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American Academy of Pediatrics

Why Is My Child Having Trouble in School?—ADHD Toolkit

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How ADHD Symptoms Can Interfere With School

It is very common for children with ADHD to have difficulties in school. These problems can occur for several reasons.

  • Symptoms of ADHD such as distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsivity make it hard for children with ADHD to pay attention or stay focused on their work, even though they may be capable learners and bright enough to understand the material.

  • Many children with ADHD also have trouble organizing themselves, breaking an assignment down into smaller steps, staying on a schedule, and managing their school materials.

  • Some children with ADHD have difficulty with self-control and get into trouble with peers or teachers.

  • Many children with ADHD also have a learning disability. Schools usually define a learning disability as a discrepancy between a child’s IQ score and the child’s performance on achievement tests. A child with a learning disability has difficulty understanding information seen or heard or trouble putting together information from different parts of the brain.

  • Children with ADHD can often learn material, but it may take longer and require more repetition. Children with ADHD often show inconsistency in their work because of their ADHD; one day, they may know information, and the next day, they may not seem to remember it.

  • Many children with ADHD have trouble managing homework challenges such as

    • Not writing down assignments

    • Not completing classroom assignments

    • Forgetting homework at home

    • Not handing in homework

    • Poor persistence at tasks (follow-through)

    • Needing constant supervision or help with classwork and homework

    • Taking hours to do minutes of work

Typical School Performance Difficulties Associated With ADHD

  • Difficulty getting started.

  • Poor organization and study skills.

  • Difficulty expressing oneself in written and spoken language.

  • Difficulty with writing skills.

  • Difficulty with sequencing of a complex task and breaking an assignment down into manageable parts to be completed over a course of time, such as a long-term project.

  • Difficulty analyzing and problem-solving schoolwork and behavior.

  • Behavior that interferes with learning and affects interpersonal relationships.

  • Immature social skills.

  • Middle school, junior high, and high school become progressively more challenging because students have to deal with multiple teachers and subjects and with having less time with and access to each particular teacher. In addition, each teacher has less time to individualize and meet the needs of each singular student. This is especially true for children and adolescents with ADHD.

What You Can Do Personally to Help

There are many different ways that a parent’s participation can make a difference in a child’s school experience, including

  • Stay involved with your pediatrician.

    • Talk with your pediatrician regularly about academic, behavior, and homework problems. Treatment modifications may help.

    • Ask your pediatrician how often he or she would like to have the parent and teacher fill out follow-up rating scales. Set up a system for sending the scales back to your pediatrician.

    • Ask your child’s teacher to fill out the teacher follow-up scale in this toolkit, then send a copy of the scale to your treating physician.

  • Start the school year by sending your child’s teacher a letter with strengths, problems, and classroom and management interventions that have worked in the past for your child. If your child has an education plan, send a copy of the plan for your child (Section 504 or Individualized Education Program) to the teacher (teachers in middle school and high school).

  • Ask your child’s teacher to fill out a parent contact sheet that includes information such as name, email address, phone number, best times to contact the teacher, how homework is assigned, procedures for turning in homework, and other classroom policies.

    • Some schools have a school-wide website on which parents can log to retrieve assigned homework and classroom policies and procedures.

  • Talk with your child’s teacher to identify where your child is having the most problems. Set up a regular schedule of communication by phone, email, or notes. Ask for face-to-face meetings early and often.

    • Keep a record of all communication that you have with the teacher and other school staff about issues and discussions regarding your child. Use a binder and place all information and communication dated and in order into it.

  • Work with your child’s teacher to make a plan for how you will address these problems and what strategies at school and home will help your child be successful at learning and completing work.

    • (Sample) Use a school-to-home tracker to assist with communicating how your child is following through with behavior and classroom work. Reward your child for positive progress on the school-to-home tracker.

  • Set up a homework routine with your child. Identify a space at home to complete homework and a time each day that will be allocated for schoolwork. By the fifth grade, children almost always have assignments to complete and/or material that can be read or studied every day. Set a minimum time each day for schoolwork and stick to that time. If your child claims there is nothing to do, give your child something to read during the time. This practice repeated consistently over time can build very helpful work habits and remove the incentive for “forgetting” to bring schoolwork home.

  • Praise your child and reward your child for a job well done immediately after completing tasks or homework.

  • Make sure your child has actually mastered new material so that your child does not get behind academically.

  • Foster your child’s strengths.

    • Incorporate your child’s strengths into daily home behavior incentive plans and school educational plans.

    • Review strengths with your child. Help your child see these strengths.

    • Recognize that children with ADHD perform best when the chosen topic is specifically interesting to them or is highly relevant to them (“emotionally important”). For example, in the middle years, to foster reading, there are multiple series of books, such as the older Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew or the newer Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Field Trip Mysteries, Secret Series, Wings of Fire, or Land of Stories, as well as topical series such as sports stories. Select one or a set that is age appropriate and that your child is interested in, and it will be more likely to be read and read well.

  • Acknowledge how much harder it is for your child to get organized, stay on task, complete assignments, and learn material compared with other children. Help your child get organized, break tasks down into smaller pieces, and expend excess physical energy in ways that are OK at home and in the classroom.

  • Find out about tutoring options through your child’s school or local community groups. Children with ADHD may take longer to learn material compared with other children even though they are just as smart. Tutoring may help your child master new materials.

  • Acknowledge the extra efforts your child’s teacher may have to make to help your child.

  • Spend time in the classroom and volunteer to help on special occasions if your work schedule allows, and observe your child’s behavior.

  • Read all you can about ADHD and share it with your child’s teacher and other school officials.

  • Become an expert on ADHD and your child’s individual needs.

  • Join a support group for parents of children with ADHD or learning disabilities, such as Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Other parents may offer ideas to help your child.

  • If your child is consistently having problems with academics or behavior in the classroom, write a letter to the principal asking for an evaluation. The school can then determine whether your child is eligible for special education services. Your school has a regular education process that helps teachers with students who are having learning or behavioral problems that the teacher has been unsuccessful in solving. The process differs in various school districts and even among different schools in the same district. Some of the names this process may go by include Student Study Team, Instructional Support Team, Pupil Assistance Team, Student Intervention Team, or Teacher Assistance Team.

    Parents are encouraged to request a meeting about their child to discuss concerns and create a plan of action to address their child’s needs. In addition to the child’s teacher, members of the team may include the child, the parents, a mentor teacher or other teachers, the principal, the school nurse, the resource specialist, a speech and language specialist, or a counselor or psychologist. The team members meet to discuss the child’s strengths and weaknesses, the child’s progress in current placement, and the kinds of problems the child is having. Team members brainstorm to develop a plan of action that documents the kinds of interventions that will help the child, the timeline for the changes to take place, and the school staff responsible for the implementation of the team’s recommendations.

    The team should also come up with a plan to monitor the child’s progress. A follow-up meeting should be scheduled within a reasonable time frame (usually 4–6 weeks) to determine whether the team’s interventions are actually helping the child in the areas of difficulty.

Derived from Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders Parent to Parent: Family Training on ADHD and material developed by Laurel K. Leslie, MD, MPH, San Diego ADHD Project.

The recommendations in this resource do not indicate an exclusive course of treatment or serve as a standard of medical care. Variations, taking into account individual circumstances, may be appropriate. Original resource included as part of Caring for Children With ADHD: A Practical Resource Toolkit for Clinicians, 3rd Edition.

Inclusion in this resource does not imply an endorsement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is not responsible for the content of the resources mentioned in this resource. Website addresses are as current as possible but may change at any time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not review or endorse any modifications made to this resource and in no event shall the AAP be liable for any such changes.

© 2020 American Academy of Pediatrics. All rights reserved.

Additional Resources

The 1-2-3 Magic Program continues to offer parents, pediatricians, mental health professionals, grandparents, teachers and even babysitters a simple and gentle-but-firm approach to managing the behavior of 2 to 12-year-olds, whether they are average kids or special-needs children.
Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital. Under the Direction of Dr. Stuart Ablon, Think:Kids teaches Collaborative Problem Solving, a revolutionary, evidence-based approach for helping children with behavioral challenges.

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