School & Learning

10 Ways Middle School Wreaks Havoc on Students with ADHD

More teachers, more homework, and a more confusing social scene: Learn what challenges your child will face as she transitions from the supports and structure of elementary school to the rigors of middle school — and what you can do to put her on the right track.

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Middle School vs. ADHD: An Epic Battle

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. Middle school is a rite of passage that brings with it new friends, new academic challenges, and — of course — puberty. The transition from tween to teen is simultaneously thrilling (the independence!) and terrifying, particularly for kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD — formerly called ADD) or learning disabilities who fear they will fall behind in school, attract unwanted attention in the cafeteria, or be forced to navigate a gaggle of Heathers.

Here is a list of the daily obstacles that face students (and their parents) in middle school — and what you can do to help a child with ADHD or LD arrive prepared and confident on Day One.

[Self-Test: Could Your Tween Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

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Middle School Challenge #1: Multiple Teachers — and Multiple Sets of Rules

The jump from one primary teacher to six or more specialized teachers — and their far-flung classrooms, uncoordinated assignment schedules, and unique rules — is rough for most new middle school students. This transition is particularly difficult for children with ADHD who struggle with executive functions, planning, and organization. For kids with weak impulse control, mastering the expectations of one teacher is hard enough — now, they will face new class rules every hour.

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Middle School Solution #1: Be Present and Proactive

Maintain relationships with all of your child’s teachers — not just the ones teaching her core subjects — and discuss strategies that have helped your child in the past. Revisit and adapt these throughout the year as your child becomes accustomed to her new environment. Encourage her to share her ADHD challenges with her teachers, too — this free handout is a good place to start.

If your child has an IEP, specific academic and behavioral accommodations can go a long way towards helping her manage this change. Some schools allow parents to modify their child's schedule to reduce the number of teachers, for instance, or allow access to a quiet space to take a test or escape the classroom's bustle.

[You're Going to Need Bigger Carrots: Middle-School Discipline Help]

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Middle School Challenge #2: Social Cliques

As children mature into adolescents, their self-awareness grows exponentially — and rapidly. They spend a lot more time learning about themselves and searching for their “place.” For many kids, this means cliques — seemingly all-important and constantly shifting social groups that share interests, hang out, and participate in lunchtime politics. Cliques are a normal part of social development, but they can be double-edged swords. If your child is part of one, he may be constantly worried about falling out of favor and limiting his social opportunities; if he’s not, he likely feels frustrated and lonely.

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Middle School Solution #2: Help Your Child Build Her “Team”

Discuss with your child potential social challenges — like finding a friendly table at lunch or attending a school dance — and role-play possible solutions in advance. Encourage your child to join clubs or organizations where he can meet children who share similar interests — and if he tells you he’s being bullied, take his concerns seriously, alert the school, and make sure administrators respond appropriately.

[Help Your Child Master Middle School]

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Middle School Challenge #3: The Backpack Black Hole

A never-ending deluge of paper, paper, and more paper — that’s what middle school feels like to most kids with ADHD. Without a well-maintained organizational strategy, your child’s backpack will soon turn into a foreboding wasteland littered with broken pencils, overdue forms, and crumpled homework assignments sacrificed to the abyss.

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Middle School Solution #3: Folders and Weekly Sweeps

Before school begins, set up a simple organization system that your child can follow — perhaps one folder for “incoming” papers and another for those that need to be turned in, or a different colored folder for every subject. Whatever system you choose, work with your child over the summer to road test it and iron out any kinks before August. In addition, set up a time each week — perhaps just after Sunday breakfast — to go through your child’s backpack, sorting papers and finding lost assignments. You’ll teach him the power of routine, and catch lost items before they become critical.

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Middle School Challenge #4: Learning How to Use a Planner

Most teachers will expect your child to write down each day’s homework assignments independently — which means she will need to keep track of and master the use of a paper planner. Some teachers write assignments on the board, while others simply announce them at the end of class — either way, all that critical and time-sensitive information is enough to push your child’s executive function skills to the brink.

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Middle School Solution #4: Offer Supervision and Rewards

Don’t expect your child to master her planner independently. Outline specific times she should check or add to her planner, and plan strategies to help her remember to write down each assignment or upcoming appointment. Check her planner every day — for at least the first few weeks of school — and consider providing rewards for each day or week that she successfully uses it to track her assignments. If your child has an IEP, ask that her teachers also check the planner to ensure she’s copied down the homework correctly before she leaves class.

Two teens smoking marijuana outside
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Middle School Challenge #5: Peer Pressure

Decades of research illuminate a sobering truth: people with ADHD are more likely to engage in risky behavior — like trying drugs or having unprotected sex — than are their counterparts without the condition. Parents hope that middle school is too early to worry about these things, but the truth is that tweens starting to explore their independence (and manage their confusing hormonal changes) may make choices they later regret.

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Middle School Solution #5: Positive Parenting

Provide structure and routine for your child, and make sure she knows that you’re her ally — research shows that children who feel supported and in control are less likely to experiment with risky behaviors. Get to know your child’s friends and consider finding her a mentor — a trusted coach, older cousin, or community member — who can be another set of ears and eyes.

Teen students run down a school hallway
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Middle School Challenge #6: Getting to Class on Time

By the time your child reaches middle school, it’s already very clear whether he’s a meandering procrastinator or not. For some kids with ADHD, the thought of dashing from class to class — and getting saddled with detention for running late! — is enough to trigger a spiral of anxiety. Throw locker stops and social distractions into the mix, and time management becomes a very real challenge very quickly.

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Middle School Solution #6: Build Muscle Memory

Ask the school if you and your child can walk the path between each of this classes a few days before school starts. This dry run will ensure he knows the location of each classroom, plus potential potholes along the way. Discuss strategies he can use if he’s running behind or feels lost — like asking a teacher for directions or finding a buddy who shares his next class.

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Middle School Challenge #7: The Dreaded Combination Lock

Your child’s locker is his home base, and he needs to be able to access its contents easily and efficiently. That’s probably why a survey conducted by Scholastic found that a malfunctioning lock or forgotten combination is one of the biggest fears for entering middle school students. Children with fine motor delays or hyperactive hands may struggle more than their peers to fiddle their locks to the correct combinations.

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Middle School Solution #7: Practice, Practice, Practice

Your child may roll his eyes at the suggestion, but taking some time to practice using a combination lock over the summer will save him many headaches. Have your child store the combination on his phone or write it in his day planner. If he continues to struggle with his lock, consider asking the school if he can use a luggage lock instead — they’re often easier to open and can be programmed with a code that’s easy to remember, like your child’s birthday or favorite number.

Teen boy feels ostracized at school
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Middle School Challenge #8: Feeling “Different”

Normal developmental timelines show that most children want desperately to “fit in” during middle and high school. The challenge, of course, is that many children with ADHD naturally stand out from the crowd, due to behavioral or academic challenges, or because of unique (and sometimes unpopular) interests and hobbies. Social skills don’t come naturally to them, and they feel popularity is elusive.

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Middle School Solution #8: Listen, Lead, and Love

If your child feels like she’s the black sheep of the sixth grade, your role as a parent is to support, encourage, and gently coach her toward healthier social interactions. This doesn’t mean trying to turn your child into someone she’s not. Instead, it means acknowledging that feeling different can be painful for your child, and providing guidance and strategies to help her build her self-esteem and find friends with shared interests and values.

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Middle School Challenge #9: More Homework

Homework assignments ramp up in middle school; they become longer, more complex, and more frequent. Your child will also be expected to do independent research, plan and execute long-term projects, and synthesize the information she’s learned in new and challenging ways. The pressure is enough to make a child with learning disabilities shut down at the mere mention of homework — and many kids do.

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Middle School Solution #9: Get the Right Accommodations

If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, make sure it incorporates strategies or accommodations to help her manage a challenging homework load, like extended time for assignments or chunked-up deadlines for long-term projects. Encourage her to join a study group or take advantage of additional resources — some teachers, for instance, hold “homework clubs” after school to make themselves available to answer questions from students working through obstacles.

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Middle School Challenge #10: Independence and Self-Advocacy

Exploring independence is a natural and healthy part of adolescence. Your child may increasingly want to handle her problems on her own, without Mom or Dad’s help. That drive toward adulthood, however, is complicated by the fact that many children with ADHD are as much as three years behind their peers developmentally. Your child simply may not be ready to wake herself up on time or resolve a dispute with her teacher.

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Middle School Solution #10: Loosen the Reins — Gradually

Allow your child to test the waters of independence slowly. Choose something that your child is invested in — say she wants to get to school earlier to hang out with her friends before class starts — and gradually transition control of this responsibility to her as she proves her capabilities. Get a step-by-step breakdown of what this transition looks like here.

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