I feel your pain.
As parents of neurotypical kids across America are excitedly counting down to the start of the new school year, parents of kids with ADHD and/or autism, like me, are counting down with dread. Why? Because school is so dang hard for our special needs kids, and for their parents. This Essential Back-to-School Guide for ADHD and high-functioning autism (Asperger’s) is every tip, trick, strategy, and product I’ve found to help ease the pain of school for families like ours.
Essential Back-to-School Guide for ADHD and Asperger’s
Organization & Executive Functioning
Many individuals with ADHD and/or high-functioning autism have significant executive function deficits. Executive functions include: planning, organization, working memory, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, impulse control, and task initiation. This set of functions is basically everything necessary to function well. When these skills are delayed or deficient, it wreaks havoc on the day-to-day, especially in school.
Executive function deficits are difficult to deal with. ADHD medication can help a little, but certainly not fully. You can’t “change” executive functions, because they are, in part, the way that individual’s brain is, and no medication exists to treat these deficits, much like learning disabilities. The best thing parents can do for executive functioning deficits is try to teach some of the lagging skills, and put strategies in to place to accommodate for the deficits.
During elementary and middle school, that meant one large binder for my son, ‘Ricochet’. And, even then, it couldn’t be a detailed organization system inside the binder — it had to be very simple for him to even try to use it. I bought a Case-It binder with zipper closure.
His planner went on the 3-ring inside, as well as 3 transparent plastic pockets: one red for papers that needed to be given to parents and papers that needed to be completed, one green for completed items that needed to be turned in, and one clear for all the papers he wasn’t sure where else to put. I also added a transparent (use transparent supplies as much as possible) pouch inside for pencils, erasers, calculator, etc. Was it fool-proof? Heck no! It was still a constant struggle, but far less than trying to keep up with individual folders for each subject. When middle school teachers wanted a binder for each class, he left those binders in those classrooms and used his big binder for papers coming back and forth and supplies, and a catch-all because he’s always needed that.
Here are the products I used to set up the one-big-binder system for ‘Ricochet:’
For kids who can carry a backpack to classes, it gets a little easier — at least that has been our experience. Try to choose a backpack with some organization to it (I like the one from Swiss Gear below). Backpack folders are a great organizational tool for students who take their backpack to class. I’ve found that a more organized lunchbox system helps ‘Ricochet’ eat his lunch, as well. Planetbox is awesome for this — just open the lid and everything is accessible to eat, rather than opening/unpacking each food item. The Planetbox system isn’t cheap (but insanely durable), so I’ve added a less expensive similar option below.
And to keep distractible students further on track, try the Time Timer Watch or a RE-vibe.
Now that ‘Ricochet’ is starting high school, he is transitioning to a tech-based organization system and going as paperless as possible. This is partly due to his dysgraphia, but really to address severe executive functioning delays so he isn’t losing so much of his work and forgetting to do his work anymore. For this we purchased an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. This combination is much like pencil and paper. All worksheets can be quickly captured into a note-taking app with the iPad camera and completed electronically. And apps like iStudiez Pro keep him organized and offer alerts and reminders. You can read about this full set-up here…
If you go the iPad route, be sure to get only Wi-Fi, not cellular, so your student can’t play online willy-nilly throughout the school day. Also, for Pete’s sake, make sure you protect your investment with a drop-proof case. We ended up with a folio case because ‘Ricochet’ kept losing the Apple Pencil with his Lifeproof case. You could even consider a gps tracker, like Tile.
If your student struggles with reading, tracking while reading, or dyslexia, look into getting Bookshare. It’s a free service for individuals with disabilities and offers a large library of books that can be read aloud and highlighted in sync. It’s a powerful tool. These line highlighting strips are great for tracking on paper books too:
I think it’s also smart to talk about screen time limits and parental controls for the internet when we’re talking about technology. If you don’t have Circle, I highly recommend it. You can accomplish everything with this one device:
I also recommend that you have one charging hub for the family, outside of the kids’ bedrooms. These charging stations are fantastic for families with lots of devices:
There are many school supplies out there that most people don’t know about or think about. Here are some of my favorites for kids with ADHD and/or autism:
Triangular pencils help struggling writers with grip. Golf pencils also help kids with dysgraphia and writing struggles. I buy two boxes of these every school year. I have a pencil cup by the door and he grabs 1-2 pencils every day. They rarely come home, but at least he has a pencil at school. And I’m including our favorite pencil group below, as well.
Graph paper is fantastic for students who struggle with lining up math problems, by putting one character in each box.
The wide-tip highlighters have worked best for ‘Ricochet’ because you can highlight efficiently with just one pass over the text.
Post-It Message Flags are amazing! The pack comes with preprinted, pop-out flags that read “On Test, Study, and To Do. And the dispenser has adhesive on the back, so you can stick it in their binder or planner, or wherever makes sense to your student.
I love math and science quick reference guides, especially when mom can’t remember the formula after not being in school 20+ years! 😉 Or when your child is frustrated because there are too many formulas to remember. They have these 2-4 page laminated quickstudy guides for every subject you can think of!
Flash drives are necessary in most schools these days, but very likely to be lost. I recommend one that can be easily clipped on and off a binder or book bag.
A durable water bottle is a must if your child is a chewer, like ‘Ricochet.’ He has been able to pick or chew apart and destroy just about every water bottle I’ve bought, but not the stainless steel bottles with the hard plastic spout. Now, he can still lose them…
And, how about a little boost to their self-esteem. Lunchbox notes are great for that, although I wouldn’t recommend them for kids older than elementary school age, so they don’t get teased.
Many kids with ADHD also struggle with sensory issues. They could be a sensory seeker, a sensory avoider, or a combination of both. Sensory struggles often happen in environments like school, where it may be bright, loud, chaotic, visually overwhelming, or not stimulating enough. Here are a few great products for your sensory-sensitive and sensory-seeking students:
I cannot say enough about the HowdaHUG chairs! This is the one and only product that made a super-substantial difference in ‘Ricochet’s’ life for many years. This chair provides the sensory squeezing input many kids with ADHD need to be able to sit still and pay attention. It’s absolutely worth the cost!
Headphones are essential for any kid who is sensitive to loud sounds or auditory overwhelm. We never leave the house without headphones… ever.
This may seem silly, but I’m recommending chapstick for students who pick or chew or lick their lips a lot. Teaching them to keep chapstick on their lips will help to reduce the damage done to their lips. (The scents, like mint and citrus, could help with focus and alertness too.)
Chew toppers for pencils have saved many s shirt sleeve and shirt collar…
There are several companies that make sensory-smart clothing for kids — ultra soft, tagless, no-seams. See a list here >>>
And, no-tie shoelaces saved many a morning battle:
Setting up a homework station in your home will make homework time easier. By having all the supplies ready in one spot, you thwart the procrastination tactic of looking for supplies, sharpening pencils, etc. This article from Landeelu is packed full of different ideas for how to structure your homework station:
And here are some of the products you may need to create your homework station:
I’ve always had ‘Ricochet’ do his homework in roughly the same location in the house, although that location changes from year to year. It’s wherever he’s most comfortable. If that’s laying on the floor or hanging upside down off the couch, as long as he can get the work done, anything goes.
Working with Teachers
Work with teachers to discover and address problems at school with a collaborative approach. Remain calm and leave your emotions at home (easier said than done, I know). Ask the teacher to detail problems (including times they occur), then work with the teacher and your child to get to the root of the matter, and to create strategies for success.
Following are some sample letters you can use to introduce your child at the beginning of the school year, to get off on the right foot (letters I use myself):
> Dear Teacher, Please Meet My Child (I also have ‘Ricochet’ write his own very short letter to his teachers, and it’s often better received.)
> How to Be Heard Loud and Clear at School Meetings (letters I use before each accommodations/IEP meeting)
If your child struggles socially while at school, make sure you inform their teacher(s) and meet with the guidance counselor to discuss how he or she can help your child build social skills and navigate social awkwardness and struggles. Many parents don’t realize it, but helping students socially is part of the guidance counselor’s job.
We all know mornings can be brutal with kids with ADHD. The best thing you can do is make a set routine and stick to it every single morning. In this blog post on ADDitudeMag.com I outlined what worked for us when ‘Ricochet’ was younger.
This year we are going to try a sunrise simulating alarm clock as well. It wakes you gently by getting brighter and brighter, and can do the same to fall asleep. This one even has nature sounds. Our kids are far less grumpy when they are woken gently.