Organizing Your Child

“I Was Worried She Would Flunk Out of Eighth Grade.”

More homework and new activities can make it tough to juggle middle school obligations, especially with ADHD. Learn how one 14 year old got organized by setting her alarm early and using a system for homework assignments.

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

Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age 5, Ali Comstock, now 14, was able to manage her early elementary school years, thanks to daily medication and a moderate workload. But each year in school the work became more demanding for her. When Ali entered the eighth grade last year, she was lucky to achieve a C average. But, even worse, she was increasingly anxious about being unprepared for school every day.

Ali’s parents were frustrated and disheartened, but they knew that their daughter could do better. This past summer, a month before she began her freshman year at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, Ali agreed to meet for an hour a week with Dee Crane, an ADD coach affiliated with the Melmed Center in Scottsdale. She’s only three months into her sessions, and there have already been some dramatic changes. Hear what her parents, her coach, and Ali herself have to say about how the coaching experience has helped so far:

Kathleen Comstock, Ali’s mom: Most of Ali’s struggles were related to school. For a while, I was worried that she was going to flunk out of eighth grade because she couldn’t juggle assignments. Getting organized was a problem for her. Finding important papers or her assignment pad became almost an impossible task for her. She wasn’t turning in her work on time. Many times I’d find out that Ali had a big project due the next day and that she’d never mentioned it to me or started it.

I resented the amount of time I had to spend with her on homework. I work full-time and hated coming home and having to work with her for an hour on a math assignment that should have taken 15 minutes. She couldn’t focus and got up from the table every five minutes for a glass of water, something to eat, or to answer the phone.

We started arguing about homework all the time. Yelling didn’t solve anything, though. Ali sat there and didn’t say anything, and I felt bad for yelling. I tried to figure out what part of her behavior was due to ADHD and what part was simply being a teenager.

My husband is a professional baseball coach, so he understands that coaching can motivate a person. We knew that it was time to remove ourselves from the coach’s role.

Keith, Ali’s dad: I empathize with Ali and what she’s gone through with ADHD because I was a big stutterer. I know how frustrating it can be when you’re trying to do your best and you don’t know why you aren’t achieving it. But at the same time, I knew she could do better. We concluded that getting input from a professional who’s trained to work with kids with ADD could help Ali.

Ali: When my parents raised the idea of my seeing a coach, I was all for it. Last year was awful, and I didn’t want another year like that. I did poorly in school and I knew it was upsetting my parents. Whenever I got back a test with a low score, it bummed me out for the whole day. I could never enjoy myself because I was constantly worried about school. Even when I’d go to bed, I’d lie there for a long time thinking about the homework that I didn’t finish or the project that I hadn’t even started.

I was interested to learn about organization strategies. The first day I met with Dee, she spent two hours getting to know me by asking questions about my family and what I wanted to work on. I said that I wanted to work on organization skills.

Part of the problem with homework was that I didn’t write down my assignments! I thought I’d remember. Or I wrote them down, and then didn’t remember where. Dee taught me strategies that gave me more control. Now I write my assignments on individual sheets of paper and keep them in a folder. When I get home I take a short break, then I take out my homework folder. I look through each assignment and get started on the hardest subjects, like math and science. As I finish each assignment, I move it from the “to-do” side of the folder to the “completed” side, so I can see what I’ve accomplished. At first, I’d take a break after I finished each subject and be finished around dinnertime. But now I don’t even need breaks and I’m usually finished by four-thirty!

Dee Crane, Ali’s ADHD coach: When I first met Ali, she seemed comfortable with herself, but she was at a loss as to how to use her own resources to succeed academically. We established that she was a serious procrastinator. She spent too much time nagging herself about homework and not enough time doing it. “I know I have homework. I better get started. I don’t even know where to begin. I can’t believe I didn’t do my homework, study for that test…”

By arranging all of her homework-assignment sheets in front of her – the “Pile System” – Ali’s able to come up with a strategy. She estimates how much time and effort each assignment will require, sorts the papers accordingly, and is left with one pile of assignment sheets in the order in which she’ll complete them and a clear picture of how much she has to do overall. By prioritizing her tasks, she’s taking charge and essentially coaching herself.

Another activity that needed attention was getting out the door in the morning. Like many kids with ADHD, Ali always ran late and left the house unprepared. We talked first about how much sleep she needed and what would be a good time to go to bed. I suggested that, rather than set her alarm for the exact time she needed to be out of bed that instead she set it so that she has an extra 10 or 15 minutes. I recommended that she use the time to think through what would occur between then and when she left for school. These tactics can really help. Part of the reason that she’s more organized in the morning is that she’s better prepared for school. If you hadn’t done your homework or studied for a test, you wouldn’t be eager to get to school either.

Ali: I use the mental staging time in the morning to decide what to wear. Rather than lounge around in my pajamas, I get up and get dressed right away. I make my bed. Last year, my bed never looked nice. Now I take the time to make it look good. My backpack is also more organized. Everything is in folders and binders. I recently came across the backpack I used last year. I looked through it, and it was such a mess – papers all over, some books, parts of old snacks. My new backpack is so neat, and it’s not nearly as big as the one from last year.

Dee also taught me about body language. If I sit up straight and look relaxed, the teacher will take me more seriously than if I’m hunched over and mumbling. I do the same thing now when I’m talking to my Mom. I don’t feel as small, and we’ve been able to discuss things more calmly. We haven’t had any arguments this year about school, mainly because I’m not keeping things from her anymore. Last year, I didn’t tell my parents about tests or assignments. When I got a D or an F I’d try to hide it. Now I’m doing well, so I have nothing to hide.

Dee: I tried to help Ali decide what her own values are, instead of relying on extraneous motivators to get good grades. What drives her to succeed at school shouldn’t be mom and dad encouraging her, but rather her own interest in learning and doing well. In our sessions, she made it clear that college is important to her and that she wants to do well enough to get there.

Teaching Ali to be proactive about what she wants and offering her the tools to get it have made her more confident. You can see it in her posture. She’s erect and articulate. She’s not afraid to say what she’s thinking.

Ali: Another way I use that personal empowerment is with my friends. They confide in me and trust me with their secrets. I used to feel overwhelmed because I took on their problems. Dee taught me that I can be a good friend by listening, but that it’s my friend’s responsibility to handle her own situation. I find that I feel less stressed.

Dee also has taught me to coach myself. In History, I sit near my friends, and we chat when we first see each other. But when it comes to note-taking time, I say I can’t talk anymore or I ask them to be quiet and I get to work.

Kathleen: As a parent, when I think about what Ali’s gone through because of her ADHD – not feeling confident and struggling socially – it breaks my heart. At school she kept to herself a lot, and the kids knew she was different and teased her. She isolated herself for years because she was struggling on so many levels. In just three months of coaching, I have seen a difference. She’s more confident, more interested in seeing her friends. I’m so excited for her. I can’t tell you how great it is to see the changes.

Keith: Ali is much more sociable. She can control herself when she’s with friends – there’s more self-awareness and maturity.

Ali: I’ve been more outgoing this year. I went to homecoming. My mom pointed out that I don’t seem as anxious. I don’t feel overwhelmed with school, and I’m making more friends. I used to spend a lot of time on the computer, but now I know it’s not as much fun as going out with friends. I know I look more confident. I am more confident. I feel good about myself. I’ve always liked to sing, but I was too stressed out to pursue it. Now I’m in three choirs. I have more time to do what I love doing.

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