ADD and ADHD: How Parents Can Help Teens at School and Home

“Do you need to take a lap?” I quietly asked my student with ADD during my last hour class. He nodded and left the room. The students were busy taking their end of the year benchmark assessment. I noticed him staring out the classroom window as well as an increased tapping of his legs underneath the desk–behaviors that are certainly normal for any student during a lengthy testing session. However, such behaviors in students with a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD are physical signals that they may need help to regain their focus.

My awareness of such behaviors has become razor-sharp because my own daughter was diagnosed with ADHD last year during her freshman year of high school.

How to help teens with ADD and ADHD

Before My Daughter’s Diagnosis of ADHD

For years, my husband and I had been consumed with issues related to her asthma. We noticed that she struggled with organization. Her teachers expressed frustration with her consistent tendency to forget to turn in work. She would often forget what she was talking about mid-sentence. Sometimes, she would become so focused on completing an activity, such as coloring, or listening to music that asking her to redirect her attention elsewhere either led to a meltdown or noticeable anxiety. She struggled to sleep and to stay asleep.

Our pediatrician thought that these behaviors were related to her asthma medications. One of my best friends thought otherwise. She was diagnosed with ADD as an adult and she expressed to me how her life had changed upon the diagnosis. We were having lunch when she brought this up and I immediately lost my appetite. Everything she described pertaining to her own diagnosis seemed to apply to my daughter.

The pit in my stomach was two-fold. First, as a mother I felt guilt for not having caught the signs. Secondly, as a teacher I found that my initial reaction to my friend’s story was filled with skepticism.

It wasn’t until my friend began to relay her endless frustrations as a student–and how she wished she’d been diagnosed before adulthood that I began to truly listen. The next day my husband and I contacted our pediatrician, and our daughter’s teachers. After meeting with a specialist it was determined that our daughter had classic symptoms of ADHD–and that her difficulties very likely had to do with this diagnosis more than her medication for asthma.

Once the diagnosis was made, so many things began to fall in place with our daughter. We opted to try medication with the understanding that if our daughter didn’t like it, we would seek other alternatives in addition to behavioral modifications.

To our surprise, the effects of her medication were immediate and she expressed how much better she felt. When I asked her to explain what she meant she stated, “Mom, I can finish a thought. I don’t feel like I’m at the back of the room even when I’m in the front of my classes.”

[More on the best things that teachers do for our kids here.]

Best Practices for Parents of Teens with ADD or ADHD

Lightning struck. I began to consider all of my students with ADD or ADHD diagnoses. I felt confident that I was following the accommodations prescribed by their counselors and or 504 or IEP plans, but I was also certain that I wasn’t doing enough.

I decided to consult my school’s Program Specialist in Special Education, Andrea Christ, to seek out some recommendations for best practices as a parent and a teacher. Her suggestions were fantastic and are as follows:

  • If your student’s teacher seems resistant to requests for extended deadlines, or modifications in assignments, request a meeting and provide an article that has professional research and recommendations for educators or coaches included. An example can be found here: 
  • A communication system needs to be in place. Quarterly conferences at the elementary system are not enough and at the middle/high school level, the end of the semester is not the time to make contact. It should be consistent. Establish a weekly or bi-weekly touch base session either via the phone or email.
  • If communication proves unsuccessful, tense or unproductive, involve a mediator. Contact a counselor or Department Chair to be present for your next meeting in order to be sure you are being heard and that you are correctly hearing the teacher’s side of things.

Ms. Christ’s recommendations regarding student accountability and self-advocation are also stellar in that she understands that students such as my daughter have got to learn how to navigate the world with their diagnosis and without the help of a guardian if they will be able to successfully function in higher education and work settings. She says:

Students need to prove that they are trying. If they keep a tracking sheet for their study and organization practices they can show their teachers that they are indeed making a measurable effort at improving.

A tracking sheet should include: due-dates for upcoming tests and projects, current assignments and materials needed for those assignments, space to track how long each subject is studied, plans for recreation activities and “chill time”.

My daughter happens to be theatrically gifted. She began to seek approval in classes by making jokes–often at the most inappropriate of times. Naturally, some of her teachers started to view her as a trouble maker or class clown. What they may have had difficulty seeing was that she felt safe enough in their rooms to be herself. She had been sitting for hours in class after class in some cases struggling not be impulsive when those impulses finally got the best of her, or she was simply frustrated with being misunderstood and not being able to make her brain function the way others around her seemingly could.

Explaining this to teachers isn’t always easy. They might think you are trying to gain some kind of false sympathy or inappropriately think of you as a helicopter parent. While that is unfortunate, it is realistic to expect that some teachers will feel as skeptical as I did before I had professionals to help me understand the ways in which ADD or ADHD affect the brain. This is why helping your student to be able to advocate on his or her own behalf is so crucial.

Besides keeping track of her study habits, I encouraged my daughter to meet with her teachers to explain how she was feeling and to ask for either a seating change, or permission to leave the room until she could get her focus in place.

We practiced these conversations in the car while running errands, and on the way to school. In almost every case, her teachers were responsive and encouraging. In cases in which she was uncomfortable speaking one-on-one with her teacher, I asked her to write a letter instead. Ms. Christ also recommends that if your student has a trustworthy friend in his or her class, they might establish a signal or code–such as tapping one’s own nose, or raising an eyebrow at your student as a signal to take a deep breath and strive for redirection.

[More on learning disabilities and college students here]

How to Help Students with ADD or ADHD at Home

My daughter’s treatment for ADHD vastly improved when we began to work with a specialist. We are excited to see her confidence soar as she gains control of her academic environment. In order to support her at home, we have implemented the following steps:

  • We permit her to ‘recover’ from her afternoon slump. As hard as it might be for a regular student to make it through the demands of a typical school day it at least twice as hard for a student with ADD or ADHD. Permitting your child to have an hour to nap or play or engage in some kind of physical activity before homework starts will make a positive difference.
  • Timers are your best friend. We set a timer for 15-30 minute increments of work time, and 5-10 minutes of break time depending on the subject our daughter is working on for homework. Math is very difficult for her so 15 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to ask her to concentrate before we give her a five-minute break.
  • Remove distractions. Television is not allowed to be on when she works. She works at a table that faces a wall and where the window isn’t facing the street. She works in this space every day. Establishing routine is key.
  • Some students can focus better with music. Our daughter seems to do better with some kind of auditory stimulus. But, when we let her listen to her preferred music, the lyrics distract her from her tasks at hand. Now, we either play classical music, and she uses good old-fashioned earplug when she has to read.
  • Many of today’s homework assignments require the use of the internet. If you are unable to supervise your child’s use of the computer, I strongly suggest getting an app that will block social media for set amounts of time. So many times, I would get up from my seat next to my daughter’s work station to begin fixing dinner or to tend to some other household task only to return to find her on twitter.
  • My daughter is fifteen. I still strive to go through her backpack with her every night to be sure assignments are filed in the correct folder and as I check to be sure that leftover lunch items aren’t turning into science experiments at the bottom of her bag. (You might consider color coordinating notebooks and folders per class.) Often, she’ll roll her eyes and complain that I’m treating her like a baby, but that’s usually when she hasn’t kept up her organization. Be sure not to shame your child for having a messy environment. It is very difficult for students with ADD/ADHD to maintain order and often equally as difficult to explain why. I have a hard time remembering this because organization comes so easily to me and is critical to my own success. When she seems embarrassed or frustrated, I simply ask my daughter to sort her backpack by herself while I read the paper or engage in some other task that will enable me to keep an eye on her as she learns to keep things in order by herself.

Ultimately, I’m really proud of the way my daughter has embraced her diagnosis. She is unashamed of having ADHD and even encouraged me to write this. And, as she pointed out to me in a recent conversation, she thinks I am probably doing a better job as a teacher because I understand my ADD/ADHD students better now too. I certainly hope she is right.

More from Jess Burnquist:

The Day I Stopped Talking and Started Listening to My Students 

First Date: What My daughter Worried About Most 

About Jess Burnquist

Jess Burnquist earned her MFA from Arizona State University. She writes and teaches high school Creative Writing and English in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area where she also resides with her husband, their teenage son and daughter, as well as their three-legged dog, Skipper.

Read more posts by Jess

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