. Fill up the child’s brain  with  pleasurable, engaging, successful activities outside of school and try to  link  the two together whenever you can.  Many  kids with ADHD are drawn to  computer and video games. They offer immediate  feedback, a clear purpose, lots  of visual engagement and an external way to  regulate. With your child, look for  cool educationally based games and then  offer your own feedback (not praise)  about how their performance in the game is  similar to their school work.  Choosing games with your child will increase  their investment to actually use  the game.

There are many  factors all wound together that impact a child’s school  experience. By  understanding them, you can begin to influence them and work  with the school  staff to make school work for your child.

Related: How to  parent an ADHD or ADD child more effectively.

When a child  is  struggling at school, it hurts. When it’s a child with ADHD, the pain  can  create lifelong wounds. There are many Daniels in our schools and  communities, and  it’s up to us to change the things we can do to make it work  better.  We can change our understanding, our  expectations, our habits and  our beliefs. Kids with ADHD are not lazy, willful  or stupid. They are simply  people who happen to think differently and learn  uniquely. By changing our  classrooms and living rooms to make it easier for  them to show us their  brilliance, we are creating a welcoming place for our  kids with  ADHD.

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