How to Help a Child With ADHD in School - The Ultimate Guide for Parents
When you suspect your child of having ADHD, so many thoughts and questions begin swirling in your mind. "What does this mean?", "Will she do well in school?", "How can I manage his behavior?", or "Should I medicate?" being among the very first.
ADHD presents in different ways in different children, but it seems that the most common characteristics are that a child either has an inability to sit still (to the point of way more obvious activity than other children), an inability to focus on a task, or perhaps a growing inability to regulate emotions, responding to instruction or disagreement with pure anger and disobedience.
I'd like to focus on how to help your child with ADHD in the area of reading,
but in order to do this, I need to lay some groundwork first. So, helping your child in school and reading will come further down the list on this post.
(Let me state here for the record, that I'm writing this as a mom. Not as a medical professional at all, but just in an attempt to give advice from one who has been there to the parent who may be experiencing it for the first time.)
I've put together my thoughts below on how our family approached our son's ADHD, and perhaps it might help you.
*This post contains Affiliate links, some from Amazon. I may get a teeny percent of the sale at no cost to you for clicks or purchases! See full disclosure here.
Step 1 - Make a list of what predominant problems you see your child struggling with.
This seems logical when you read it like that, but when you are living with the behaviors, everything begins to blur and you are just trying to stay above water.
When my son's angry behaviors began to show themselves, we were solely focused on the behaviors themselves - not on the underlying causes (not yet). We tried everything we could to keep consistent, firm, and logical discipline in our home. But what we didn't know was that he was reacting directly as would be consistent with ADHD. No amount of discipline was going to make it go away.
So, when you are in this stage - of just trying to swim upstream, and deal with the behaviors, write them down. As much as you can! Log everything. For yourself, and to show doctors when you go to appointments. You'll need this!
To make it more visual, feel free to print out this behavior log to take daily or frequent notes to determine how to help your child:
Step 2 - Get a proper diagnosis.
Who you get this from may depend upon where you live, and what physicians are available in your area. I'd start first with your pediatrician and then work your way from there. I know for us, we needed to have a referral to get on the schedule for a local child psychologist.
Also, your child's age may matter. Many physicians will not diagnose until a certain age. One of the hardest things to muddle through while you are "figuring out" your child is to ascertain what is a phase, and what isn't.
My son was super active, but I didn't see that as a problem at all. My older son was also very active and so I just put it down to personality and having an energetic personality. Which turned out to be true for my older son, but for my younger son - it was also a result of his ADHD.
It's hard for me to see how in the world a child as young as 3 or 4 can be diagnosed, but I see that they are in the Facebook groups I read of parents of ADHD kids. You have to go with your gut instinct to benefit your child - if you and a doctor can see it that clearly at that young of an age, perhaps a diagnosis will be helpful going forward.
As for me, I am cautious, and maybe too much so. When my son was diagnosed at the age of 8, it was because these characteristics were beginning to make clear academic problems for him, and I could see several of his friend and family relationships just deteriorating before my eyes because of his anger.
All that to say - when you feel the time is right, go ahead and start seeking that diagnosis.
Step 3 - Educate yourself on the science of ADHD-
ADHD children help for parents starts with arming yourself with knowledge so that..
- You can truly understand what is happening in your child's brain and body.
- To better help your child learn and grow.
- To develop a sympathy for your child so you can react with kindness when their behavior is frustrating.
Here is the best explanation I've found for what ADHD actually is, and what is happening in the brain for a person who has ADHD. From chadd.org (bolding mine):
"Best put, Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., of Yale University compares executive function to the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor organizes, activates, focuses, integrates, and directs the musicians as they play, enabling the orchestra to produce complex music. Similarly, the brain’s executive functions organize, activate, focus, integrate and direct, allowing the brain to perform both routine and creative work.
The components of executive functioning that impact school or work:
working memory and recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information; accessing facts stored in long-term memory)
activation, arousal and effort (getting started; paying attention; completing work)
emotion control (tolerating frustration; thinking before acting or speaking)
internalizing language (using self-talk to control one’s behavior and direct future actions)
complex problem solving (taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing them into new ideas)."
When children are asked to do something at home or at school that feels overwhelming to them or that they just don't want to do, their brain simply grasps onto the idea and can't move toward completing a task or dealing with an emotion.
Instead they are locked into that emotion or idea. They can't move on from it, no matter how much we discipline, rhyme, or reason with it.
Or, she is asked to perform a task, but her brain has raced forward into twenty different directions, so performing the one task is difficult for her to accomplish.
What's a parent or teacher to do? Read on.
Step 4 - Come up with a plan.
After listening to the recommendations of your pediatrician, and any other doctors who have examined your child (psychologist, etc.), make your decisions about what steps you will take next. Medication may be on your horizon, but there are a lot of things you can do before going that route.
Here is a list of things you can try to work on the underlying problem of the ADHD, before you even get to the schoolwork issues, some of which we tried with my son and some we never did (but I've learned to never say never!)
Food elimination diets
Sometimes, we can rule out behaviors that are caused by food allergies or food sensitivities. What appears to be ADHD, ODD or just angry, irritable, or constantly distracted may be a reaction to something your child eats regularly.
Common food irritants that we tried to eliminate for instance were dairy, food dyes (especially Red 40), soy, excessive sugar, gluten and others. Some parents have had great success with thier child's negative behaviors just by eliminating these either all at once and slowly bringing them back in to the diet, or by eliminating one by one.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an association comprising more than 60,000 pediatric medical professionals, elevated biofeedback (aka "neurofeedback") to a level one treatment intervention for ADHD.
Neurofeedback is a noninvasive treatment that provides information on and measures changes in a person’s brain-wave activity. The brain “self-corrects” by using the feedback to reorganize. Traditional neurofeedback pinpoints a specific area of the brain in need of correction.
I'm here to attest that it definitely worked for my son. We did about 23 sessions and I could tell on the way home from each session that he was happier and more focused. And it did seem to "stick". I wish we could have afforded more sessions, and I feel after we save a little, we may have him go back for more.
For an anxiety-ridden child, it's such an easy "procedure". Basically all a child has to do is sit and watch tv with some leaders stuck to his head. His brain activity is sent to a computer program, and the computer program "blacks out" the screen the person is watching the show on. So, the tv screen is constantly flickering in and out and the child's brain waves are "rewarded" by a clear picture.
Definitely worth a look into. I would recommend that you do research on ALL the neurofeedback providers in your area. Don't necessarily go with the most well-known. Go with the provider that has the most up-to-date equipment (ask when they bought it, as not all neurofeedback software is as up-t0-date or robust).
We tried this too, but again, insurance didn't cover it for us so we moved forward with some other choices at the time. Occupational therapy may help a child and parents to know how to reduce or mitigate bad feelings and behaviors. You can also address here ADHD school problems and school accomodations that might be necessary.
According to Web M.D., during a therapy session, the occupational therapist and your child might:
- Play games, such as catching or hitting a ball to improve coordination.
- Do activities to work out anger and aggression.
- Learn new ways to do daily tasks like brushing teeth, getting dressed, or feeding himself.
- Try techniques to improve focus.
- Practice handwriting.
- Go over social skills.
- Work on time management.
- Set up ways to stay organized in the classroom and at home.
- Come up with an analogy that helps your child understand hyperactivity and how to keep it in check. For example, a “hot engine/cold engine” analogy and how to cool a hot engine down.
These types of therapy sessions could be greatly beneficial to a child with ADHD!
Brain Balance - type centers.
I'll go ahead and slide this option in here as well, as it kind of covers a span of these other alternatives. We did go through several months of therapy at Brain Balance (see the book listed here Disconnected Kids, by Dr. Robert Melillo, who started Brain Balance).
My opinion is that it helped - they target one "side" of the brain to strengthen after putting your child through several kinesthetic tests to decide what therapy should focus on. They then use in-house therapy to strengthen and "grow" that side of the brain, as well as exercises the child is meant to do at home.
They do this through very particular stimulating music the child listens to, aromatherapy, stretches and kinesthetic exercises. They focus heavily on improving primitive reflexes that a child may not have ever grown out of.
We saw improvement in our son, so there is definitely something to this! They also have an entire teaching and online support system for a food elimination diet to see if your child has any food sensitivities. Overall, I think it was worth our money, but if I had to give a fellow parent advice, I'd go with neurofeedback first, as we saw major improvement there for much less the money.
When we got our diagnosis from a child psychologist, one of the treatment options was to undergo behavioral therapy for the adhd and accompanying behaviors.
There are two facets to this therapy: Parent sessions and child sessions. I think both could be beneficial to a family, but we decided to take some other routes first. One of the reasons that I didn't take this option right away is that I personally would undergo a ton of research first of all the local psychologists in the area who I would feel comfortable my son receiving therapy from.
I think even more beneficial could be the therapy for parents - Knowing how to respond in a beneficial way when a child reacts, and even just for the support.
Here's one quick tidbit I learned from a local (fabulous) therapist who I trust: She said that when a child is in an emotional state, instead of reasoning with the child (IE: If you just do this, then this will happen), you need to match the emotional level of the child and "connect" emotionally and empathetically FIRST. The logic comes AFTER. It feels weird and almost like you're play-acting, but it has worked for us.
When my son is throwing a temper tantrum, he can't move past from it, and discipline is ineffective. Instead I get in there with him and say (maybe loudly), "I totally get it! That feels REALLY BAD and that was NOT FAIR. I see that you feel TERRIBLE!". (Or something similar.) He may look at you strangely, but soon you'll be able to transition into why his action was wrong and what might have been a better way.
Interestingly enough, through time, he'll be more and more able to process through the emotion and get to the logic more and more quickly. You are literally teaching his brain how to respond through time.
Lots of moms I know have found great success in curbing some of the characteristics of ADHD behavior with diffusing the right oils or applying oils in therapeutic ways in their home. Be sure to do your research to get the proper oils and to be safe with them.
Regarding CDB, I have no experience with this, but I'm not opposed to looking into it someday if we get to a point where I feel we need it. I've heard many parents also find great success with this.
I'm the sort that wouldn't choose this as a first option - unless in an extreme position, I'd seek to learn how to help a child with ADHD without medication. Rather, our family has exhausted all other possibilities first. But remember, despite the naysayers, ADHD is an actual, real diagnosis for a person, and sometimes what that person needs is medication.
If you have a real diagnosis for your child, I think medication is worth considering. As the parent, you have to decide what is BEST for your child. That can be for the sake of academics, or for relationships. Both do matter for your child's well-being.
My advice would be to work with your prescribing doctor, and your pediatrician to diligently pursue what is the best type and dosage of medication your child needs. It can take a while. Don't give up if one doesn't work - try another instead to get the result you are looking for.
This may change as your child ages and grows. And if you choose meds, I personally would continue to try other forms of remedy and life skills teaching to help your child when they become an adult to cope, and perhaps even one day to wean off medication.
Step 5 - Prioritize what is most important for your child's growth right NOW.
Readjust your plan to focus on one or two things at a time as necessary. And then readjust months later, again and again as your child changes and as you see progress. You will begin to see what is best for your child in particular, based off of his own strengths, to give him a great plan for growing into the best person he can be. For our family, here are 2 things that I tend to base as the most important, and in this order:
This might be your first priority. Your child needs a support system, including parents and siblings. If your child's ADHD is so out of control that his life is full of anger and frustration, that is going to affect everything else in his world and possibly damage relationships that he sorely needs (teachers, family, friends).
I think getting a handle on the anger is necessary. Sure, it's your job as a parent to lead and discipline with a firm consistency. But if the ADHD is out of control, you could be the absolute perfect parent, and it still won't change your child's brain activity (quickly enough, anyway).
So, refer to the possible interventions above in addition to wise parenting (hang in there!), and perhaps you will begin to see results when you employ both.
Reading & academics
I've heard in various Facebook groups that I'm in some moms berate other moms for allowing thier child to be put on medication when thier primary concern is education. They wonder why a parent would put their child on medication just for the sake of better grades in school?
This is just my personal take, but education IS a high priority. I don't really care if my kid is an A student or a C student, but I want my child to find success! And to be well-educated doesn't mean a person necessarily needs to end up as a doctor, lawyer, or high-level executive. If my kiddo turns out to be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, I want them to be a well-educated one.
Why? Because it gives your child OPTIONS in adulthood. They get to choose what they are meant to do, or will find happiness in doing. In addition, according to proliteracy.org, "of adults with the lowest literacy levels, 43 percent live in poverty, and 70% of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels. There is a clear correlation between more education and higher earnings, and between higher educational scores and higher earnings."
I'm not saying that grades matter so much as BEING EDUCATED matters for a child.
So, I'm going to be a parent involved in my child's education. For the record, I've had kids in all areas of education. At different times, my kids have been public-schooled, private-schooled, charter-schooled, and homeschooled. So I'm open to each and I'll do what I feel is best for each of my kids when they need it. I'm no stranger to taking my child out of an environment if I feel it has become toxic, or if I know there is a better option.
Here are some of my own comments and tips for each type of schooling:
In school - ADHD classroom management and tools
Whether in private or public, there are steps you can take to help your child improve and have a better year.
If you are in a public, if you have a diagnosis of ADHD, my advice would be to go ahead and get that IEP. (Or 504 Plan, if that fits better). (Or whatever it may be called where you live). These days, it is not a stigma or a label to have an IEP. It is a TOOL for you to use to support your child and get her the help she needs. I highly recommend getting this ball rolling, because it can take months before you finalize.
Get involved in some ADHD Facebook group and type in "IEP meeting" in the search box. You'll get a world of advice from other parents who have been there. DON'T ask the school for thier opinion. You are basically asking them to give you the advice to move forward in asking them to spend more money and resources, and lots of schools these days don't want to do that.
You'll need to e-mail or somehow have in writing your request to begin the IEP process. Do your research on how to word this. The school by law will have to respond within a certain amount of time. And in the case of some schools with resistant faculty, you may even need what is called an "advocate".
Be as professional and firm as you can about what your child needs. It is SO hard but try to put aside your emotions (this was hard for me!), and rally the teachers and administration to work together as a TEAM for your student.
Other than the IEP, I'd be as sweet as honey to your child's teacher. Let her know you support her and help her to understand your child's needs. One great way to start a year is to write a letter to your child's teacher(s) explaining what ADHD is, and how it affects your child. Include details about what works for your child specifically.
Hopefully your child's teacher will already know of some effective teaching strategies for student with ADHD, but if not, can you find a way to share that information in a helpful way?
Be your child's teacher's best cheerleader. But if you have a teacher who just doesn't care or won't work with your child, pull your child from the class and make a change.
Sitting in class can be really hard for a fidgety ADHD kid and classroom management can be difficult. With teacher's permission and in the boundaries of the IEP, use the resources you can find to give your child a leg up. Some ideas: brain breaks between working times (jumping jacks, jog in place, etc), doing work standing up, having questions read aloud, being allowed to hold something to fidget with, rubber bands under the desk for feet. Pinterest will be a great resources for tools in the classroom.
Help your teacher come up with alternatives to correct your child that do NOT include keeping them from physical activity (ie: recess). Play and physical activity are medicine for an adhd child (or really, any child!) As a parent, I would not allow this to happen (if it happens often).
Homeschool - Learn effective teaching strategies for students with ADHD
Homeschool is a great option for ADHD kids, if it's a possibility for you. You can tailor your day and your schedule to help your child learn in the best way that he learns. Some great reasons to homeschool:
- You can make your active child learn using all kinds of hands-on ways that aren't possible in a brick and mortar.
- You can tailor a curriculum to be interest-led. ADHD kiddos tend to fixate on something they love. You can use that to their educational advantage.
- Speaking of an interest-led education, you can even "unschool" your child, which is becoming more popular.
- Your child won't necessarily need to take tests upon tests to prove their learning, since you are the primary educator you will KNOW what they can do.
- In today's world, homeschool has MANY options. There are so many co-ops, programs and classes you can find to fill out your child's education and keep them in social situations.
Speaking of test-taking, I had my child in Epic Charter School in Oklahoma, a public school charter. Basically we had a teacher appointed to help confirm that we were still aiming for state standards. I think this could be a great option for many families. For us, it didn't work because I'm not sold on all the state standards and my son has extreme anxiety about the state tests - so it was a stressful situation we were able to let go of.
Since my blog is dedicated to helping readers, I want to address it here. Some kids (but definitely not all!) have difficulty with reading because of their ADHD. This can be because of a lack of confidence, a lack of focus, or an inability to sit still to even want to read (or for other reasons).
The best things you can do to help your child:
- Make sure there aren't other underlying issues (dyslexia, dysgraphia, eye problems, etc.)
- Don't harp on test scores or grades. If you can, put them in an environment where they aren't required to "perform" so much.
- Find fun & active ways to make sure they have a good grasp of phonics. (Even older kids).
- Find ways to teach through things they are interested in.
- Keep good communication with your child's teacher.
- Find ways to reinforce teaching through physical activity at home.
- The best advice I can give you? Read to them,
- Read to them,
- Read to them,
- Read to them. (Audio books are a great idea too.)
For spelling, here is an article I wrote on "How to Teach Spelling to Your Active Learner". Another article to check out in general for struggling readers is this compilation of expert advice I gathered from top reading & literacy experts.
Find ways to make sure your other family members are cared for.
Time will pass and you will find ways to help your child live with and hopefully heal from the effects of ADHD. Meanwhile, if you have a child who frequently tantrums, has outburst, or lives with a lot of anger, family dynamics may suffer.
This is so important, but since we mamas tend to receive the brunt of these outbursts, we may have a tendency to neglect the other relationships in our family. Here are some ideas that have worked for us:
- Take specific time alone with each of the other children (time that does not have to be shared). A moment alone can mean so much. Make sure to do it on a regular basis.
- Don't forget your spouse! Weekly date nights (or as often as you can) are a great idea. During busy times of life, my hubby and I sometimes just take time talking on the couch or on the back porch in the evenings and kick the kids out of the room for a while. 🙂
- Speak candidly (and privately) to your children about the child who needs the extra attention. Let them air any grievances and be sure to listen to them. Empathize with them about frustrations they may have and even ask them if they have anything they'd like to input or talk about.
- Find ways to protect the sibling relationships. Someday your children may only have each other! Give your non-special needs kids incentive for helping out. But don't force them into too much responsibility for their age.
Find ways to care for yourself.
- Chocolate and Starbucks 🙂
- Bubble baths
- Quiet time alone - anywhere, anytime!
- Hobby, even something small..
- Find friends on Facebook!
- Spend time with "in real life" friends.
- You have to do this! Just find a way, even if it is 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there.
Celebrate your child for the good things you see in them TODAY.
Make a list of the things you love about your child. On the hardest days, read that list.
Remind your child often of all the things about him that are wonderful. The things she is good at, and the things that you love.
Continue trying, even when times are the hardest. There will be bad days, but there will be good days, too. Keep looking at the overall picture so you can see the progress you are making. Reach out for help when you need it, and fight the good fight for your child. I'm rooting for you!
P.S. I just published this set of monthly reading charts! Maybe it can help you with those read-alouds. 🙂
Let me know if this was helpful to you in the comments. Or, if you have any advice that I missed that might help another parent, we'd love to hear that too!