School & Learning

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Parent and teacher strategies for a successful start at school.

Parent and teacher strategies for a successful start at school.
Parent and teacher strategies for a successful start at school.

From the first day of school, kindergarten students learn to walk in line, raise their hands, and listen to a story. They’re developing the skills they’ll need to take on the world. Over the next six years, they’ll learn to communicate and collaborate, to mine meaning from language, to reason and predict, and to be good citizens and friends.

But if neurological deficits keep them from paying attention, organizing thoughts, and controlling impulses — as with children who have ADHD — they’ll need special help, at home and in school. By working together, parents and teachers can address the behaviors that keep a child from learning. Cues to redirect his drifting focus, lists to remind him of rules and tasks, healthy outlets for his excess energy, routines and schedules to move him through the day – these are a few of the strategies that can help your child succeed. If you provide ongoing support and encouragement, and praise when you “catch him” doing things right, chances are, he’ll not only succeed — he’ll soar.

Academics: Too Busy to Learn

Kids with ADHD are often the most enthusiastic students, bursting with ideas. But their energy and inability to focus can be disruptive to themselves and to everyone else. Some students with ADHD may appear to be paying attention, only to be daydreaming, wrapped in internal distractions that keep them from learning.


  • Assign a seat away from distractions. Place a child with ADHD up front and away from doors, windows, and distracting noises.
  • Provide a release valve for pent-up energy. Some kids are more attentive if allowed to doodle or squeeze a stress ball during class. Let them walk around the classroom between lessons, hand out materials, or run errands to the office.
  • Establish eye contact to be sure a student is tuned in when you give directions. Be specific and brief. Avoid multiple commands. Write instructions on the blackboard, using colored chalk to highlight important points.
  • Grab their attention. Walk around the room, vary the volume of your speaking voice, use pictures, props, cartoons, demonstrations — anything to keep all eyes on you.
  • Lighten the homework load. Students with ADHD work slowly and are easily frustrated. Assigning just the odd-numbered math problems, for example, lets a child practice what he learned at school without pushing him past his limit.


  • Keep your child active. Early morning exercise — even walking or riding a bike to school – can help kids who have energy to burn. One family I know rises early for ice-skating, which helps their daughter to be more attentive in class.
  • Agree on a daily homework routine. Does your child need a break after class, or does she work best while still in school mode? Does she prefer the kitchen table or a quiet spot in the den? Allow background music if it helps her focus, but keep distractions to a minimum. Make sure she understands the assignment, and remain nearby to help her stay on task.
  • Schedule a five-minute break for every 20 minutes of work. Serve a healthy snack or let your child run around – both stimulate the brain chemicals that promote focus.
  • Get creative. If your child is easily bored, introduce some multi-sensory fun. To study spelling words, for example, you might write them in glue and sprinkle on glitter.
  • Respect your child’s saturation point. If he’s too tired or frustrated to continue his homework, let him stop. Write a note to the teacher explaining that he did as much as he could.

The Social Scene: In the Company of Classmates

By second grade, children should be able to wait their turn and follow basic rules of behavior. Over the next few years, they get better at interpreting social cues, feeling empathy, and considering the impact of their words and deeds. But these skills come slowly to children with ADHD. They blurt out answers and get too close to classmates. Slow language-processing skills make for trouble in group discussions. They misinterpret remarks and miss references or jokes. Out of sync with their peers, they often have trouble making and keeping friends.


  • Understand that a child with ADHD may lag in social maturity — even if he keeps up academically — and adjust your expectations. Make instructions simple, and give them one at at time.
  • Post rules and expectations for proper behavior. Clear guidelines remind children to respect everyone’s space, words, and ideas. Some teachers use rewards and consequences to provide extra motivation. Visual and tactile boundaries – such as carpet squares on the floor for meetings, or place mats on a group desk – can help children respect personal space.
  • Arrange positive small-group experiences. When the class breaks into work groups, pair the child with ADHD with good role models. Assign each pupil a task: In a reading group, there may be a simile spotter, a reader, and a person who draws the action. With a clear goal and an assignment that plays to her strengths, the child with ADHD can perform as a valuable member of the group.
  • Invite peer recognition. Encourage the child to share special skills or interests — reading an original story to the class, or showing his model planes.
  • Develop a secret sign, like pulling your earlobe, that tells the child to stop calling out, humming, or otherwise disrupting the class.


  • Prepare your child for social situations, including the first day of school. Give him the words to say when meeting someone for the first time, and reminders about appropriate behavior. If you observe positive behavior, praise it. Be specific: Say “I like the way you shared that toy with Tina,” rather than, “You were good at Tina’s house.”
  • Invent games that hone social skills. Role-play common social interactions, such as going to a party or working out a disagreement with a friend. Take turns playing the different roles in each encounter, so your child can experience each person’s point of view. If he has a hard time interpreting facial expressions, make up cards that illustrate feelings — tired, bored, nervous — and take turns acting them out.
  • Arrange playdates. Having a buddy at school increases a child’s social standing. Plan get-togethers with classmates to forge friendships. A structured activity — such as an art project or a board game — usually works best.
  • Let your child play with younger kids, if that’s where she feels most comfortable. She’ll have a chance to develop social skills, and she may take on a leadership role, a boost for her self-esteem.

Organization: Managing Stuff 101

Handing in homework. Showing up for band practice. Finishing a report. From a tender age, children are expected to organize their environment and manage their time. But learning to prioritize and plan requires memory and focus — weak spots for children with ADHD. To compensate, they need systems and cues to bring them out of clutter and help them take control.


  • Color-code your classroom. Assign a color to each subject — red for reading, orange for math, and so on — and keep related books and materials in binders or bins of the same hue.
  • Post reminders. Hang colorful signs to show where homework, lunchboxes, and mail should be placed. (For younger classes, use drawings or photos.) Post reminders of daily routines. A dismissal reminder might say: Did you clear off your desk? Did you pack your book bag? Do you have your jacket, lunchbox, and homework assignment? Five minutes before the end of class, remind students to check the dismissal sign.
  • Provide support for handing in homework. Check to see that the student copies assignments correctly, and have her parent sign a homework sheet when the work is completed and packed in her bag for school. If possible, provide homework assignments in writing or post them to the school’s Web site.
  • Organize loose papers. Homework, permission slips, and PTA letters are easily lost or crumpled. Provide three labeled pocket-type folders — “Homework to Do,” “Homework Done,” and “Mail” — that can travel in a book bag or be slipped into a binder.


  • Request two sets of books. Make it part of your child’s IEP or ask the teacher at the beginning of the term. With one set for school and another at home, there’s less chance that a book will be lost or forgotten.
  • Allocate a place for everything. Organize your child’s room so that ongoing projects, finished work, and school and art supplies can be easily found in labeled bins, folders, or file cabinets. To make school materials easier to locate, organize them according to the classroom color-coding system. Give your child tools for keeping his things in order — a three-hole punch, an accordion file, big binder clips.
  • Conduct a nightly backpack check. As your child packs for the next day, make sure that homework is in its folder and that necessary extras — musical instruments, gym clothes — are ready to go. Once a week, help your child clean out his backpack and work folders, and check on supplies that will be needed for the week ahead.
  • Help with time management. Give your child a daily planner to keep track of deadlines, appointments, birthday parties, drama rehearsals. Each evening, go over the next day’s schedule together to help with planning and transitions. Talk about upcoming assignments and tests, and help her decide what’s most important.