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Find Back to School Success for Children With ADHD & Autism

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For some parents of kids with ADHD or autism, the last year of distance learning may have made the daily schedule a little easier. For others, the structure of a new school year is a welcome relief. Either way, getting back into the school routine may take a little work.

Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, often have difficulty sitting still, controlling impulses, and paying attention. Autism spectrum disorder is a condition that can affect a child’s communication skills and make social and emotional connection more difficult. While the disorders are very different, both can impact the way a child learns and may require extra support at school and at home.

“Change can be hard for children with ADHD or autism, and the education schedule has had to be adapted more times over the last year and a half than is likely comfortable for them,” said Shellie Russell-Skerski, MD, a pediatrician with Samaritan Health Center – Newport. “As a parent, the most important thing you can do to help your child succeed at school is to create a home environment where they feel safe and secure. Once that piece is in place, they are more able to focus on learning.”

Dr. Russell-Skerski shares some practical tips you can incorporate at home to help make this school year a success.

Start With a Schedule

Dr. Russell-Skerski reports that children with autism and ADHD often prefer routine. They may feel anxiety about what’s happening next during more loosely structured times, like evenings and weekends. In addition, children with autism and ADHD often struggle with the mental organization needed to finish a task, especially if it involves lots of steps. A regular schedule can help with both concerns and be a lifesaver for busy parents who are keeping track of lots of details.

Start by creating a schedule that your child can understand. It might have pictures of what they need to do that day if they don’t read or need a little help with comprehension.

You can make a morning or evening schedule that includes things like getting dressed and brushing their teeth, a chore schedule for feeding the dog or taking out the garbage, a daily schedule that outlines all the activities for the day, and a weekend schedule.

“A consistent routine is really helpful for kids who have trouble moving from one activity to the next, which is common with autism and ADHD,” said Dr. Russell-Skerski. “Even if every day isn’t exactly the same, having a predictable flow can reduce many of the challenging behaviors kids exhibit during transitions.”

Print out the schedule and put it at your child’s eye-level. Make room for a checkmark or sticker as tasks are completed if that helps to engage your child. Go over the schedule each morning during breakfast, and periodically throughout the day to let your child know what activities are coming up next.

Sample Morning Schedule

  Activity
7:00 a.m.  Wake up
7:10 a.m. Shower, get dressed 
7:40 a.m. Eat breakfast
7:55 a.m. Brush teeth

Sample Daily Schedule

  Monday Tuesday
7-8:00 a.m.  Morning schedule Morning schedule
8-8:15 a.m. Chores Chores
8:15-8:30 a.m. Leave on time for school Leave on time for school
8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.  School School
3-4:30 p.m. Soccer Free Time*
4:30-5 p.m. Soccer Chores
5-6 p.m. Dinner Dinner
6-7 p.m. Homework Homework
7-8 p.m. Wind down and bedtime Wind down and bed time

*Free time choices:  Read, draw, journal, craft, puzzle, board game, play Legos. 

Sample Chores

  • Make bed.
  • Put away clean clothes.
  • Feed the dog.
  • Load and unload dishwasher. 
  • Take out garbage.
  • Set table.
  • Put away toys/ project when you’re done.
  • Set out clothes and school items for next day.

Create a Learning Space at Home

For homework or at-home learning, set a designated space that has all the things your child needs.

  • Use bins with labels for school supplies so children can easily find what they need.
  • Some children need a quiet spot away from distractions like the TV or talking. Others do better with a little background noise and might be able to focus better at the kitchen table. Try a few different setups to see what works for your child.
  • If your child needs more background stimulation while they work, try white noise or music, fidget tools or chewing gum.
  • Create a new homework schedule every day. Break out all the steps necessary to finish each task. For example if they have to write a journal entry they’ll need to get out their journal and pencil, brainstorm the three items they’re going to write about, write four sentences about each item, and finally review it for spelling and grammar. Take short, five-minute breaks in between the steps as needed.
  • A visual timer can help kids see how long they need to focus on schoolwork before the next break. According to Dr. Russell-Skerski, 15 to 20 minutes is about how long school-aged children can focus before they need a short break. Teens can go about 30 minutes.

Incorporate Sensory Activities

If your child needs a longer break between focused work, incorporate sensory activities. These activities use more of your child’s senses and give their brain the stimulation it needs. Activities to try could include:

  • Bouncing on an exercise ball.
  • Swinging.
  • Jumping on a trampoline.
  • Walking on their hands like a wheelbarrow.
  • Jumping jacks.
  • Carrying a weighted backpack for a short walk around the block.
  • Pushing a heavy wagon in the driveway or heavy boxes across the floor.

If your child is frustrated and needs some calming time, Dr. Russell-Skerski recommends having them lay down with a weighted blanket, snuggling a weighted toy, or creating a small fort in the corner of their room with blankets and pillows that’s just for them. A playlist of relaxing music can also help.

Focus on Positive Reinforcement

Being motivated to finish homework or chores and staying focused can be difficult, so use positive reinforcement to help. Dr. Russell-Skerski recommends the “first, then” method of offering rewards. 

Start by identifying what your child needs to do first, like a page of math, and then what they get to do when they’re finished, like 15 minutes with Legos. You can use another chart to help your child visualize their task and reward if it helps.

“When your child finishes their first activity, give them their reward right away,” said Dr. Russell-Skerski. “Making them wait until after dinner or the weekend is too long, and they lose the connection of what the reward was for.”

Praise positive behavior when you see it happen so your child knows when they have done well. It can be simple but make it specific and often. “Good job staying focused on your homework,” or “Thank you for following directions so quickly.”

Turn Off Screens

This may sound unreasonable or even impossible given the ubiquitous nature of electronics. According to Dr. Russell-Skerski, the benefits of screen time are negligible for kids, but those with ADHD and autism have brains that are more sensitive to the stimulating nature of electronics and are more likely to experience negative side effects.

“The big downside to electronics is they are overstimulating and make behavior and emotional regulation problems worse,” she said. “Eliminating screens is really good for brain health and improving some of the areas kids struggle with like language, anxiety and picking up on social cues.”

While some screen time is unavoidable for classes and homework, don’t use electronics – including interactive educational games, video games, social media or TV – for breaks or good behavior rewards. To avoid screen time battles, Dr. Russell-Skerski recommends designating the bedroom as a media-free zone.

Set Healthy Habits

Getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals and regular physical exercise are important for all children, and those with autism or ADHD are no exception. Dr. Russell-Skerski reports that ensuring these healthy foundations are in place can help with attention and behavior issues.  

“Organized sports can be really great for kids to get exercise and to practice their social skills, but it’s not a good fit for everyone,” she said. “If a team sport isn’t right for your child, look for other activities they can successfully engage in.”

It doesn’t have to be fancy; swimming lessons, jumping rope or riding a bike can be enjoyable and get them exercising.

In addition, make sure you schedule enough time for sleep each night. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that school-aged children need nine to 12 hours of sleep a night, while teens need eight to 10.

Ask for Help

Children with ADHD or autism often need assistance at school and at home to support them as they learn. If you notice your child is struggling, talk to their teacher about accommodations that may help. 

“It can take time and some experimentation to get the right supports in place, so don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Dr. Russell-Skerski. “Your child’s teacher and other professionals like occupational therapists or learning specialists are a great resource for specific tips and tools you can implement at home to help support their education.”

Get the tools you and your child need at Samaritan Mental Health Family Center.

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