©istockphoto.com / Obradovic
Are you a parent of a child or adolescent with ADHD and always looking for strategies to help your kid with organization, time management, prioritization, and study skills? One thing I often hear from parents is that their child may spend hours ‘working’ on homework and have nothing to show for it. How can that be? I went to my best source of information–adolescents. The responses were honest and raw. I heard that they start their homework but then the phone vibrates or they get an idea about a show or a game and look it up (because they can!). Before they know it, so much time has passed and little or no progress on their assignments has been made. This is usually the time when a parent checks in and the child tries to ‘look’ busy, but truly, no real work has been done. And this cycle continues on and on, for hours. Sound familiar?
As parents, we want to give our kids the tools to ‘be successful. Unfortunately, there’s isn’t a class that teaches this. When my son started middle school, he was overwhelmed with how many responsibilities his teachers had now expected of him. He wasn’t prepared to handle the demands of each class with a different teacher, a locker, so many notebooks to carry, and the weekly array of quizzes, tests, journals and so on.
It’s okay to coach and mentor our children with ADHD with a more hands-on approach. Some of us continue to coach our young adult children while in college, and that’s okay, too. Keep in mind that each of our children’s journeys is unique. The goal is to make progress without the pressure to achieve X goal by X age. That will only frustrate you both.
Here are a few strategies that you can initiate at home that will help with building those executive functioning skills while getting their homework D-O-N-E!
Adapt the Body Double Method
Some of us get the most done when nobody is around. For some kids and adolescents with ADHD, it helps to have another person in the same room or nearby. Perhaps knowing that the person is present and can check in at any time helps a child maintain focus and improve productivity. Some of us need the presence of another person to regulate and ground us. That person doesn’t have to say or do anything, they just need to exist. This is known as our body double.
Speaking from experience, my preference is to set my computer on the kitchen counter and work while my kids are around me. I have always preferred the buzz of other people in the background rather than working alone. My son, on the other hand, prefers to work in his room because he finds our ‘human sounds’ too distracting. My daughter likes to work on her homework sprawled out, in the middle of my kitchen floor. We each have our preference and those preferences can even shift from assignment to assignment.
If you’re not sure if your child or adolescent needs you to serve as her body double, ask her! If she isn’t sure, experiment. That is, set your child up on the same floor as you are – perhaps at the kitchen table or in your dining room. Ask your child to complete one assignment and then assess. Was it helpful to work near you or was it too distracting?
If your child responds that he was able to get through his assignment quickly and with focus, you have your answer. Now you know that your child is going to need to set up at a table or workspace somewhere by you instead of sending her up to her room.
Put the Phone Down and Nobody Gets Hurt
Distractions are around our children with ADHD all. the. time. The chirping bird or the passing truck can very easily result in a turned head. For many of our children and adolescents, their ability to filter out background sound is difficult. In fact, they may hear all sounds in the environment at equal level. Imagine if you couldn’t filter out the buzzing of the lawn mower while you were sending an email. It can be overwhelming and exhausting.
Now, let’s compound that with a vibrating phone or the ‘ping’ that signals someone has replied to their last SnapChat—omg, I need to check! The temptation is there to check Instagram every time your child doesn’t want to start a writing assignment or is finding that chapter in Social Studies really boring. Let’s take away a layer of distraction that is tangible. Ask your child to turn their phone in once they begin their homework. All of the texts and other social media notifications will be there once they return, but in the meantime, their homework will get done.
Estimate and Time It
Our children with ADHD tend to think that any assignment will take the figurative ‘5 minutes.’ How many times have you thought, “You’re going to finish a paper that was assigned two weeks ago in an hour?”
He may really think that it will take ‘5 minutes’ given his sense of time is not entirely accurate. In an effort to build that sense of time, I like to ask students, “How long do you think this math worksheet will take?” Whatever the answer is, set the timer to his estimated time and let him work. Once time is up, ask him to assess, “How far did you get on this worksheet?” If you notice, he’s completed half, ask him, “It looks like you finished about half of the problems in X minutes. How much longer do you think you’ll need?”
This will begin to develop that sense time and what’s a realistic amount of time to finish different assignments. It may also take him another 50 practice runs just like this until that sense of time begins to develop. But by the 51st time, your child may be able to say, “I think it’s going to take 15 minutes so it’s really going to take 30 minutes. Whatever I think, double it!”
Setting the timer also gives your child a sense of beginning and end. For students who struggle to begin a task, this can motivate them to begin, and for the student who struggles to sustain attention to an assignment, this gives an end in sight. Setting the timer can also bring a sense of levity to homework in that the goal is to complete assignment before the bell rings.
For an assignment that requires longer time to complete, set the timer for the duration of your child’s attention span. If she can work on one task for 30 minutes, set the timer for 30 minutes and go. Once time’s up, ask your child to walk away from her work area, set the timer for 5 minutes and take a break. During that break, encourage your child to move around, engage in jumping jacks or stare out the window, but do not engage in anything electronically based. Then, set the timer for another 30 minutes, and repeat this cycle until the assignment is completed.
Our children with ADHD tend to have a visual-spatial learning style. What does this mean? At a very basic level, this means that they think in pictures and video, and not as much in words. Our children understand concepts in how they work and come together dynamically, not just based on the words on a worksheet or in a textbook. With that said, color coding notebooks and materials by subject is a great way to organize materials.
When working with students, I ask them to identify the color they associate with each of their subjects. For example, Math = red, Spanish = blue etc. Any and all materials related to that subject should be that color – down to the spiral notebook, folder, binder and pencil case holder.
Why is this helpful? When your child is looking in her locker, in her backpack, or around her bedroom for her math notebook, she is not looking for the letters, “M-A-T-H.” Instead, she is looking for the color red. Given a visual-spatial learner has to direct their attention to the words, processing of the color is more within their natural proclivity.
Project and Plan Ahead
Our kids want to prepare for their upcoming test right before it’s time to take it. They want to get an assignment started and finished all at once. Yet, we know that as our children get older, the need for time management and planning ahead is essential because their assignments become more complex and they come with more parts.
Keep it visual by placing a whiteboard calendar in your child’s room. Once your subjects are color-coded, write the upcoming test, quiz, paper or project in that color on the whiteboard.
Breaking down test material into chunks that can be learned over several nights is going to maximize learning for that big test coming up on Friday, for example. Ask your child to assess how many days of studying will be needed given the number of sub-topics on the upcoming test or quiz. If she says two days, then write “Math – Study” on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the test on Friday using a red marker. Not only is the amount of information smaller but the amount of time spent studying is also shorter.
Don’t like a whiteboard? No problem, try an old school desk calendar (the large one). You can set it up on the wall or place on a desk and use it in the same way. Color code subjects as well as extracurricular activities and social plans. When your child is looking at the week ahead, they will be able to process in terms of color and associated subject.
Does My Child Need Accommodations in School?
In line with the support and accommodations you’re providing at home, take them to school too. Ask for the following accommodations for your child through a 504 Accommodation Plan:
- Break down an in-class task into a few items at a time and offer a break in between items
- Allow movement breaks (e.g., a walk through the hall, bathroom or water break)
- Break down long-term assignments into smaller assignment with short-term deadlines
- Allow extended time on in-class tests, quizzes and projects
- Seat student away from major distractions in the classroom (e.g., windows and doors)
These are just a few suggestions, and there are many, many more given your child’s unique profile and needs.
Try using any or all of these strategies at home but introduce one at a time so as not to overwhelm your child. Once you introduce the strategy, don’t do it for them, but rather model how to do it so there is a level of ownership. For example, if you want to help your son plan the upcoming week, you can stand by the whiteboard but hand the red marker to him and ask, “Do you have anything in Math coming up?” If he says yes, ask him to write it. You ask, he answers, he writes. If you want to turn any of these strategies into a habit, practice the skill for two weeks at the very least, consistently. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, scrap it and try another strategy. Like I said, it’s a journey but along the way, you want to ultimately put your child in the driver’s seat.
Dr. Liz Matheis is a certified school psychologist and licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Livingston, NJ. She and her team of therapists specialize in children, adolescents and young adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, and Learning Disabilities. She is also the proud mother of 3 children, one with special needs. Visit her at psychedconsult.com.