School & Learning

Make the Middle School Leap With Ease

Middle school is a big transition for all kids. But if your child also has ADHD, then he is dealing with a separate set of hurdles. Learn how building on academic basics, developing social skills, and getting organized can help.

Expert Advice for Parents of ADHD Kids: Middle School
Expert Advice for Parents of ADHD Kids: Middle School

Middle school represents a giant leap forward for all tweens and preteens, but the distance seems farther for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Middle schoolers must exercise more elaborate cognitive strategies, coordinate the demands of various courses and activities, and cope with the pressure cooker of adolescent social life. Often, the required skills are the ones that pose the greatest challenge for kids with ADHD, and many students who excelled in grade school have a hard time keeping up.

Building on Academic Basics

Having learned the three Rs in grade school, middle school students are poised to integrate and build on basic skills. New-found cognitive strengths allow them to think deductively, to use abstraction and interpretation, and to understand ambiguity in language – skills that begin to be reflected in classroom discussions and student compositions. For children with ADHD, the academic stakes are higher, and so they need learning strategies more than ever.

What Teachers Can Do

  • Sharpen study skills. Some kids with ADHD have trouble storing and retrieving memories – an obstacle to effective studying. Teach them how to identify and review material that’s likely to appear on tests. In textbooks, point out clues to important information: colored fonts, sidebars, chapter summaries.
  • Use “question words” as cues. In studying photosynthesis, for example, ask: Where does it occur? Why is it an important process for the plant?
  • Create a math memento. Success in mathematics also requires memory, including recall of the steps needed to solve a problem. Have students write model problems and mathematical formulas on note cards. Punch a hole in the corner of each, and attach them to a key ring for easy reference.
  • Raise reading awareness. Effective use of written materials requires reading critically, skimming rapidly, and scanning to find facts. Children with ADHD may have trouble with all of these – losing focus when skimming or scanning, and difficulty comprehending and restating ideas.Show how chapters of texts are organized, and how to track down needed information. To aid comprehension, have students summarize and elaborate on the text’s main points.
  • Appeal to different learning styles. In middle school, lecture-type learning often takes over. Be aware of students who learn better visually or with hands-on experience, and incorporate those elements into your lessons.
  • Recognize the breaking point. Students with ADHD may need breaks to sustain mental effort. Find an unobtrusive way to let them blow off steam – like pacing in the back of the classroom.

What Parents Can Do

  • Hold on to interventions that work. Middle schoolers continue to benefit from the kind of structure and guidance that helped when they were younger – although you may encounter more resistance. Consider drawing up a contract with your child for school-related behaviors that need improvement, and offer rewards for success.
  • Request a change in schedule. Take advantage of options regarding teachers and class times. Switch your child to a teacher who’s in tune with his learning style, or to a time slot in which he works better. If the school offers tracking, be sure your child is getting the right amount of challenge.
  • Be alert for learning disabilities. Specific learning disabilities (LD) sometimes go undetected until middle school or later, especially in very bright kids. Warning signs include reluctance to read and write, poor reading comprehension, trouble with abstract concepts, and poor essay-writing skills. If you suspect LD, request a formal evaluation from your child’s school.
  • Bypass bad handwriting. Middle schoolers are expected to show what they know by writing essays and reports. But many kids with ADHD or learning disabilities have poor handwriting due to difficulty with fine motor coordination. Using a keyboard to write reports and take notes lets them get around this. For typing software, visit SuperKids Educational Software Review.

Surviving the Social Scene

Probably no one feels more socially vulnerable than a middle schooler. Preoccupied with fitting in, she faces peer pressure, new social groupings, the loss of a single, supportive teacher, and the physical changes of adolescence. The rules for acceptance can seem arbitrary, especially to kids with ADHD, whose social skills often lag behind.

What Teachers Can Do

  • Hold class meetings that focus on social skills – how to give a compliment, accept feedback, be gracious when losing a game. Demonstrate the behaviors and have students role-play. Let them learn from each other through feedback and praise.
  • Reinforce good manners and other social skills. To avoid embarrassing a sensitive student, offer praise with a discreet thumbs-up or a sticky note on her desk.
  • Provide group experiences. Have students work in small groups, a natural forum for practicing social skills. Pair a student with ADHD with classmates who will be good role models.

What Parents Can Do

  • Teach conversation courtesy. Kids with ADHD often break into discussions to launch a topic of their own. Use dinnertime to practice the rules of conversation – how to listen to what others are saying and politely join the group.
  • Help your child walk in another person’s shoes. Adolescents with ADHD find it hard to understand another’s perspective. Without meaning to, they may do or say things that are hurtful or thoughtless, such as going through a friend’s backpack. Use role-playing to have your child imagine how his friend might feel about the intrusion, and how to respond if he gets angry.
  • Explain expressions. Students with language-based learning difficulties are often overly literal – a child told that someone is “pulling his leg” is likely to be perplexed. Helping your child understand figures of speech will make social interactions less awkward.
  • Discuss disagreements. Children with ADHD are easily frustrated, and a disagreement among friends can lead to an angry outburst. Give your teen techniques for keeping cool, such as deep breathing and “counting to 10,” and teach him the value of talking things out.
  • Find a social skills group. These groups for children with ADHD use role-playing and rehearsal to practice social skills.

Getting Organized

With multiple subjects and classrooms – and the supplies that go with them – middle school demands good organizational skills. Students are expected to juggle assignments from several courses, and to determine the amount of time needed for each.

The work itself demands a high level of mental order – classifying, bringing together pieces of information, following steps in sequence. For children who struggle with memory, focus, and time management, structure and support are essential.

What Teachers Can Do

  • Provide schedules and checklists. Post a master monthly calendar in the classroom showing upcoming activities, projects, and deadlines – and be sure to allow time for students to transfer this information into their personal planners. Hang up checklists for procedures and projects (lab safety, library research), and hand out three-hole punched copies to students.
  • Have a group clean-up. Provide time and assistance for students to clean out their binders, backpacks, and desks. Hold periodic desk and notebook inspections, and award prizes, such as a homework pass or tokens redeemable at the school store, for having a tidy desk and notebook.
  • Give advance notice about upcoming projects and reports, and consider giving students with ADHD a head start. Help them to choose a topic, and offer to look over outlines and rough drafts.
  • Offer structure for long-term projects. Establish checkpoints for students with ADHD and monitor their progress. Make sure they have all necessary materials. Post deadlines and refer to them frequently. Contact parents to make them aware of the projects and due dates.
  • Teach note-taking skills, using index cards or standard outline forms.

What Parents Can Do

  • Make sure assignments come home. Help your child line up someone in each class who can be contacted, if necessary, to get the homework assignment. If your child has trouble copying the homework assignment in class, have her read it into a small cassette recorder.
  • Avoid locker litter. Work with your child to decide what he needs in his locker, and get rid of the extras. If necessary, make the space more efficient with additional shelves, hooks for sneakers and a gym bag, and a hanging organizer for small items. Plan a cleanup schedule – perhaps weekly or before a school break. If your child doesn’t have time to stop at her locker between classes, get her a book bag on wheels.
  • Teach list-making. Encourage your child to keep a “to do” list. Show her how to prioritize by dividing the items into two groups: Important (do it now!) and Less Important (do it anytime). Each evening, review her list for the next day, and remind her about things due the next morning.
  • Post sticky notes with reminders on mirrors, doors, and elsewhere. Encourage your child to post reminders for himself.
  • Enlist the teacher. Many middle school teachers assume that their students already have organizational skills. If your child still needs help in this department, let his teachers know which strategies have proven effective.