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How to Help Your Child With ADHD Start the School Year — Whatever It Looks Like — with Confidence

As parents, it’s natural to want the best for our kids and to see them flourish — especially when it comes to the classroom. But the closer we get to the fall, the more it becomes clear that the school year won’t look like any other that has come before it.

For many, whether schools choose to re-open their doors, resume instruction with virtual learning or cobble together some hybrid arrangement of the two is in many cases still yet to be determined. This uncertainty can be difficult to navigate for any parent. But for parents of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), trying to prepare themselves and their families for the school year can be extra fraught. So how do we help give our children, and especially those with ADHD, the confidence they need to start the new semester?

With so many unknowns surrounding the coming school year, one of the important, foundational things that Dr. Theresa Cerulli, a neuropsychiatrist specializing in treating children and adults with ADHD, says parents can do to give their kids confidence and prepare them for the year ahead is to keep them involved with the planning. “With ADHD, structure needs to be your best friend,” Dr. Cerulli tells SheKnows.

Since structure and routine are such important tools for helping children with ADHD, Dr. Cerulli says it’s important to have a dialogue as a family about what the school year will look like — and to do that as soon as your school makes a decision about learning arrangements. Because after spending the final months of the 2019-2020 school year away from the classroom, children are already aware that things are different. Until you have a clearer picture, here are five more ways parents can prepare their children with ADHD for the new school year with confidence.

Establish a Routine — and Practice It

Children thrive in a routine, especially children with ADHD, and that’s exactly what was yanked away from them this spring as schools closed and almost all learning went virtual. Think about it: when your child goes to school, they are likely there for an extended period of time and follow a schedule of classes, lunch, and maybe some play time or recess.

“What’s going to be most successful is having that schedule created up front to also include the variety of activities that give kids some fun time breaks,” Dr. Cerulli says. Depending on the age of your children, she says you might sit and work for 20 minutes, then maybe take five or 10 minutes to go up and down the stairs, jump rope or play hopscotch. She says it’s about building in and intertwining more “fun-time” activities with school-time activities and learning.

To get the most out of this routine, it’s important to make sure your family — and especially your child with ADHD — knows what the routine is. “[Establishing a routine] involves everything from thinking about what time the children are waking up in the morning to what time they’re going to bed at night — and then rewarding those things,” Dr Cerulli says.

One easy way to do this is to write it on a white board in your home or print it on a piece of paper. Make sure the schedule has clear time set aside for a variety of activities — like exercise, schoolwork and even chores. Bed and wake times should also be clearly communicated. And since so often summer doesn’t have a routine, Dr. Cerulli recommends easing back into the earlier bed and wake times a week or two before school starts. “You don’t want to wait to get back on your sleep schedule by trying to implement getting up at 6:30 a.m. day one of school.”

Build Their Self-Esteem With Positive Reinforcement

According to Dr. Cerulli, children with ADHD often hear criticism; it’s critical to emphasize positive reinforcement to build their self-esteem. “In behavioral psychology, there are two things you can do to extinguish the negative behaviors: by criticizing them or you can positively reinforce the things they’re doing right,” she says. “Kids with ADHD do much better with the latter.”

Dr. Cerulli recommends a number of ways to use positive reinforcement as a means of boosting your child with ADHD’s self-esteem. She suggests praising and celebrating small wins like getting out of bed on time. “It helps them feel good about themselves and they automatically want that,” she says. With positive reinforcement, “that behavior starts to become more ingrained for the child.”

Incorporate Exercise Into Their Routine

Exercise and ADHD medication, according to Dr. Cerulli, are two different treatment tools for children with ADHD that have a lot in common. “We’re talking about stimulating the part of the brain that helps with focus, concentration, filtering out background noises, staying on task. That part of the brain does its job best when it’s turned on and engaged,” she says. “Exercise does the same thing. It’s a natural stimulant that turns on the part of the brain that best handles these cognitive functions for [the child].”

Dr. Cerulli also points out that exercise is a “wonderful tool” that may help with common comorbidities — conditions like anxiety and depression, which can coexist with ADHD. “Exercise is addressing all of those things and really can be built into the day, both as a reward short break, but then also as a fun family activity that you can still social distance and go for a bike ride at the end of the day when you’ve finished your homework.”

Dr. Cerulli’s own teenage daughter has ADHD and enjoys playing hockey. During the spring months when they were at home due to coronavirus precautions, her daughter turned the family’s garage into a makeshift hockey practice facility. “The cars went out in the snow and the kid instead got to shoot pucks in my garage,” she says. “That was her outlet between having to study and get tasks done.”

Understand That Some Kids Thrive with Home-Based Learning

Despite what we know about the benefits of school routine and structure, being important tools for helping children with ADHD cope with their condition, Dr. Cerulli was surprised to hear that some of her clients said they felt better with the at-home learning setup thrust upon them in the spring. She noticed three main reasons for this.

Thanks to fewer distractions, she says, they could sustain their attention better. Dr. Cerulli suggests parents set up a school workspace in part of the house that doesn’t have many distractions — and that is not a bedroom.

Another reason some of her clients had this response is tied to comorbidities. For kids with an anxiety comorbidity, she says, being home was easier because having to navigate challenges with peer interactions at school for some of them is anxiety producing. “That was easier from home,” Dr. Cerulli says. “They felt kind of safer — and emotionally safer.”

And the final reason is that for many kids, their day is so jam-packed with activities from the moment they wake up: “the bus comes an hour before even class starts for some of the kids,” she says. “And then they’re in after school activities and they’re not even sitting down to get their work done until 8:00 at night.” Since there were fewer demands put on them, she says they could feel better about their ability to do the work that they had to get done.

Make Sure Their Treatment Is a Fit for Their Current Needs

Dr. Cerulli recommends that about a month before the new school year starts parents and children check in with their psychiatrist, pediatrician or primary care physician — whoever is prescribing medication — to review what has happened in the last three or four months and what is and is not working for you. In her own practice, Dr. Cerulli has seen a range of different reactions to recent shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“With the schedule being shorter for some people, that ended up meaning they needed less medication. They weren’t needing to take something to cover the evening hours because their days were a little shorter,” she says. “And there was the opposite: the kids who, especially when there’s a lot of hyperactive, impulsive symptoms with being home all day, cooped up in small spaces with multiple family members. For them, having something 24/7 and needing more medication became really important.”

Dr. Cerulli recommends having this conversation about a month ahead of the start of the school year so that parents and children have time to implement the changes and take note of any side effects. It also helps with establishing that all-important routine.

“Once the student is then adjusted to the new routine with their medications, you get a chance to follow up three or four weeks into the school year,” she says. This allows you to evaluate and tweak the treatment from there.

This article was created by SheKnows for MoreToADHD.


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