Middle School Challenges for Kids with ADHD

Middle School Challenges for Kids with ADHD

Middle school is already a challenge for every tween, bringing all kinds of new experiences like new friends, new academic structure, and of course – puberty. These challenges can be even harder for kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD – formerly called ADD). Here is a list of 10 daily obstacles that students with ADHD (and their parents) may face in middle school, and what you can do to help them!

Challenge #1: Multiple Teachers & Sets of Rules

In elementary school, most students only have one primary teacher that they have for the entire school year (some schools start introducing fifth graders to having 2 or 3 specialized teachers to help make the transition easier), but once a student reaches middle school they are introduced to a whole new academic structure with rotating classes and 6 or more specialized teachers. Each of these teachers has their own different personalities, set of classroom rules, and assignment schedules. This transition is tough for every middle school student, but it can be especially difficult for children with ADHD who already struggle with executive functions, planning and organization. Students with ADHD who have weak impulse control may already have issues mastering the expectations of one teacher – now they must face new class rules every hour.

Solution #1: Be Present and Proactive

Make sure to maintain relationships with all of your child’s teachers, not just the ones teaching their core subjects. Discuss strategies that have helped your child in the past and revisit them throughout the school year as your child becomes accustomed to their new environment. They may need to be adapted as the school year progresses. Encourage them to share their challenges with their teachers too. (This free worksheet may help them introduce themselves and their challenges to their teachers!)

If your child has an IEP, specific academic and behavioral accommodations can go a long way towards helping them manage all of these new changes. Some schools even allow parents to modify their child’s schedule to reduce the number of teachers, or allow access to quiet spaces to take tests or escape noisy classrooms to read or study without distraction.

Challenge #2: Social Cliques

Once our children mature into adolescents, they become more and more self-aware, learning about who they are and where their “place” is. This means the introduction of social cliques – social groups that share interests, classes, and drama. In the moment, these social groups are extremely important to tweens and can make or break their middle school experience. Cliques are a double-edged sword though – if your child is part of one, they might constantly worry about impressing them and staying in favor with them, but if they are not in one, they likely feel frustrated and lonely.

Solution #2: Help Your Child Build a “Team”

Before the school year starts, or at the very beginning, discuss with your child the potential social challenges they may face like finding a friendly group to eat lunch with or attending the school social events. Then, role play some scenarios and possible solutions in advance. Encourage your child to find clubs or organizations that fit their interests, so they can meet other students that share those interests. If your child tells you they are being bullied, take this concern seriously, alert the school, and make sure administrators respond appropriately. Make sure your child knows you support them and will be there for them.

Challenge #3: The Backpack Black Hole

With the constant barrage of papers coming from every class, it won’t take long for your child’s backpack to become a wasteland of broken pencils, crumpled homework pages, squished up notebooks, half-dead computers, and chargers tangled up with headphones. Without a well maintained organizational strategy, your child’s backpack will soon become a source of frustration for them.

Solution #3: Folders and Weekly Swaps

Before school begins, set up a simple organization system that your child can follow like having one folder for incoming papers and one for papers that need to be turned in. Or, if you have your child’s schedule, you could try getting a different colored folder for each subject, making one side “incoming” and the other “outgoing”. (These strategies can also be applied to computer folders if your child’s school has switched to a digital assignment system.) Whatever system works best for your child, road test it over the summer and work out any kinks that may arise before August. Once school begins, set up a time each week to go through your child’s backpack with them and reorganize it before the upcoming week. This can teach them the power of a routine and catch lost assignments or forms before it becomes a problem.

Challenge #4: Learning How to Use a Planner

Many schools provide a planner to each student at the beginning of the year that teachers expect students to write each of their assignments in. Some teachers write assignments on the whiteboard for students to copy, others simply announce them at the end of class, or in this digital age, send them in an email or through the schools assignment system. Being bombarded with all of that critical and time-sensitive information is enough to overload your child’s executive function skills.

Solution #4: Offer Supervision and Rewards

Don’t expect your child to master using a planner independently. Outline specific times they should check or add to their planner and figure out strategies that will help them remember to write down each assignment. Check their planner regularly, especially during the first few weeks of school, and consider having rewards for each week that they successfully use their planner. If you child has an IEP, ask some of their teachers to check the planner regularly too to ensure that assignments are copied correctly before leaving class.

Challenge #5: Peer Pressure

Decades of research have proven an unfortunate truth: people with ADHD are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as trying drugs or having unprotected sex, than their peers without the condition. Parents hope that middle school is too early to begin worrying about these issues, but the truth is that tweens start to explore their independence and manage their confusing hormones in middle school, which can lead to making choices that they’ll later regret.

Solution #5: Positive Parenting

Provide structure and routine for your child, but make sure they know you are their ally and support system. Research shows that children who feel supported are less likely to experiment with risky behaviors. Get to know your child’s friends and consider finding them a mentor like a trusted coach, older family member or member of the community – this person can be another set of eyes and ears and another ally that your child will know is there for them.

Challenge #6: Getting to Class on Time

With new rotating classes, and more independence in getting to them on time, the thought of having to dash to class (and getting detention for being late!), may throw students with ADHD into a spiral of anxiety. Add in stops to their locker and social distractions and time management becomes a challenge very quickly!

Solution #6: Build Muscle Memory

Ask the school if you can walk the path between your student’s classes with them a few days before school starts. This dry run will ensure they know the location of each classroom and their locker without the added distractions of other students. Discuss with your child what to do if they feel lost or know they’re running late – like asking a teacher for help or finding a friend who is also in their next class.

Challenge #7- The Dreaded Combination Lock

One snag that may prevent your child from arriving to class on time is stopping by their locker. The locker is their home base and should be easy to access. According to a survey conducted by Scholastic showed that one of the biggest fears for upcoming middle school students is malfunctioning locks or forgetting the combination. Children with fine motor delays or hyperactive hands may struggle even more than their peers when fiddling with a combination lock or remembering the combination.

Solution #7: Practice, Practice, Practice

Your child may roll their eyes at this solution, but taking time to practice using a combination lock over the summer will save them so much time and so many headaches during the school year. Have your child store the combination in their phone or write it in their planner. If they continue to struggle with the combination lock, ask the school if they could use a luggage lock instead – they’re often easier to open and can be programmed with a code your child picks and can easily remember like their birthday or a favorite number.

Challenge #8: Feeling “Different”

Normal developmental timelines show that most children want desperately to “fit in” during middle and high school. The challenge is that many children with ADHD naturally stand out from the crowd, due to behavioral or academic challenges, or because of unique (and sometimes unpopular) interests and hobbies. Social skills don’t come naturally to them, and they feel popularity is elusive.

Solution #8: Listen, Lead, and Love

If your child feels like they’re the black sheep of their grade, your role as a parent is to support, encourage, and gently coach them toward healthier social interactions. This doesn’t mean trying to turn your child into someone they’re not. Instead, it means acknowledging that feeling different can be painful, and providing guidance and strategies to help them build her self-esteem and find friends with shared interests and values. Make sure they know they are loved and that the opinions of others often do not matter. Once they find their true friends, they will love them for who are and will support and encourage them.

Challenge #9: More Homework

With more classes, that means more homework and in middle school these assignments become longer, more complex, and more frequent. Your child will also be expected to do independent research, plan and execute long-term projects, and synthesize the information they’ve learned in new and challenging ways. That pressure is enough to make anyone shut down, but especially children with learning disabilities.

Solution #9: Get the Right Accommodations

If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, make sure it incorporates strategies or accommodations to help them manage a challenging homework load, like extended time for assignments or chunked-up deadlines for long-term projects. Encourage them to join a study group or take advantage of additional resources — some teachers, for instance, hold “homework clubs” after school to make themselves available to answer questions from students working through obstacles. Tutoring may also be available so a teacher or older student can help explain assignments in a quieter, more private environment without the usual distractions of the classroom.

Challenge #10: Independence and Self-Advocacy

Exploring independence is a natural and healthy part of adolescence. Your child may increasingly want to handle her problems on her own, without Mom or Dad’s help. That drive toward adulthood, however, is complicated by the fact that many children with ADHD are as much as three years behind their peers developmentally. Your child simply may not be ready to wake herself up on time or resolve a dispute with her teacher without help.

Solution #10: Gradually Loosen the Reins

Allow your child to test the waters of independence slowly. Choose something that your child is already invested in — say they want to get to school earlier to hang out with their friends before class starts — and gradually transition control of this responsibility to them as they proves their capabilities. Get a step-by-step breakdown of what this transition looks like here.