How to Help Your ADD/ADHD Child with Study Habits
This experience of mastery builds confidence in our abilities, and for a child with ADD/ADHD, few things will be more thrilling than beating the demons in his brain and learning what he wants when he wants.
So what do I mean by “flexible”? Doing whatever it takes to learn the material. Studying is really a habit of mind, and once your child learns how to think about learning, she’ll be able to create whatever strategies she needs.
Let me give you an example. When I was a senior in high school, I took advanced placement classes in English, American history, Spanish, and calculus. For the first time in my school career, I was actually challenged enough not to be bored (actually, calculus nearly did me in!), and my Spanish teacher, in particular, made going to class one of the peak experiences of my life.
This was in 1968, when the AP exams were fairly new, so there were no books or outside classes to help me prepare for them. This was also before teachers were forced to teach tests, so we were told the basic setup of the exams – multiple choice questions and essays (long problems in calculus) – and then left on our own to study.
The only textbook I had was for calculus, so I went to the textbook store, and in the basement stacks I found a used college anthology of short stories, a two-volume outline of American history, and a Spanish grammar book. I didn’t do any cramming – I’d already gotten into the college of my choice and I figured any AP credit I got would be a gift. Instead, I relaxed and enjoyed myself, reading some fine literature, learning all sorts of new details about American history, re-immersing myself in beautiful Spanish, and reworking troublesome problems in calculus.
The long problems on the calculus test were so hard I figured I’d failed, but the other three tests were fun. I came to them with an open and positive attitude, and I came away feeling I’d done my best. Then the shocking news came from my college. I’d gotten eight hours – a full year’s credit – for calculus! Then I got six hours for history, four for Spanish, and three for English.
There I was, a girl who’d had trouble sitting still for most of my life, someone who’d been shredding paper in boredom and misery only three years earlier, and I was going to start college with twenty-one hours of AP credit.
Miracles can happen, and I’m living proof that one did back in 1968.
So let’s get down to specifics.
When children begin elementary school, the most important thing they need is a sense of structure. Even if they’ve been to daycare or preschool, elementary school is the real thing, with grades and evaluations and the dreaded standardized tests.
So set up a schedule with your child. Be sure to give her plenty of time after school to unwind in the ways I discussed in the chapter on rest and exercise, and then help her learn how to settle down to do her homework.
You also need to set up a specific time for study and stick to it. Before or after dinner would work well, just as long as you make sure that your child is neither hungry nor sleepy. But do feel free to choose whatever time works best for you.
Younger children will have less homework than older ones, but it’s never too early to get them in the habit of spending some quiet time studying. And do make sure the time is quiet – no radio, TV, game boxes, headphones, telephones, or talkative people allowed.
Younger children also need to be supervised, because they’re going to need some time to figure out just what it means to study. Very young children can practice printing the alphabet and numbers. As they get older, they’ll probably have specific assignments, but if they don’t, they can always review vocabulary words and arithmetic facts, practice their penmanship, or do some reading for a future assignment.
Depending on where your child goes to school, some or even most of his homework may have to be done on a computer. So make sure she has enough room to work, even if that means establishing a quiet study time at the kitchen table.
After you’ve set up a structure, you’ll be able to start helping your child learn how to work. But be sure you limit yourself to helping – children need to do their own homework not only to learn honesty, but also to develop confidence in their abilities.
Start by talking together about what his assignments are. Do the harder ones first, when she has the most energy, and then work your way to the easier ones.
And break longer assignments into manageable pieces. It’s one thing to practice printing the letters “A”, “B”, and “C”, and another to master the entire alphabet in one evening.
The same principle holds true for learning arithmetic facts. Start out with the smaller numbers and then work your way up to the larger ones. Teachers automatically do this, but it’s always a good idea idea to review the early – and easier – facts first, especially if your child is starting to get frustrated and lose confidence.
I think flash cards are a great way to learn bits of information, like multiplication tables, vocabulary words, and historical dates. You can buy many commercial packs, especially for arithmetic, but I always had more fun making my own. Get some big note cards, put the problem or definition or question on the front, and then put the answer on the back. Once your child can print confidently, let her make her own, and if she wants to be artistic about it, make sure she has crayons and colored markers.
Learning bits of information can become an easy task, once your child’s mind becomes clear enough for him to concentrate. But as she gets older, she’s going to have to learn how to pull information out of her reading, and that’s when you’ll need to use leading questions.
As experienced readers know, writers use a lot of words and sentences that make reading smoother but aren’t necessary for understanding. And when we’re looking for specific information, we may even be able to ignore entire paragraphs.
For instance, you could boil my paragraph about flash cards down to one sentence: Make your own flash cards to study bits of information. Such bald writing, though, would quickly become annoying to read, so we writers smooth out our basic information with examples and anecdotes. But to beginning readers every word is equally important, so you need to teach your child how to pull out what he needs by asking questions.
This kind of reading comprehension is the most important skill your child can learn for school. As you probably remember, it’s the basic form for questions on most standardized tests. So it’s essential that you start preparing your child as early as possible, with gentle leading questions, before he gets sucked into the whirlpool of academic testing.
As both a former teacher and a former student, I dislike standardized tests enormously. Rather than testing a student’s knowledge, they test her ability to take a specific test at a specific time on a specific day. They evaluate a child’s ability to conform instead of his ability to think imaginatively, and the questions are biased in favor of children whose parents most resemble the writers of the test – i.e., well-educated professionals.
Since teachers are now being forced to teach the tests, your child will be getting a basic grounding in how to handle the questions. What she’ll need from you is back-up. Those tests are so boring that he’ll want to zip through the questions before he falls asleep, so he needs you to remind him to take his time and then to be sure to go back and check over his answers. It’s all too easy to blacken the wrong spot, and if she gets off the line – i.e., marks answer 13 in line 14, she can screw up all the rest of the answers.
For a child with ADD/ADHD, taking a standardized test can be torture. So I suggest you turn a potential disaster into an exciting challenge. There are all sorts of workbooks with sample questions available, so buy a couple and make a big deal out of mastery. For younger children, keep a chart on the wall with stars for every correct answer. For older ones, keep a scorecard. Build in little rewards for finishing a section, and do cheers and victory dances when your child figures out a particularly tough question.
Remind him that building brainpower requires the same kind of discipline and determination that building muscle power takes. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t become Mr. Universe overnight, and she won’t become a test ace overnight either.
So far I’ve been talking about working with elementary school children. But when a child moves over to middle school, he’s going to need an even firmer structure because of all the changes he’ll be facing.
The first and most obvious change is that she’ll have to go to a different room with a different teacher for each subject. Such a major disruption will be hard on any child, but for one with ADD/ADHD, it can feel like chaos.
You’re going to need to spend some time over the summer preparing your child for the change. Start by talking about the differences between elementary and middle school, and find out how she feels about making the change. He’s going to be scared, even if he doesn’t say it, so be sure to give him lots of encouragement.
When she gets her schedule, go to school with her (or if she prefers, send an older sibling or friend) and find all the rooms together. Find his locker and let him practice the combination until it’s second nature. Then walk around the school and browse, so she can get a sense of the building. The more comfortable he feels physically, the more easily he’ll adjust.
The second change will be the kind of work she’ll be doing. The assignments, both in school and at home, will be longer in length and longer in time. Breaking the assignment into small parts will still continue to be a useful strategy, but for long-term assignments you need to do specific planning as soon as she finds out about them.
The third change will be in the quality of the teaching. Secondary school teachers receive an education that’s much lighter on teaching techniques, so unless they either have an outstanding methods teacher or work with a masterful supervisor during student teaching, they’re not going to understand the difference between assigning and teaching.
Let me give you an example from my supposedly fine education. When I was a junior in high school, my combined studies (English/social studies) teacher assigned Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, while we were studying Puritan New England. He assigned the play in sections, which we read at home, and then we talked about the characters and plot in class.
On the surface, The Crucible is a dramatization of an extended witch trial held in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. At that time, the Devil was considered a very real presence in everyday life, and men as well as women were tried, tortured, and killed on the basis of an accusation and bizarre and specious evidence.
Because The Crucible was written by the great Arthur Miller, it’s also about fear and lust and greed, as well as courage, integrity and defiance. But my teacher never talked about Arthur Miller and his well-earned reputation as a great American playwright. Even worse, he never even mentioned the fact that Miller wrote The Crucible, which was first performed in 1953, as a scathing indictment of the Communist witch trials then being conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Those trials, camouflaged as hearings, brought people into the Congress to testify publicly about their membership in the Communist Party and to give the names of others who had also belonged. If the “witnesses” refused to cooperate, they were fired from their jobs, blacklisted from getting any other jobs, and sometimes even sent to prison for contempt.
If I were to teach The Crucible today, I’d make sure my students learned about the Salem witch trials, Arthur Miller, and McCarthyism. I could give lectures about the information, but if I wanted my students to really learn the material, I’d have them do the research and then present short oral reports to educate the rest of the class. And if I were really on the ball, I’d get copies of the relevant sections of The Patriot Act and have the class read and discuss them as well.
I’m being very specific here, because as your child gets older and is faced with more sophisticated material to study, you’re probably going to have to step in and provide the teaching that she’ll miss out on in school. Most teachers do not deliberately shortchange their students – they teach the way they were taught, and if they never learned the difference between assigning and teaching, they won’t know they’re doing anything wrong
I’ve given you the specifics I think you’ll need to help your child study effectively so he can do well in school. But I don’t want to end this chapter without reminding you that learning really can be thrilling. If you can find the time and the energy and the heart to work with your child and encourage her, by the time she graduates from high school, she’ll have a passion for learning that will nourish her for a lifetime.