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Beat the Summer Slide: Make a Big Splash with These ADHD-Friendly Learning Projects

A top educator gives hands-on suggestions to prevent your child’s brain from taking a two-month vacation.

Like an infomercial for summer reading, I walked dutifully into the Barnes and Noble, flanked on one side by my six-year-old, Zoey, and on the other by my three-year-old, Oliver. We browsed the large selection of enrichment and review books, and I decided on “summer bridge” books, which would review the prior year and lay the foundation for the next school year.

As we approached the counter, I was feeling mighty proud of myself. I posted the charts on the fridge, ready to fill it with stickers and stars, and confident that my kids would not be victims of the vicious “summer slide,” the theory that reading and math skills are “use it or lose it,” and that extended breaks from either over the summer results in a loss that will need to be remediated in the fall.

Now, looking back, I want to pat my younger self on the head, and say “Isn’t that cute? You thought workbooks would be fun.”

This was before I was a full-fledged Project Based Learning (PBL) geek, but that summer is one of the reasons I point to for transforming my classroom from a place where work gets “done” into a place where experiences happen and are shared. No number of stickers will entice students with ADHD into compliance to a workbook. I can’t fathom why I thought this would be a good idea, but I know my heart is in the right place, just like yours is — even if you already bought the workbook!

How can parents harness the positive energy we all associate with summer break instead of smothering it with a workbook? My students, particularly those with ADHD, and my own kids, are more willing to grow and stretch when there is choice, and they are highly interested in the material. It seems obvious, right? It might, but well-intentioned parents, like me, can turn into dictators trying to keep the peace when faced with what to do all summer.

[Get This Free Guide: 20 Secrets to a Smarter Summer]

This summer my kids are going to replicate the Passion Project I just completed in my class. Just like my students, they will read a non-fiction book of at least 100 pages, create three learning experiences for themselves (with my guidance, money, and transportation, of course), and document the learning experience on a website they will create and prepare for a digital show-and-tell night. They will also write a book review and link to the book on their website. These are extremely useful 21st century skills, as well as a great way to stay sharp in the summer.

My children are now 11 and eight, but even if they were younger, it would still be possible to do every step except create the website, in which case I’d probably have them create a slideshow on PowerPoint — yes, even at three, a child can pick the best pictures to tell his or her story, which is the draw of PBL.

As the parent or caregiver of a child with ADHD, you might be wondering exactly how to begin this Passion Project? Sometimes the details will overwhelm your child, so take it step by step. Your child does not need to know the scope of the project at first, and you can change anything that doesn’t work, allowing for more growth and less anxiety.

First, take a trip to the library and let your child wander around. Settle on a topic that your child would like to investigate. Next, have him brainstorm — in drawings, mind maps, or some other method — a list of questions that he thinks are important about a topic. Make sure that your child is choosing something that is truly interesting, as the project is designed to take about a month and a half. I caution students that if they choose a topic with which they are already overly familiar, they will be bored. The right mix falls somewhere between, “I’ve always wondered,” and, “I’ve never even heard of it.”

[Get This Free Download: 20 Secrets to a Smarter Summer]

For younger kiddos, and those easily intimidated, narrow the selections to five and let the child choose from there. Some kiddos with ADHD can be more impulsive, so this is the time for you to narrow the project into manageable pieces and be sure the topic is just right for your child.

After your child has creates questions, help him or her choose a question that is not yes/no. The topics are supposed to be of high interest, so even if it doesn’t feel academic, it will still teach 21st- century skills. This website, created by one of my eighth graders is not academic per se — her question was, “Why isn’t dance considered a sport?” My favorite project is her video tutorial of how to apply make-up for a dance recital. No matter if this is considered “scholarly” or not, it is clear that she uses research, technology, critical thinking, reading, and writing skills to complete the project.

On the other hand, completely academic topics are appealing to some kids, and it is an opportunity to extend and refine knowledge they have recently acquired. Another of my eighth graders, grew interested in the Holocaust during this year’s social studies curriculum, but went deeper for his project.

I asked my own kids tonight what they are considering. My son Oliver is going to research violence and video games. He wants to know why kids like them and why adults don’t. This is a pretty heavy topic for an eight-year-old, but it is something he is wrestling with personally since so many of his friends play games that I won’t let him play. He’s content, for the most part, to play the fairly innocent Mario Bros, but since “everyone” loves the more violent games, he wants to know the appeal. I’m happy with his choice this summer because it has all the necessities for good PBL. I call it BAM, an acronym for Burning question, Authentic audience, and Millennial skills.

My daughter is less decisive, and that’s OK. She tends toward the academic usually, and I think her latest interest in several young adult series will eventually pull her in. She’s read all of the Harry Potter books, several Twilight books, the Hunger Game series, and is now working on Divergent. I’m going to steer her a bit in the direction of creating a question around this interest of hers. She might want to look at how girls are portrayed, perhaps deciding on “Which young adult series has the best role model for girls?” But I’ll let her play around with the ideas for awhile before she decides because it has to be her idea, not mine.

This sounds great, but what about all the research on “summer slide”? Will projects like this do the trick, keeping our students from falling behind? This is where the parent or teacher plays a role as the facilitator of the projects. For example, last summer Zoey needed to go to the science museum to research a part of her project. To keep her math sharp, I asked her to figure out how much it would cost for gas money and admission for three of us. Then, she needed to figure out how much money it cost us per hour for the three hours we visited. This was real math, in action, and perfectly suitable for a child going into fifth grade.

With a little creativity, any parent — teacher or not — can create learning experiences that go beyond the pages of a workbook, while making memories with their children.

[Read This Next: 11 Summer Brain Builders]

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