What Coaches and Troop Leaders Rarely Understand About ADHD
Your child’s IEP or 504 Plan does not extend to the soccer field or the karate studio or the community theater class. And chances are the volunteer leading that activity has only a cursory understanding of ADHD. That can lead to trouble, but only if you let it. Follow this plan to ensure that your child’s extracurriculars are positive, fun, and educational.
Best-case scenario: Your child has school accommodations to help manage attention, behavior, emotions, and impulses. Their teachers and the school staff understand ADHD: what it means, how it impacts learning, what range of behaviors it can encompass. They recognize that ADHD doesn’t mean your child is lazy, crazy, or ill-behaved. They understand that children with ADHD are neurodivergent — and need to be accommodated for their differences in the same way you’d accommodate a child on the autism spectrum or one with a physical disability.
Then you sign up your child for extracurricular activities. Exercise, artistic expression, passion projects — these all benefit kids with ADHD. But there is a problem: Most Scout masters, coaches, art teachers, music teachers, or tutors have no significant training — or any training whatsoever — in dealing with ADHD in children. Some may even think ADHD is a made-up disorder to excuse bad behavior (if only it were that simple). These people are not bad, they are just ignorant about ADHD.
You have to teach them.
Don’t Let Them Go in Blind
Schedule some face time for a one-on-one conversation. This should be more than a brief “let-me-grab-you-before-practice” talk. It should happen before the first practice or class, not afterward, and you should leave your child at home.
When I signed up my children for a homeschool program at the local YMCA, I asked to speak to the program director. I sat him down and explained, in detail, my kids’ diagnoses (all of them have ADHD). Without my kids present, I offered brief case histories — when they were diagnosed and what made us suspect they had ADHD — and the ways it affects their behavior in the classroom.
Emphasize That ADHD Needs Accommodation
Most non-experts don’t understand that ADHD is a neurodivergence that, like autism, requires special accommodations that need to be met. Emphasize that your child has accommodations in school that fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), so they understand the gravity of the situation.
When speaking with coaches and the like, I often make comparisons to other disabilities because, unfortunately, many people don’t take ADHD seriously. I made the mistake of not doing this enough during my son’s theater class last year — and found myself yelling it at the director at the end of the year. Though aware of his condition, the director did not follow through on accommodations and then repeatedly blamed my son for his own inability to concentrate and sit still without ever notifying me that his (typically ADHD) behavior was a problem.
Offer ADHD Solutions
It’s zero help to people with no experience in ADHD to storm in, declare that your kid needs special treatment, and storm out. You need to work with them and offer specific, tested solutions. These can include everything from fidget toys to parental “volunteering” that includes “making sure your kid stays on task.” If I had known my son was being asked to sit still for 15-minute increments during theater, I would have sent fidget toys or sat in the back with him.
Keep Lines of Communication Open
Keep checking in. Yes, there are a lot of kids in some activities, and the people in charge don’t have time to give you a special report on your baby’s behavior every single time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask every single time — so they know you care, and can come to you with behavior reports.
Ask specific questions. Don’t say, “How did Jimmy do today?” Instead, say, “Did Susie seem like she was paying attention?” Or “Did Jimmy keep his hands to himself today?” or “Is there any behavior you’d like Susie to work on?” This helps give these people, who have never talked about ADHD, a place and a productive way to start talking.
Stay and Watch Occasionally
Do not rely on your child’s reports. Your child is not a reliable source of information, full stop. Sorry, mom and dad.
My son spent a whole year neglecting to tell me he was being blamed for his ADHD behavior, and he’s a really smart 9 year old — this was with me asking leading questions, too. Make sure that you stay during the activities sometimes and see how your child interacts with others, how they pay attention to what’s happening around them, how they’re included, and how their behaviors (if any) are dealt with.
Collaborate on a Behavior Plan
Treat the coach or tutor as part of your team. Together, your goal is to come up with the least disruptive way of managing your child’s behavior. It might mean that what was a drop-off activity becomes something you need to stay for. Sorry, mom or dad, but you need to be your kid’s first and most steady advocate.
Leave If You’re Not Heard
Don’t keep your kid in an environment where they’re treated as less than, blamed for their neurodivergent behavior, shamed, or worse. I pulled my children out of a homeschool co-op when my oldest son was constantly blamed for his ADHD behavior, despite all my attempts to do everything on this list. When the other parents began to punish him for talking out of turn by putting him in the hallway — even after I explained patiently how that was punishing him for being non-neurotypical — we stopped attending. I refused to subject him to shaming for his behavior and embarrassment in front of his peers just because he couldn’t control his own ADHD symptoms. We also left that theater class (after I excoriated the children’s program and the head director for the way they had treated my son, despite my doing all of the above).
Find Another Activity
Now my sons are divers. They love it. They never wait more than 3 or 4 minutes to dive, a manageable amount of time for them. The sport involves flinging themselves off heights, something they find irresistible for sensory reasons (and are slowly learning to do with good form). Moreover, they have at least two teammates with ADHD, and one of their coaches has ADHD as well. They understand, down there on the pool deck, when my kids’ attention wanders. I’m so grateful. They get it. And hanging out with other kids who have ADHD makes my sons happy. Other kids understand them, too! They enjoy their company, and it’s fun, admittedly, to watch a team of four kids under eleven, all of whom have ADHD, wait in line for their trampoline time or to do their stretches.
Extracurricular activities don’t have to be difficult. No, the coaches and tutors and Scout leaders haven’t had training in dealing with ADHD. But you can help. You just need to be your child’s staunch advocate — persistent and unwavering. Keep asking if they’re doing okay, using specific questions. Keep sitting in occasionally. Keep lines of communication open. Keep asking your kids if they’re having a good time. And keep offering help if it’s needed. All kids deserve to be included in things like sports and Scouts and extracurricular classes. And that includes yours.