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How to Survive “Back to School” With ADHD

Elaine Taylor-Klaus

Back to school time is hard on both the parent and the child

Trick Question: who is school harder for?

  1. A kid with ADHD
  2. The parent of a kid with ADHD
  3. The parent of a kid with ADHD who also has ADHD

Answer: YES!

Any way you look at it, “back to school time” is a stress factory waiting to happen, regardless of whomever in your house is challenged (and gifted) with ADHD.

So what do you REALLY need to know to help your complex child find success in school? And how can you, as a parent, stay sane in the process?

While we could go on for days on this topic (just ask Rick and Ava), here are a few gems to start this school year with smooth sailing.

There’s a TON more guidance and advice at Sanity School, so if you haven’t signed up for it, yet, we highly recommend it.

But for now, if you’re ready to make this school year different, start here….

Back To School Survival Cheat Sheet

1. Focus on What’s WORKED in the Past

Solutions for all of your challenges are hidden right before your eyes — in every success your child (or you) has ever had.

If your child planned a successful spend-the-night with friends over the summer, she can learn to plan out her homework.

If she found a way to remember to take care of the animals, she can find a way to remember to turn in her homework.

If you managed to get everyone fed this summer, you can figure it out for the school year.

Generally speaking, assume best intentions, keep a positive attitude, believe in your child’s (and your) potential, and look for hidden achievements, large and small.

2. Understand the Challenges Your Family Faces

Neuro-typical people make complex tasks look easy, like turning in homework or getting dinner on the table.

Don’t be fooled – these things are actually quite complicated!

Whether you or your child struggles with Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Anxiety (or anything else), “simple” things REALLY are hard to do.

So, instead of feeling somehow inadequate, take the time to understand your or your child’s specific challenges: memory, prioritization, decision-making, whatever (download free eBook for fundamentals of Executive Function).

Once you understand the way your or your child’s brain is wired, you’ll begin to realistically anticipate what might cause stress– and hopefully, give yourself permission to find appropriate work-arounds.

At the very least, if you can stop beating yourself up because it’s hard and accept that it is – everyone will breathe a little easier.

3. Only Use Systems & Structures with a Clear Purpose

It’s been drilled into us that “consistency” is the solution to our kid’s problems. Which translates to, “so if you’d just put a structure in place everything would be fine.”

Yeah, not really. We have a tendency to see “systems” as the ultimate solution, but truly, they are just an assistant.

Systems work well when you’re clear on WHAT you’re trying to achieve, WHY it’s important, and HOW it works for each person involved.

And you gotta have buy-in.

Even young kids can be part of creating systems, and they must be motivated to use them.

When possible, use rewards instead of punishments; work towards success instead of taking things away. Identify your child’s strengths and create structures that play to their strengths.

Look, we know that Back to School is not as simple as “3 easy steps.” But you’ll be amazed at how quickly things start to improve when you take these 3 things into account – they’re a great place for you to start.

At the end of the day, behind every complex family’s success during the school year is a parent who understands, who believes, and who inspires. That parent is you.


Parent management training is medically recommended treatment for ADHD (for kids of all ages).  Learn how to address your child’s specific challenges.  SanitySchool.com is available online, and is also taught in select local areas by certified professionals

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  1. adhdmomma August 3, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Focusing on what has worked in the past is certainly key. However, I struggle each new school year to get new teachers to go with what worked before. They all want to start fresh, with no accommodations, to see how much my son can do, then help him once he “breaks.” For a kid with anxiety in addition to his ADHD and Asperger’s, this is a recipe that ends in disaster each and every time. This list is great for parents, but it’s also applicable to the teachers who often block these strategies. It is wildly frustrating.
    I agree though, it does have to start with the parents, and truly understanding your child and their differences, needs, and triggers is paramount to success.
    Penny Williams
    Author of “What to Expect When Parenting Children with ADHD” and “Boy Without Instructions”
    Parent of 2e preteen with ADHD, autism, and LDs

  2. ImpactADHD Elaine August 8, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    So true, Penny — all too often it feels like we’re starting over each school year. A clean slate is GREAT for our kids, but not when it means taking away much needed accommodations. That’s the value of 504s and IEPS in the US — they ostensibly keep us from starting over each year!
    I often encourage teachers to start with the accommodations and plan to gradually take them away if it doesn’t appear they are needed, instead of the other way around. I’d MUCH rather my kid feel the success of doing well and gaining more independence, instead of the constant frustration of having to fail in order to get support.
    Bottom line — every year we parents start over, and it can be frustrating — “didn’t I just get last year’s teacher to understand?” I think we just need to accept that it’s part of our job as parents to educate the educators about ADHD and the related complexity that comes with it! :)

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