ADHD: How to Help Your Child Succeed At School

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects your ability to pay attention, concentrate, and remember. Children who have it also can have a tough time connecting with other kids their age.

These things can make school especially hard. But there are ways to help your child have an easier time in class.

Educate Yourself

It helps to be familiar with laws, regulations, and policies in place to support your child:

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Your child’s rights. Two federal laws are in place to make sure children with disabilities get a “free and appropriate education.” The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require schools to offer services and other things to help children learn.

Your state may have other laws about this, too.

Individualized Education Program (IEP). If your child needs different expectations of what they learn, or different ways for them to learn it, they should have an IEP. It will:

  • Detail those needs
  • Explain the services the school will give them
  • Note how their progress will be measured

504 Plan. If your child doesn’t need an IEP and will be in class with other students on their grade level, this document outlines other ways the school will support them. The plans are tailored for each child's needs. They don't change what's being taught in class. But your child may:

  • Get extra time on tests and schoolwork
  • Have the option to listen to audiobooks instead of reading
  • Give verbal answers to a test instead of written ones
  • Take tests in a different room with less distractions or in a smaller group of students
  • Get speech therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling

The law doesn't outline a standard way to get a 504 plan. It's up to each school. If you think a plan would help your child, contact the school district and find out what's involved.

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The policies and support available at your child’s school. Make a written request to your child's principal for an evaluation for services. On its website, an organization called Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) offers an example of a letter you might send.

Many public schools also offer social skills groups. These are small gatherings -- usually between two and eight kids -- that are led by a school psychologist or speech therapist. They can help kids learn how to connect with their peers and handle certain social situations.

Getting Started at a New School

Is your child starting middle or high school? Did you move over the summer? A big change like that can be hard for a child or teen with ADHD.

Make it easier by reaching out to the school before classes start. Help the new school match your child with the classes and teachers that fit their abilities and learning style.

Call the school and arrange to share report cards, test scores, and notes from last year. Meet with the guidance counselor and your child's teachers. You may need to update their 504 Plan or IEP, or make a new one.

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Ask the guidance counselor to take you and your child on a tour of the new school. Meet with teachers, the principal, the nurse, and anyone else your child will see daily. Walk through the whole school day with your child so they know where they need to go and when. If possible, try to arrange a playdate or hangout with another student from your child’s new class.

Advance planning and practice, along with familiar routines at home, will help you both get used to this change and maybe feel more confident on the first day of school.

Talk With Teachers

Meet to talk about your child's needs and goals, and see what they can do to help them in class. This might include letting them sit in the front row and away from doors and windows. That can help them avoid distractions and stay focused. The teacher also can better see if they need a little help. Ask for access to the schedule. You may want to get a second set of books to keep at home too. Also, discuss varied teaching methods that can keep your child interested.

Working as a team helps. It shows your child that the most important adults in their life have their back. Here’s how to build a winning parent-teacher team:

Have face-to-face talks. Set up meetings early in the school year to talk about how ADHD affects your child. It’s different for everyone, and your kid’s situation is unique. Stay positive. Instead of talking about their problems, focus on what helps them. So avoid saying, “He never listens.” Replace that with something like, “I find that Johnny pays more attention when we’re in a quiet space and he looks me in the eye.”

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If you have any educational reports or plans, share copies with the teachers.

Keep in touch. Check in regularly in person, by email, or by phone and ask about your child’s behavior and how they’re doing with schoolwork. Find out how much homework the teacher plans to assign each night. You may want to ask for extra help to make sure your child can finish all of their assignments, or for extra time on tests.

Check teacher websites for upcoming tests or big projects. Ask for the teacher’s advice on how best to help your child organize and prepare well ahead of the due dates. This can head off a last-minute meltdown for you and your child.

Be tactful. Choose your words carefully so you don’t put a teacher on the defensive.

Keep teachers in the loop. If you start or change ADHD medication, tell the teachers and administrators. They can watch for side effects and let you know if medication seems to be helping. Also, let them know if there’s a big change at home -- like a divorce or death -- since these kinds of things can affect any child’s behavior.

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Set shared goals. Many ADHD symptoms affect your child inside and outside school. If following directions is a problem, brainstorm with the teacher about ways to help them stay on track that you can use both at home and in the classroom. Using the same tools creates a link between school and home.

Be organized at meetings. Parent-teacher conferences are usually short, so come with a list of questions so you don’t forget to ask something important. Organize report cards, test results, and teacher notes in a binder so they’re at your fingertips.

Pitch in. Attend back-to-school night and volunteer to chaperone a field trip or help in the library. That will show the teacher and your child that you’re plugged into the school. And you’ll get a first-hand look at how your child interacts there.

Say thank you. When a teacher goes the extra mile to understand and help your child, write a simple note showing your appreciation.

It’s also a good idea for your child to have a schedule for the day, and a written behavior plan -- which encourages positive actions -- posted on a nearby wall or on their desk.

At Home

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A good way to support your child is to create a routine for when they're home:

Ease into a new schedule. If your child slept late during summer vacation, start waking them up a little earlier each day. That way, they won’t be groggy when school starts. Make bedtime a little earlier each night too so they get enough sleep.

Start them back on any ADHD medicines if you took a break for the summer.

Post a routine. Put a list of the daily morning activities on the fridge or somewhere your child will see it. Write down everything they need to do before walking out the door, including:

  • Get dressed.
  • Make the bed.
  • Eat breakfast.
  • Pack homework.
  • Take your backpack, shoes, jacket, and lunch.

Get organized. Help your child stay on top of homework. Great tools for organizing include:

  • A calendar or daily planner
  • A dry-erase or bulletin board to post due dates and reminders
  • A desk organizer and storage bins for school supplies to keep their study space neat and free from distractions
  • Color-coded folders or a multipocket binder to keep assignments straight

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Let them help make a shopping list for supplies for the coming year. Read More: Your Guide to Solving Disorganization at School.

Set up a homework station. Choose one spot where your child can do their homework every day. Make sure it's away from distractions like noisy siblings and the TV. (The kitchen table works well for some kids, since you can easily check in on them.)

The seat should face a wall, not a window. White noise, from an MP3 player or a fan, can help drown out sounds to keep their mind on the work.

Try to give siblings their own space, though this may be hard if you have to monitor more than one. Remember that different kids may have different needs.

Have them do their homework as close to the same time every day as possible. Let them take a break every 10 to 20 minutes so they can move around. Make sure these breaks don't involve screens like those on a TV or phone. Have them tackle three 20-minute sessions with playtime or a snack in between. Or switch subjects: math for 20 minutes, English for another 20, and then back to math. They'll struggle less, and their work may improve.

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Make a calendar to keep track of assignments and activities. Set up a way for them to know which assignments are most important. For example, you might color- code things to show priorities. Include things like after-school clubs, sports, music lessons, and regular play dates. Add special projects and tests as they come up. Leave room in each day for homework, plus some time to relax and have fun.

Let them help design the schedule so they feel a sense of control and ownership. Go over the schedule each day until they understand the routine. Your kid can even use an app to help organize tasks and manage time.

Your child is likely to focus better at school and at home if they have times -- before and after school -- when they can be active. This can also help them get better sleep, which can help with focus and behavior.

Plan studying around medication. A child who takes ADHD medication may study better earlier in the afternoon, when the drugs are still in effect. They may have a hard time later in the evening, after they wear off.

Motivate with rewards. They're not bribes. It's OK to reward your child when they do a good job. A little encouragement can go a long way. Some parents set up a currency -- poker chips, for example -- in return for getting homework done. Your kid can turn the chips in later for rewards they like, such as time to watch TV or play a video game.

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Make sure homework is handed in. Your child might spend hours on their homework but then lose it or forget to hand it in. An organized binder or folder system, with pockets for new assignments and finished homework, can help get the papers across the finish line.

Keep on top of assignments. It's not uncommon for a kid with ADHD to miss a due date or misunderstand instructions. Create a backup plan. Talk to your child's teacher -- weekly or even daily -- about upcoming assignments.

Some teachers post homework on the internet. Others may email copies of assignments directly to you. Ask the teacher to let you know about any late or missing homework.

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