Fresh Start

If school was a washout last year, help your ADHD child improve his academic and social lives – beginning now.

Back in the swing of school
Back in the swing of school

I’m scared,” says Linda Barrows of Belfast, New York, describing her feelings about her son’s starting school this year. “Matthew had a terrible time in third grade last year.”

The unhappy child spent the year grounded in the schoolroom – no recess, no parties, and no field trips, because he constantly owed back work. “He was in tutoring an hour and a half, three days a week, and was still behind,” she adds.

Ultimately Barrows forced her school system to test her son, who has attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), for learning disabilities. Even so, she laments, “I get to start all over again with a child who is convinced he is retarded and lazy, and that it’s all his fault he has such a hard time learning.”

To add to his academic misfortunes, Matthew spent third grade in social isolation. Always the last one to be picked for teams and the first to be targeted for teasing, he’d go off by himself or gravitate toward another left – out child.

The question on Barrows’s mind, and on the minds of other parents whose kids are in the same boat as Matthew, is: How do I help my child get over a bad school year and start school this year with a positive attitude?

A new point of view

Children often take emotional cues from their parents. Right off the bat, you can help get your child off on the right foot, well before school starts, by conveying the message, “Great! A new year, a new chance” (rather than, “Oh, no. School is starting again”), says Barbara Muller-Ackerman, a guidance counselor at the James Caldwell Elementary School in Springfield, New Jersey.

You may be angry about your child’s bad experience – and rightly so – but your child may interpret this as anger at him for his poor performance, says Blanche Treloar, a retired teacher from Hanover, New Jersey, who now directs a tutoring service. It’s critical, then, to avoid the blame game (was it really the teacher’s fault?) or stewing in resentful feelings. “Parents need to stay focused on their goal, which is getting the best possible learning experience for their child,” adds Treloar.

To steer your child toward a fresh beginning, put a moratorium on being upset – this is a new hour or a new day or a new school year. “I’m big on ‘statutes of limitation,'” says Muller-Ackerman. “A child may have had a bad year, but there’s a time to signal that the bad year has ended and a new one is here. Beginning the school year this way focuses on what is possible – not on what didn’t work.” Sometimes it helps to ring out the old year and ring in the new with an event, such as a celebratory dinner or a pre-back-to-school movie and pizza outing.

Review, rethink, and resolve

Still, to move ahead, it’s important to assess what made the past school year so difficult, then find strategies to turn these problems around. To find out what the biggest challenges were, pick a time to talk to your child when you’re doing a relaxed activity together, such as baking or shooting hoops. Once things feel comfortable, gently say, “I’d like to figure out what made school hard for you last year, so we can do things to make it better this year. Was it math, or not having enough time to complete work in the classroom, or not enough help from your teacher?” If you can identify your child’s trouble spots, you can begin to find solutions for the coming year.

Consider, for example, hiring a tutor to focus on difficult subjects, even before school starts. There’s nothing better than one-on-one coaching for a child who’s struggling academically. Tutoring can help her review and catch up, so the new school year will be less daunting.

Sometimes it’s difficult for a child to open up to her parents. If this is the case, the child might benefit by working with a professional counselor or therapist, says Treloar. A skilled therapist offers a child a safe, objective environment in which to talk about her feelings and work on strategies for navigating tricky school scenarios.

“At the end of first grade, my daughter’s three best friends all moved away,” says Brenda Turner of Los Angeles. “She was heartbroken about going back to school without them, and when she entered second grade, she cried every morning for months. My husband and I tried, but couldn’t seem to help her. So we got a referral to a child psychologist, who helped her develop age-appropriate strategies (such as thinking of something that made her really happy when she felt sad) to feel better.”

Build on the good things

Even if last year seemed a total disaster, it’s important to find something good to remember about it, says Addie Gaines, the principal of a small elementary school near Branson, Missouri. “Try to steer your child’s attitude from ‘Everyone hates me’ and ‘I’m just dumb’ to ‘The science project I did was cool’ and ‘I liked my gym teacher a lot.’ Then build on those positives: ‘Let’s come up with a good idea for a science project for this year.'”

In other words, set goals. Talk to your child about specific plans for the coming year – better grades, more playdates after school – then discuss how to make these things happen. So that your child doesn’t feel she’s being lectured, take extra care to be gentle, and encourage her to participate rather than just take your advice. Ask simple, specific questions like, “What ideas do you have for listening better in class?” “What do you think you can do when you don’t understand a math problem?”

Go, team!

Then take your plans to school. Arrange for an early meeting with your child’s new teacher. Your aim is to create a team relationship among your child, the teacher, and you. [See How to Get the Teacher on Your Side.] Discuss your child’s goals for the year. Talk about what works for your child in terms of motivation, discipline, and structure, and what her interests are. “Together, examine your child’s learning styles and discuss ways that she learns best,” suggests Gaines. Some kids learn best by reading, some by what they hear, and so on. When the teacher knows your child’s strengths, she can teach to them.

Assure your child that everyone is on her side and wants to help her succeed. But make sure she knows she is also to be an active member of the team. “Your child should see school success as her responsibility, with lots of support from caring people,” Gaines adds. “Sometimes well-meaning adults take too much stake in a child’s difficulties, not giving the child the chance to find solutions. The student won’t be proactive if everyone else is doing it for her.” But when encouraged to do things for herself – to take a challenge and work toward a solution – she gains a boost in confidence.

He’s gotta have friends

To kids like Matthew, who have few friends in school, parents can offer essential social support. “Children with poor social skills may do things that annoy other children or drive them away,” says Gaines. “Are there behaviors that your child needs to correct? Help him find ways to change these behaviors into ones that are more positive.”

What could he do differently that would help him get along with other kids? How should he react to what another child says or does? Role-play social situations with your child so he has experience to draw from when he needs to make a choice. This practice will allow your child to react with less impulsivity.

It’s highly beneficial to go into a new school year with established friendships, if possible. Have your child name a couple of schoolmates he relates to, and set up some pre-school playdates with them. For kids with ADHD, limit playdates to two hours and preplan activities (a bike ride, a craft project) to avoid boredom and frustration. Provide a lot of supervision, so the time together can be positive for your child and his friends.

Stay the course

Once school starts, ask your child daily about school and about his friendships. Encourage him to see things from several perspectives when things go wrong, and to problem-solve. For example, if your child unsuccessfully tried to join a basketball game by running onto the court and grabbing the ball, discuss other ways he might enter the game. “You have fewer players than the other team. How about if I join in?”

Celebrate the small successes along the way, and make sure your child knows that his efforts paid off in positive outcomes. “Success breeds success,” says Gaines. “Kids who are successful in school see that it comes from what they do, not just from luck.”

Putting a difficult school year into the past isn’t easy for ADHD kids. But by starting out to set a new attitude, getting professional help, working on goals, and enlisting the new teacher’s support, you can build a strong foundation for a positive year ahead.