Shifting Gears at School

How students with ADHD can get to class on time, turn in homework assignments, and learn all they can at school.

Open locker organized by a student with ADHD
Open locker organized by a student with ADHD

Many children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are chronically late and unprepared, causing problems at school.

Consider the case of Stewart. Between classes, this sixth-grader with ADHD struggled to open his locker, too distracted by the conversations going on around him. By the time he got to his next class, the students were already hard at work. His chronic tardiness frustrated his teachers and annoyed his classmates. As the semester progressed, he grew increasingly anxious.

Stewart’s problem proved surprisingly easy to solve. His parents bought him a padlock (no combination to remember) and had him post inside his locker a list of the items he needed for each class. His anxiety diminished, and he became more popular with his classmates.

Let’s look at some other transition “hot spots” students face, and let me share the strategies that have proven helpful for the kids I work with:

Getting Ready for School

Kids with ADHD are often slow to wake up, get dressed, and eat breakfast. To get your child out the door on time, practice her morning routine. Have her use a written checklist until the routine becomes second nature: Dress, eat breakfast, pack backpack, wait at door. Children tell me checklists help them feel calmer, because they don’t have to worry about remembering to do everything.

Starting Class

Urge the teacher to tell the students exactly what’s expected of them — especially when it comes to multistep tasks. Instead of “Get ready for the first lesson,” she might say, “Put your backpack in your cubby, take out the red folder, and open your book.”

Changing Classes

If this is hard for your child, ask each of his teachers to let him leave class a few minutes early (to give him more time and to enable him to avoid crowded hallways). Primary-school students don’t move from classroom to classroom, but misbehavior can occur when they line up for activities or walk to the gym. Teachers can help by staying nearby — so they can intervene quickly if problems arise.

If locker clutter contributes to the problem, buy a locker organizer from an office supply store. Help your child reorganize her locker every so often, to make sure that it remains orderly.

Lunch Time

Is a noisy lunchroom too stimulating for your child? Ask the school if he can eat in a quiet classroom or a resource room. Or ask a lunch monitor to secure your child’s meal, so that he doesn’t have to wait in line — and risk getting in trouble.

Heading Home

Misbehavior is common at day’s end, when kids are tired and ADHD meds are waning. Arrange to have your child leave school a few minutes early to avoid waiting for the bus with a group of other kids. Or give your child a book of mazes or word games to help keep him out of trouble. Suggest that your child find a friend to share these with.

Homework Time

Kids with ADHD often find it hard to switch to “homework mode” after an interlude of fun. Try having your child finish all her assignments immediately after school, and give her a reward-such as playtime — only after she’s done.

No doubt you can come up with other strategies. And don’t forget to ask your child for ideas. One first-grader I know used to shove his classmates each time they lined up. He found he could avoid doing this by keeping his hands in his pockets.

Here’s to smooth transitions!