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Forgetful Sixth Grader Syndrome

Ever noticed how kids with ADHD enter sixth grade and suddenly hit a brick wall? Thanks to Chris Zeigler Dendy, MS, I learned why that happens, and what savvy parents and teachers can do about it.

Organized space with desk, chair and cubbies for ADHD kids
Organized space with desk, chair and cubbies for ADHD kids

My daughter, Natalie, who has ADHD, is in fifth grade this year, so next year she’ll make the big transition to middle school. She’s excited, mainly because we’ve told her she can finally have a cell phone then. But I’m terrified.

She has enough problems in the small, familiar, warm womb of Sawyer Elementary School. What will happen when she steps through the doors of Ames Middle School, one of the largest middle schools in our state?

Maybe I’m just tuned in to the topic of transitioning to middle school, but it seems like I keep hearing about kids having a specific cluster of issues when they start sixth grade. One of the women in my ADHD mom’s support group has a child who’s in sixth grade at the middle school this year. He had a 504 plan during elementary school, but “graduated” from needing it. Now, in middle school he’s backtracked.

Mom will make sure he does his homework, and that it’s in his backpack the next morning, but he fails to turn it in. His parents are asking for a new 504 plan.

Then, TJBinGA wrote the following in a comment to one of this blog’s posts:
“My 12-yr-old daughter suffers from ADHD… she is now in the 6th grade and this straight-A student is failing math and science because she ‘forgets’ to write her assignments down. She ‘forgets’ to bring the books/papers home. She ‘forgets’ where she puts things.

And here’s an example from one of the Facebook communities I frequent:
“My 11 y/o daughter… is in her first year of middle school and is really suffering. It’s like she’s absolutely lost. She has gotten pretty good grades in the past (except for falling a little behind in math in 4th and 5th grade). This progress report she brought home two Fs (Science and SS) and a D- (Math). Some of it is due to low test scores, but the majority of the reason is she is forgetting to turn in assignments, losing them, or not completing them all together.”

Do you see a trend here?

At the annual CHADD conference in November, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop given by Chris Zeigler Dendy, MS. The title of the workshop was “Effective Teaching Strategies for Students with ADHD and Executive Skills Deficits.” As a parent, a layperson, I often understand what’s going on with my daughter in my gut, but I don’t know how to accurately put that knowledge into words, much less suggest a solution that the school will go for. Dendy gave workshop attendees those words, regarding the forgetful sixth grader syndrome. Here is my interpretation of what Dendy said.

Between 89 and 98 percent of kids with ADHD have deficits in executive functions. There are many academic skills that require executive functions that, well, properly function. Teachers may believe certain behaviors are a child’s choice, when they are actually problems with executive function; skills like being organized, starting and finishing tasks, remembering assignments, analyzing and problem solving, planning for the future, and controlling emotions.

Dendy says that when children with ADHD start middle school there’s an increased demand for the executive skills listed above, and our kids suddenly hit a brick wall.

I’ve often read that kids with ADHD mature more slowly than their same-age peers. In my mind, “maturity” was a slightly vague, relative term describing a child’s emotions, social skills, and behaviors. But at this conference I learned that our kids’ brains literally, physically, develop more slowly — 30% more slowly. So “maturity” isn’t a subjective construct; it’s objective, measurable; it’s science. And developing those executive skills requires brain maturation.

So, here’s the language Dendy suggests to a) accurately describe what’s happening, and to b) pinpoint the type of assistance our kids need:

a) “My child needs developmentally appropriate supervision because of delayed brain maturation. He’s 12 years old, but is only 8 years old developmentally.”

b)”Intervention needs to take place at the point of decision.”

For example, a teacher can’t just say “Don’t forget your algebra book” and expect that to help. The intervention has to take place at his locker-the point of decision. The teacher might start by meeting him there and helping him identify the materials he needs for the next class. Eventually the strategy might progress to just leaving a sticky note in his locker. These accommodations can, and should, be written into the student’s 504 plan, or IEP.

Having a better understanding of the precise roadblocks our kids face when they enter middle school feels good. Knowing how to advocate for my child, when the time comes, feels even better.

You can access more of Chris Zeigler Dendy’s expertise at

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