Most parents and educators are already aware that an ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis can correlate to significant academic challenges for students of all ages. From mindfulness to medication, there are lots of ways for families looking to support their students’ success at school. But for kids with ADHD diagnoses to really shine, strategies at home are just as important as classroom strategies. Executive function techniques are a great way to build at-home supports for students dealing with ADHD, and it can be particularly helpful to focus on developing positive routines that make students’ lives more predictable. Here are three kinds of positive routines to consider if your child has an ADHD diagnosis:
1. Take charge of tools
Binders, backpacks, and plain old stuff can be enormous stumbling blocks for children with ADHD. Homework gets buried under sports gear; permission slips get crumpled into instrument cases; bags fill up with unneeded books until they’re too heavy to lift. Building positive routines around backpacks, binders, and anything else your student carries to and from school can be a powerful way to corral all the mess and minimize distractions from actual schoolwork. Make a daily rundown of these items part of your child’s routine; the idea is to glance—quickly!—at each item in each container and practice making decisions about where each one belongs. In general, it’s helpful for kids to think in terms of three categories:
- Stays where it is;
- Goes somewhere else (like a storage bin at home, back to the school library, or into the laundry);
- Gets thrown away (or recycled).
Even just sorting into these simple categories can go a long way toward helping students with ADHD learn basic executive function skills. What’s more, there’s lots of room here for students to customize this routine. Some students might want to do this right after school; some might prefer after dinner. Some students might want to keep pencils in a fancy case, while others are happy stowing them all in a backpack pocket. Some students might want to carry a book to read for fun with them at all times (never mind the extra weight!), and some will enjoy the challenge of keeping their bags as light as possible. There’s no one right way for students with ADHD to decide what to with all their stuff; rather, the important thing is that they do decide, and that doing so becomes a positive routine with an outcome that they value.
2. Make homework predictable
For many students who have ADHD diagnoses, the issue with homework isn’t academic content; it’s figuring out how to tackle the homework process itself. Staring down a pile of assignments and a packed planner can leave even strong students feeling anxious. One great solution for this issue is to work with your student on building a personalized, positive routine to structure the homework process. This kind of positive routine will be different for different kids, but no matter the specifics, an effective homework routine should help students answer three key questions:
- Where do I start?
- What comes next?
- How do I know when I’m done?
Accordingly, a positive routine for homework should always start the same way. For most students, part of this starting phase will be looking over assignments and gathering up stray materials, but it will also include different components for different students. For example, it could mean getting a favorite snack or drink, settling into a familiar workspace, or turning on a white noise playlist. The more consistent, the better, but again, this kind of positive routine works best when the student has a real say in shaping it—that is, forcing a student to sit at a desk when they’d rather work on the floor usually won’t do much good. Then, the homework routine should also include a predicable way to organize assignments: Should the hardest assignment come first? The easiest? Or maybe the math assignment? For students with ADHD, knowing how to tackle assignments is as important as mastering content. Finally, be sure that the routine ends on a positive, consistent note; this could be as simple as putting a sticker on the date in the student’s planner. Again, the idea is to reduce stress and demands on the the student’s attention by making homework as predictable as possible.
3. Expect the unexpected
Daily routines are great for students with ADHD, but it’s just as important to build positive routines into your student’s long-term planning. ADHD can sometimes cause students to get caught up in day-to-day concerns, which only creates more stress when they realize they’ve forgotten to plan for a big project or event. Try picking a time once a week to guide your student in thinking through the big picture of the coming weeks and even months. As with the positive routines described above, it’s helpful to do this at a consistent time and place—Monday evenings after dinner, for example. During this conversation, you and your student (along with other members of the family as necessary) will want to look over the following resources:
- The student’s personal planner;
- The school’s calendar and online schedule tool (be sure your student is familiar with how their school’s web resources work!);
- The family’s overall calendar.
By checking each of these resources (and any others that serve similar purposes) on a regular basis, your student won’t be unpleasantly surprised by that science project, basketball tournament, or long weekend out of town. What’s more, this positive routine gives students a chance to plan out necessary steps ahead of time (like buying supplies for the project)—which can in turn give them an increased sense of mastery over their lives. Planning is empowering, and with practice, most students will learn to stick with this positive routine even without guidance from parents.
School can be daunting for students with ADHD, but by building these simple, positive routines outside the classroom, they’ll have another valuable tool for reducing stress and increasing focus.
By Hannah Sheldon-Dean, MSW