The classroom can be a dizzying and overwhelming place for a child or teen with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All the sensory overload — background noises, talkative classmates, lecturing teachers — is practically constant, which can make it hard for kids with ADHD to stay focused, follow instructions, and complete assignments.
As one student with ADHD told Jamie Mazza, a professional clinical counselor and psychotherapist, the condition can feel like “marbles rolling around in the head.”
Given these circumstances, you may wonder how your child can be mentally, physically, and emotionally able to succeed at school.
It’s true that academics can be hard for children with ADHD — and parents who want to help. Research published in September 2020 in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that children with ADHD tended to have poorer school performance than students who didn’t have ADHD. That said, kids with ADHD can succeed in school, particularly with a strong support team that includes their parents and teachers as well as their pediatrician, school counselor, psychiatrist, and therapist.
Here are seven ways Mazza, who has worked with children who have ADHD for years at her private practice in Cincinnati, says parents can help ensure their child succeeds in school.
1. See what rules and laws apply in your state. Among the first steps to take is to find out how your school system is legally bound to accommodate children who have ADHD and then “Make the request,” says Mazza. Your child may be eligible for a plan under one of two laws: the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), schools may offer special education services, behavioral management or organizational training, and accommodations to help with learning. Make it a practice to keep checking resources like the CDC, since the rules have a tendency to change, says Mazza.
2. Talk to the teacher about your child’s personality and temperament. Not all kids who have an ADHD diagnosis fit the same mold or respond to the same guidance. “Even though something like a checklist might work for one child, it might not for another,” Mazza says. Every child is different, which means a cookie-cutter approach won’t work.
For some kids, the biggest hurdle is controlling their bodies in an environment that rewards sitting for long stretches of time. For others, the primary struggle is to filter out distracting sounds and activities as they strain to lock in on a math problem, a science experiment, or a test question that demands sustained attention and focus. Many high-IQ kids with ADHD have racing thoughts and ideas that whiz ahead of what the teacher is sharing. This can lead to frustration and even despair as the other students in the class stay stubbornly fixed on a slow sequence of information gathering. All these challenges demand tweaks to the school setting and teaching approaches.
3. Ask for accommodations that fit your child’s learning style. Once your team has determined what will help your child advance academically, ensure the school puts accommodations in place to help lessons stick for your child. For example, the way that new information is presented can make a difference.
For some students, audio, video, or digital materials can be more engaging and effective than textbooks. Others benefit from having books or test questions read to them. And others thrive when they’re able to complete assignments verbally rather than in written form or offered a computer to type responses.
Consider timing an accommodation, too: Ask if your child can take more frequent breaks, have a few extra minutes to complete tasks, or take tests at specific times of the day.
4. Focus on the physical environment. Where the child sits in the classroom can be a make-or-break detail in the ADHD student’s school experience. “There are ways to place children in a classroom so their physical environment allows them to pay attention,” Mazza notes. “Maybe they need to be at the front, or maybe they need to be at a table with only three other children. The arrangement of the room is really important.”
Consider environment during exams as well: Can a test be taken in a quiet room? In a small group setting? While using exercise chair bands or other sensory tools for active legs or hands?
Similarly, it’s important to make sure your child’s study space at home is relatively distraction free. Close email, switch off social media, and turn off any phone or other notifications during study time.
5. Work out a system for regular care team dialogue. You’ll want to monitor how things are going in the classroom, but that can leave you walking a fine line between under- and overinvolvement. Setting up a communication system in advance can benefit everyone involved.
“You don’t need to be a ‘helicopter parent,’ monitoring everything that’s going on, but setting up regular parent-teacher communication can help keep kids on track,” Mazza says, adding that more than ever, teachers are open to communicating with pediatricians, therapists, psychiatrists — the whole care team.
ADHD is usually spotted by a pediatrician or teacher, says Mazza. Increasingly, educators are also recognizing the coexistence of other conditions (called comorbidities), such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), that may develop over time, which is why it’s a good idea for the care team to stay in touch and discuss ongoing treatment strategies.
6. Get organized at home. Organizational skills are a problem for a lot of people, but they’re an even bigger stumbling block for those who have ADHD. Experiment at home to find the best way to keep your child organized and accountable — for example, using checklists or charts — and collaborate with the teacher to translate that system into the school setting.
“The communication between the teacher and parent is really important,” Mazza says. “Kids can’t really [get organized] on their own. Someone has to teach them those skills.”
For younger children, a big part of the organizing process will rest with the teacher, who will need to assist students who have ADHD in keeping track of day-to-day activities.
Organization is also crucial for getting homework completed on time, which involves the student noting what’s been assigned, bringing home key materials, planning and pacing themselves to complete the work, and staying focused long enough to finish it up — and hand it back in! According to research published in 2016 in the Journal of School Psychology, homework assignment completion is a critical intervention for middle schoolers to ensure ongoing success.
7. Develop tools to ease transitions. Certain times of the school day can be tougher than others for kids with ADHD — particularly transitions, such as moving from class to class or from one activity to another. “If we can predict that there could be trouble when we go from the gym back to the classroom, we can handle the physical and emotional management of the situation by doing things like putting the child at the head of the line,” Mazza says. “This way the child can focus on moving from place to place,” rather than getting distracted by what classmates to the left or right are doing.
Receiving lesson plans in advance and reviewing them with your child is another strategy that can help.
Ultimately, for children to be successful in school, they’ll need to be able to control their bodies, feelings, thoughts, and more, from the start of the school day until the end. Kids with ADHD can absolutely pull it off, Mazza says. “The old myth that children with ADHD aren’t going to be able to learn isn’t true,” says Mazza. A host of tools, strategies, and team involvement can make a critical difference.
Just stay alert, she advises. Make it a practice to revisit your child’s diagnosis from time to time, as you would with regular physical checkups. In addition to talking to your team of experts, Mazza says, “Check in with your child with ADHD about how they feel and how things are going.”