Tips for effective communication with schools and healthcare providers.

What is ADHD? 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a chronic medical condition affecting nearly 10% of all children. This accounts for nearly 6 million children in the United States alone. It comes in 3 primary forms, including Impulsive/Hyperactive, Inattentive and Distractable, or Combined, mixing impulsivity, hyperactivity, distractibility, and inattentiveness.

While doctors do not know the specific cause of ADHD, they do know it is hereditary and is a brain-based disorder. Children with ADHD are found to have lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the area of the brain that specializes in memory, movement, and motivation. This creates disconnects in communication, causing further struggles along the way. 

How does ADHD affect communication skills and what you can do to help?

Perhaps you already know all about the condition, and you’re here looking for answers. Parenting a child with ADHD is a struggle, and we accommodate and make arrangements as well as we can. It’s important to understand communication barriers. 

The ADHD brain is not linear. It’s all over the place. While you are detailing directions before a family outing, your ADHD child may be hyper-focused on the song repeating in his head or the next opportunity for a snack. You feel like you are repeating yourself 10 times, and you likely are, because your child is unable to focus. Additionally, he may be unable to hold a conversation because his thoughts are disorganized. What can you do to promote positive communication with your ADHD child?

When communicating with your child, it is important to be consistent. Get down to his level and ensure he is listening. Easier said than done, right? This may differ from what you normally expect when ensuring someone is listening– eye contact, nods, verbal cues, etc. Instead, ask your child to repeat what you’ve said to ensure you were heard and, most importantly, comprehended. If they can summarize 50%, you are on the right track. Keep it up!

Observe your child when he’s engaged in something and see how he reacts, whether it’s responding to a character on the TV or catching a ball outside, what is motivating him to focus and engage? Can you emulate this?

When he was a toddler, you repeated short phrases to ensure they “stuck.” Don’t drop those short, specific directions. Keep them up and make them the norm. 

Be specific

Specificity is key. When asking him to clean his room, give him a list of actionable tasks. If you say, “go clean your room,” your child may enter the room, not knowing where to start, and choose the first distractable, fun toy in front of him. 

Say: “make your bed then pick up your clothes and put them in the hamper.” 

Your child now has two actionable tasks to complete. 

Consider incorporating movement or making it a game. A timer is an excellent motivator for a child with ADHD:

“How quickly can you make your bed AND pick up your clothes?” 

“Can you make your bed and pick up your clothes BEFORE two songs end?” 

“How about you make your bed, do 10 jumping jacks, and then put your clothes in the laundry hamper?”

The opportunity for movement will help the child exercise some of that hyperactive energy before tackling the task at hand. 

Visual aids, such as chore and behavior charts make communicating easier for the ADHD brain because the child can always harken back to the picture when he finds himself off track. This could be a photo of a bed and a hamper. Perhaps include a whiteboard with a marker and a checklist. This will help the child feel in charge. This same idea can be repeated during bath time. “Take a bath” becomes “Put the shampoo in your hair, massage, and then rinse.” 

This method translates into many of the mundane daily routines that are the bane of an ADHD child’s existence. Remember: his brain is on rapid-fire and he’s lacking dopamine, so he’s craving activities and stimulants (sugar) to fill that void. Brushing his teeth is not a priority.

No matter what, keep yourself calm and collected. Yes, it’s a struggle for you to repeat yourself, but imagine what it is like for your child. An ADHD child is working twice as hard as his peers. He’s trying to assimilate, but he doesn’t know how. Leading by example is a great motivator. 

You now have some ideas to create cohesive communication at home, but how are you to help your neurodiverse learner as he navigates the institution of school? 

Communication is key

We’ve established that holding a healthy dialogue with your child is incredibly important, but it’s imperative to open that line of communication up to teachers and schools, too. Your child has a lower executive function, so his ability to gather his thoughts and piece together his phrasing is inhibited. You may notice a stutter or stammer. Words may be repeated. This is difficult for him when speaking with her family. Imagine how it feels when he is in the classroom.  This is where you can step in.

How do I advocate for my ADHD child at school?

Teachers don’t know what they don’t know. They can speculate. Sure, your child’s teacher may have inferred the student has ADHD based on classroom behaviors, but the teacher is in no position to discuss this first. In fact, it is a steadfast rule that teachers cannot be the first to mention any medical diagnosis. It is always advisable to open the line of communication with a teacher, even for students who do not struggle. 

Start with an email. Everything should be in writing. Explain the struggle and your efforts to assist your child at home. Share what has worked. Teachers teach because they love working with learners, and they will cheerlead and adapt most efforts. Treat it like a team effort. You are not in competition. You are working together for the betterment of your child. 

With so many students entering the classroom with ADHD diagnosis, consider asking the teacher for his or her suggestions, too. Inevitably, the teacher has taught a neurodiverse learner and has her own techniques. Remember: consistency is important, so consider picking up the same approach, so the child knows the rules across the board. What language does the teacher use to redirect? Is there a behavioral chart or are classroom expectations posted on the whiteboard? Is this something you can repeat at home?

If you have conducted this conversation with your pediatrician, you may have assessments and other paperwork to present to the teacher in the form of observable behavioral checklists. This is the first step in the creation of an IEP

School-based interventions for students with ADHD

Your teacher may be fully willing to assist, but there are times when it is not an option. That’s where you may need extra support. An IEP is a roadmap created specifically for your child. It is designed with you, the parent and a qualified group of Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teachers and its purpose is to provide the necessary accommodations to ensure your child’s success. 

Accommodations in an IEP for an ADHD student may include:

Flexible seating arrangements, away from distractions, or in the back of the classroom to ensure the ADHD child’s behavior is not a classroom distraction

Increased movement, including brain breaks

Extended time on assignments and exams

Small group settings for assignments and exams

Reduced number of assessment questions

In crafting a plan with your school’s special education team, you can determine the best support systems for your ADHD child. 

The most important thing to remember is: your child cannot help it. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do. This means, staying calm, being specific, and being consistent. This framework will help create order in the chaos. It will also help reduce the anxiety already present in an ADHD mind.