You may have heard some chatter about how addictive Fortnite is or how cellphones are shortening the attention spans of young people. Not surprising.
Technology gets implicated for a lot these days, especially with kids. But whether or not technology is to blame, a new study from the University of Iowa makes one thing clear: the number of diagnosed cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is on the rise among children in the past couple decades.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, indicates that ADHD has become significantly more prevalent in children and adolescents since the mid-1990s. In fact, the prevalence is almost twice now what it was then.
Letting go of “why”
While some might want to offer a theory for why there is an increase in the proportion of kids diagnosed with ADHD, this study indicates the cause of the apparent rise in prevalence is not yet fully understood. With any rise in prevalence of a medical condition, there is a tendency to speculate about what caused it. However, knowing the root cause does not change the current reality if your child has an ADHD diagnosis. It is a medical condition that is here to stay, and focusing on the past does nothing to address the impact ADHD symptoms can have in the present.
At the same time, while ADHD affects all domains of life, parents are often most concerned — and rightfully so — about the impact it can have on their child’s education. That is why it is crucial for families to respond to what is going on with their child and not get stuck wondering why it happened.
As you consider available treatment options, such as medication, skill coaching, educational services or therapy, know that there are also some things you can do right away on your own. In addition to go-to strategies like color-coded folders, eating a protein-rich breakfast, or getting a good night’s sleep, here are some other valuable tactics that can move your child toward success in their education.
Bring educators along with you.
Set up an in-person meeting with your child’s teacher(s) to discuss the situation, focus on your child’s strengths and needs, and brainstorm together what you think could support your child to perform at their best in school. If you are interested in finding out about special education services or accommodations under a Section 504 Plan, contact your school’s administration to be put in touch with the right person who handles these.
Use external reminders to unburden working memory.
The mind of a person with ADHD is often very active, and that can overload their memory – like a web browser with too many tabs open. Unload the strain on the brain with visual cues to help remember things. It could be a locker sign asking, “What’s left to pack?” or a picture of what goes in their backpack near the back door. Digital reminders of what to grab can be scheduled on phones for the end of the school day.
Create a launchpad at home.
Transition times are particularly difficult for children with ADHD. When transitioning between activities, students forget things, especially when rushed or running late. Have a spot near the door where all the necessary items to take to school are positioned – ahead of time – ready to grab and go in the morning. Make a nightly routine of loading that launchpad with all needed items for the next day, except lunch and clothes, which are in the fridge and laid out in their room, respectively, for easy access.
Make it easy to do the right thing.
With ADHD, distractibility is often a concern, but productivity can be positively influenced by minimizing distractions in class and at home. For example, arrange with your child’s teacher to have preferential seating near the front of class or away from chatty friends. After school, help your child carve out a space – and time – free from things that might compete for their attention. That might be a game on a nearby shelf, but it could also be the looming responsibility of loading the dishwasher.
Use visual schedules to stay on track.
Students with ADHD need visual ways to keep track of what they have to do. This might include a time to work, a time to play, a time to eat and a time for bed. Make a visual schedule with your child and post it in a common area of your home to help remind them what needs to happen when. At school, tape a schedule on your child’s desk or inside their locker so they know what’s coming up. Direct them to reference their schedule instead of reminding them. This system will provide predictable structure and develop routine and self-direction.
Make time visible using explicit timing.
ADHD distorts the body’s internal sense of time, so children with it need to develop a realistic sense of time and their own efficiency. Witnessing the passage of time creates a sense of urgency and can help draw their attention to finishing the task at hand. Set a visual timer, such as an egg timer, to keep them on track. Point out when half the time is up, or two minutes remain, so they know where they stand. This is useful for homework or even a game or TV show.
To do + when = done.
Moving from “to-do” to “done” with schoolwork requires knowing not only what needs to be completed but when it will happen. Help your student go beyond merely making to-do lists for homework, and instead put tasks on a timeline or calendar. Remember that what gets scheduled gets done, so use this formula to upgrade your child’s workflow and they’ll be more likely to accomplish what they set out to do.
Action does not require motivation.
A challenge for students with ADHD is getting started on a task. Some view this as an issue of motivation, or a matter of willpower; however, it turns out that this is actually an issue of skillpower, because much of will is skill. Taking the first step on a task helps you to start finishing it. This is known as the skill of activation. It requires knowing the best next step to take and doing that. Help your child develop this skill by working with them to figure out the first step to take with homework. Often, that is as simple as getting all the materials out and in front of them.
Beware the emotional landmine of grades.
Emotional regulation is an aspect of ADHD that’s often overlooked and includes rejection sensitivity. ADHD can make a child particularly defensive in situations where they perceive there is, or even could be, rejection. It can cause difficulty separating one’s actions from their sense of self. So, a rebuke of a bad grade can feel like a rejection of them. Make sure to separate your child from their grades by trading questions like, “Why did you fail that test?” for ones that help a child externalize the issue, such as, “What do you think happened?”
Co-author a healthy perspective of ADHD.
Despite what it may seem, having ADHD is not the story for your child; it’s part of their story. And having a flexible view of things is key. Accomplish this by talking regularly and openly about the challenges and successes at school that will come. In fact, consider having a regularly scheduled time and routine to check in about things. Try using talking prompts with them like “What went well?” and “What didn’t go well?” instead of “How was your day?” Together, you and your child can cultivate mutual understanding, face issues as a team, and move forward toward their success.
No simple fix
Ultimately, ADHD is not a condition with a silver bullet. It is not merely a matter of medication alone, strategies alone, or even a particular combination of both. ADHD is a neurological condition with symptoms that can be managed, yet there are no simple fixes. A diagnosis is not your fault, but responding to it is your responsibility.
Keep in mind that it may be some time before you find a treatment plan that fits, but understand that you will know what works when it works. And when it does not work, give the situation some grace, and do not lose hope. After all, even when success takes a little while, it’s always worth it.
Gary G. Abud, Jr. is an educational consultant in private practice on Detroit’s east side. His services provide academic coaching to students, non-legal education advising to families, and executive coaching for adults, specializing in persons with ADHD. Previously, Gary has served students in kindergarten through college as a teacher, principal and adjunct professor. In 2014, he was selected as Michigan’s Teacher of the Year. For more information, or to contact Gary, visit SagaEducators.org.