4 back to school tips for parents of children with ADHD

What can parents do to help a child with ADHD prepare for the new school year?

ByDr. Áine Cooke
August 18, 2019, 2:19 PM

For parents of the 6.1 million American children with ADHD, going back to school can be a major source of anxiety.

Many children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) struggle with school performance, making friends and their general sense of well-being.

Medication is frequently a part of ADHD treatment, but along with medications, there are many proven lifestyle and behavioral changes parents can use at home.

Impulsivity -- that is, not thinking through the consequences of an action -- is a central feature of ADHD. A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children who sleep more than nine hours a night and spend less than two hours on screen time are less impulsive.

With children heading back to school, now is the perfect time to work on strategies like getting more sleep and less screen time to set your child on the road to success this school year.

Praise them for any improvements made ... especially in areas where they struggle.

Here are a few tips to get started:

Tip 1: Take care of yourself

The demands of parenting a child with ADHD are both physically and emotionally exhausting. This is a parenting marathon, not a sprint.

Do not underestimate the amount of extra energy that goes into parenting a child with ADHD. Self-care is an essential skill for effective parenting, which includes taking “child-free” breaks when you are feeling overwhelmed.

Tip 2: Breakfast and calories

Focusing while hungry is hard for anyone. Children with ADHD have a hard enough time without their tummy rumbling in first period.

A breakfast high in protein should be eaten every morning before they go to school. Studies show this improves concentration throughout the day.

Kid-friendly breakfasts that are quick and easy to prepare include meals like oatmeal with peanut butter topped with banana or eggs on toast and fruit smoothies made with yogurt.

PHOTO: In this undated stock photo, a mother crosses a road with her children on way their way to school.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Further, you can ask your doctor whether the ADHD medication your child is on is an appetite suppressant. If it is, keep a close eye on how much your child is eating and whether they’re losing weight.

For the child who takes ADHD medications twice a day, giving them a snack later in the evening when the drug “wears off” can help make up for the calories they missed throughout the day.

Tip 3: Keeping it positive

Try to maintain a positive attitude when parenting your child. Children with ADHD are often on the receiving end of a lot of negativity for their “bad behavior.”

Remember that your child’s behavior is related to a disorder; most of the time, they are probably not trying to be bold or careless.

“Catch them being good,” said Dr. Paul Simmons, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician with more than 45 years of experience treating children with attention disorders, in an interview with ABC News. “Praise them for any improvements made ... especially in areas where they struggle.”

Tip 4: Organizational tips for home

Eliminate the morning pre-school struggle by establishing a bedtime and morning routine.

At night, have your child pick out their clothes for the following day. Make sure they have all their homework, books and sports gear packed and ready for the morning.

Have an alarm clock in their room that they set every night rather than setting an alarm on a phone. An hour before bed, all devices should be turned off and handed over to a parent -- and be prepared for a lot of excuses and push back from tweens and teens on this one -- and enforce it by only having the device chargers in your bedroom.

Showering at night helps kids wind down and also saves time in the morning. For the 15 to 30 minutes before lights out they should be in their room.

Lighting should be limited to a lamp with the overhead light turned off and they should be engaging in an activity that they find relaxing. Try to go through this routine at the same time and in the same way every night.

Again, children should get at least nine hours of sleep a night.

You should aim for your kids to wake up at more or less the same time every school morning. Give them five minutes to get out of bed after the alarm goes off before you start getting them up.

Depending on your child's age, give them 5 to 20 minutes to get ready and 15 minutes for breakfast before it’s time for school. Only when your child is fed, dressed and heading out the door to school should they be given back their smartphone.

During weekends, supervise them cleaning out their school bag and repacking it with everything they will need for the upcoming week. This is a lot more helpful than it sounds.

Simmons has this advice for homework, too.

“For a child with ADHD, have them do their homework in an area with no distractions. An adult should loosely supervise them. No homework in bedrooms because they will get distracted," he said. "Every 15 to 20 minutes let them take a break for two to three minutes.

"But make sure breaks aren’t too long," he added, "or they will have trouble staying engaged.”

For older children with more homework, make sure to remind them of activities, like football practice or social engagements, they have coming up so they can plan when to study.

If you or your child’s teacher become concerned that your child is displaying excessive hyperactivity, impulsivity or inattention see your child’s pediatrician for help.

Dr. Áine Cooke is a senior pediatric resident at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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