Tips for Managing ADHD
By Jessica Rapp Irwin, OTR/L of Rooted in Routine
October is ADHD awareness month, and as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have worked with many children with an ADHD diagnosis over the years. Let me tell you - they are some of the smartest, most creative, and most caring children I’ve ever met! However, in terms of learning and attention, they often struggle simply because their brains work slightly differently.
Children with ADHD have difficulty with focusing and concentrating on certain tasks. There is a difference in the brain that causes this difficulty. They may have trouble staying focused on one task for long periods of time, they may be more distracted by things in their environment (sights, sounds, objects, etc.) than other children their age, or they may appear “fidgety” and have the need to move their body often.
However, children with ADHD are able to focus, but they often focus on what’s not important at that moment. Therefore, we can modify the environment (something OT’s do best!) to help them focus on what is important for the task at hand. They may also require modifications to help their body remain calm in order to help promote focus and concentration.
Here are some evidence-based tips to help your child with ADHD succeed at school (in-person or virtual) and at home:
- Keep a consistent routine. This is the number one tip that can transform both home and school life for your child. When tasks are done in the same way and in the same order, it provides a sense of predictability and stability for your child. This in turn limits distractions and deviations from the routine. For example, each morning try to go through the same steps in the same order: eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed, pack backpack, put on jacket and shoes, and leave for school (if virtual, replace with sit at virtual learning space.
- Create a visual schedule. This is where you write down, in order, exactly what your child is going to do, and then have them mark it off as they complete each step. You can create a schedule for the entire day, or make one for the span of an hour or two. For example, your child’s afternoon schedule might be “eat snack, do 20 minutes of homework, play outside”. Writing this down will help your child understand what is happening next and know what to expect, which is one of the most important factors in reducing distractibility, difficulty focusing, or refusal behaviors (those “I don’t want to!!” moments). Simply get out a piece of paper and write your child’s schedule as a list. If they’re old enough, have them help write it with you!
- Set up a consistent “learning space” or “homework space” with limited distractions. Try to have your child sit in the same spot each day when they are logged into virtual learning or when completing homework. Help promote better focus by removing any toys or objects nearby that could cause distractions. If your child is sitting in a chair, make sure your child’s feet can touch flat on the ground (if not, use a stool or stack of books!) - this helps your child’s body feel more supported. However, don’t be afraid to try alternate positions such as having your child lay on their belly or even stand up while completing school work. Sometimes these alternate positions can actually help with better attention, particularly for those kiddos with ADHD!
- Use a visual timer. This can be a sand timer, a kitchen timer, or the Time Timer! Visual timers help children understand the concept of time because they can see how much time is left to complete a task. This is so important for children with ADHD because they are often visual learners. Give your child the “job” of setting the timer before a task, which gives them a sense of control and purpose. For example, before beginning homework, have your child set the timer to 20 minutes. This way they know how long they’re expected to focus and know they will be getting a break when the timer goes off.
- Include movement breaks and/or outdoor time within the day. This is very important! All children need to move their bodies, but especially those with ADHD. Staying still is particularly challenging for these kiddos, so building breaks into the day is imperative. Movement actually helps your child pay better attention when done as a preventive measure. Build movement breaks into your child’s routine, rather than using them as a reward or something that only happens if they get “X” amount done. Getting outside for even 5-10 minutes can do wonders, but if that’s not possible, there are plenty of ways to move inside - put on music and have a 5-minute dance party, do 100 jumping jacks, or play a GoNoodle video on YouTube… all great ways for your child to move his or her body!
- Use your child’s interests to your advantage. Whenever possible, try to include your child’s interests in the activity you want them to focus on. Children with ADHD are actually very much able to focus on things they are interested in, so go with it! If your child has favorite characters, try to include them in activities at home and encourage your child’s teacher to do the same at school. If your child has a competitive side, try making things into “races” or “challenges” so they are motivated to complete the task at hand. For example, have a race to see who can put on their shoes faster!
Remember, children with ADHD are smart, capable, and creative - they just might need a few slight tweaks to shine! Try out these tips above to make things go a bit smoother for both you and your child.
About the Author:
Jessica Rapp Irwin, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist, childhood routine expert, and lover of all things child development. She founded Rooted in Routine, an online parent coaching platform, to help parents learn simple, easy to implement routines for optimal child development starting at age one. She is passionate about educating parents on NORMAL, HEALTHY development, which is often simpler than we think. Jessica’s approach is largely rooted in going back to the basics to help you establish solid, age-appropriate routines for your child for things like eating, play, and sleep. She believes this is the most important foundation you can provide for your child - and she wants to help you do just that!