Each year as summer winds down, concerned parents come to me with the same question: How can I help my child adjust to the new school year?
School transitions, which involve changing teachers, classes, and grade levels, are stressful for all kids, but even more so for students with ADHD. These kids thrive on predictability, and suddenly they’re thrown into an unfamiliar environment, estranged from the routines that have made their lives manageable.
Simply entering a new classroom can bring high anxiety, but when the leap to the next grade means starting at a new school (middle school, high school, or college), the change can be traumatic. A child with ADHD may feel like he’s drowning in a sea of subjects, students, and surroundings. It can shake a child’s self-confidence so much that he may think, “I just can’t do it.”
Nick, a 9-year-old client of mine, was a good example of a child in need of confidence last year. Despite his intelligence, Nick often grapples with insecurity. When he feels he’s good at something, he gives 100%, but he didn’t feel like he was good at anything when he envisioned entering the third grade. “What if I can’t do the harder work?” he asked me. Even though Nick knew that his school had modifications in place for his slower writing speed, he felt anxious about his new workload. What he needed most at this point: a little self-esteem polishing. Together with his parents, Nick and I developed a plan to help him enter third grade with confidence, earn good grades, and make good friends. You and your child will benefit from these ideas as well.
Find trouble spots together. Before school starts, have a planning session with your child to talk about what makes school hard for her. Try to find the “triggers” that set off her anxiety, such as test taking or sharing out loud in class. Listen carefully and make a list of her fears, so you can go over them with her new teacher.
Build on past accomplishments. Parents and teachers tend to focus on current problems, often overlooking what has worked in the past. Reminders of prior success can be a boost for a child who is trying to conquer something new. Talk with your child’s previous teacher as well as her new one. Re-read comments from her last report card, and note which interventions worked. By reminding your child how she learned to ask questions so she could understand homework assignments last year, you can instill confidence that she will be able to handle new challenges.
Practice skills in everyday life. Nick’s parents asked him to help select shrubs for the garden. Letting a child know that his opinions are valid outside of school helps him feel that they are valid in school. Another idea: Encourage your child to order from the menu at a restaurant. The waitstaff’s smiles will encourage his independence in making choices and doing things for himself.
Let your child shine. Like all children, kids with ADHD are enthusiastic about — and therefore, pay more attention to — the things they love to do. For your child it may be creating artwork, playing sports, or writing funny stories. Introduce your child to different activities until you find the one that sparks her interest. Success in fun activities builds confidence that carries over into the classroom.
Ask for learning accommodations. If a child gets easily distracted in class or can’t complete his assignments, it could affect the way he views himself. A teacher can make adjustments — like giving him a front-row seat in the classroom — to get him back on track.
Make learning fun. Nick is interested in numbers, so we found math worksheets he could do at home. We also devised a game called “What do you know today?” Nick’s mom reads questions from Trivial Pursuit Junior and Nick answers them. Sometimes his mom awards prizes, but often, for Nick and other kids with ADHD, knowing the answer is reward enough.
Help forge friendships. Having a good friend at school can help a child feel more at ease and can also inspire classroom enthusiasm. Plan activities with classmates on the weekends to help your child build bonds. Short, structured activities (like art projects) ensure successful playdates.
Play a game. Children with ADHD often miss the subtle cues that are essential to positive personal interaction. So your child needs to know the rules of social behavior. A fun way to raise awareness — and practice politeness — is to play games. Board games encourage good manners: Children learn to take turns, control impulses, and lose gracefully — skills that come in handy in the classroom.
You can’t prepare your child for every challenge that’s bound to come his way, but I do know that a supportive family, caring teachers, and an infinite amount of patience go a long way. If you practice these techniques, there’s a good chance that your child will walk into a new classroom and say, “Great, a new year. I can do it.”