Executive Functions

Don’t Panic — It’s Just the Science Fair

Oh, God. Is that another school-project permission slip? Navigating research, reports, and paper mache with my son (and his ADHD).

A student with ADHD presents a project at the front of the class.
A student with ADHD presents a project at the front of the class.

“Mom, guess what? We get to make a model of a whale this weekend!”

Holden eagerly made the announcement as he jumped into the car during afternoon pick up. Like any good parent, I enjoyed hearing the excitement in his voice as he spoke about school. Yet, somehow I knew there was more to this story — and I was frightened.

Rightfully so: The minute we walked in the house, I reviewed the “project parent handout” and all excitement turned to panic. I stumbled over the directions, which contained phrases such as ‘research report’ and ‘references in APA format.’ There was more to this than making a model. This was a real-live school project.

[Smart Homework Strategies for Teachers & Parents: A Free Handout]

I’m not the only mom of a child with ADHD who feels anxious the moment they are handed a “permission slip” for a school project, am I? You know what I’m talking about: Science Fair, book reports, and models. While these school projects look fun from the start, the complications of completing them with a child who has ADHD can lead to frustrations. OK, outright bedlam.

Projects typically require a great deal of organization and planning, executive functions that my children lack. Taking a big task, such as research project, and breaking it into smaller steps is something they can’t do.

They hear project and envision “awesome looking paper-mache model.” Yet, before we get out the newspapers and glue, our children must spend time wading through books, making notes, and writing complete sentences. Once we’re about half way through this task, they lose all interest. At which point the melt-downs and tug-of-war begin.

What I’ve finally discovered is that in order to survive, we have to work at a much slower pace. We typically begin our projects by, together, breaking down the instructions into a checklist for my kids. I keep in mind the need to break up the monotony and make up a schedule.

This has made school projects much more do-able. I still don’t get excited when I see the permission slips, but I’m starting to panic less. Holden and I survived the week-of-the-Whale project just fine. We even had fun, laughed, and no one (including Mom) had a melt-down.

The ADHD Paper Chain