Parents Of Kids With ADHD Share Their Best Back-To-School Tips

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

I have three kids with ADHD, and we might homeschool, but the transition back to any kind of school is real and messy. People have to wake up at a certain time. They have to eat breakfast at a certain time. They need to put on clothes (this has become a major issue post-Covid). Put down tablets, brush teeth, comb hair, feed the dogs, pick up the breakfast detritus, clear off the table, and all this before we can even start school.

And I have ADHD myself. So does my husband. Pictures of our living room could kill Marie Kondo.

So I sent an SOS to other parents whose kids have ADHD. In business gobbledygook, I needed real-world solutions and actionable tips. In parent-speak, I needed some serious help corralling my little demons into a semblance of order, especially with school starting again (truth: they’re only demons when they’re hangry). We needed routine. We needed order. We needed help. Stat.

Parents came through. They get it.

Kids With ADHD Need Routine

Johner Images/Getty

Getty Images/Johner RF

Everyone always says all kids need routine, and then my brain sort of turns off, because I’m no good at it (see: Mama and Daddy have ADHD). But kids with ADHD especially need routine. They have trouble with self-regulation and self-control — so they need more external controls, like routine and structure, to help them with life, the universe, and everything. This structure, in turn, gives them the confidence to be successful and learn to create it for themselves, rather than having parental units impose it.

And how the hell do I do it?!

Melanie Grunow Sobocinski, an academic, ADHD, and parent coach, shared a genius idea with Scary Mommy: make a morning playlist. She says on her blog, “In the morning we have thematic songs set as alarms for cuddle time, waking up, bed making, getting dressed, hairbrushing, breakfast, toothbrushing, shoes & coats, and out the door. In the evening we have thematic songs for getting backpacks ready, cleaning up, dimming the lights, changing into PJs, brushing teeth, and lights out. Now instead of nagging, the songs are doing the work of keeping us on time.” This is freaking genius and someone please hand her a medal. I’m already queuing up songs on Spotify. This makes sense: kids with ADHD need not only routine, but time management. The songs build in both at once.

Renee H. pointed out to Scary Mommy that kids with ADHD have trouble “visualizing the final product.” So she recommends pictures. First, you take “a photo of them with everything they need. Dressed with mask on, backpack packed, lunch box, etc.” Then, she says that, “For the night before, a photo of the items laid out in a grid pattern and numbered left to right to reinforce a systematic approach.” My kids would eat this up with a spoon.

A lot of parents told Scary Mommy they use checklists. Kristin K. puts one on her kid’s lanyard, and keeps another in the laundry room. Leanne G. recommended “short, large-print checklists” — especially if the kids help to brainstorm what goes on them. Ariell F. keeps hers “on the door on the way out at eye-level.” She uses a dry-erase board, and dry-erase markers for one-time things, but Sharpies for routine.

Anne R. said to Scary Mommy that she uses Alexa to set reminders: “My son sets alarms to wake up, then to get dressed, get bag, pack whatever, homework reminders, bedtime reminders – everything really.” Jess B. uses their timer function to help her kids know how much time they have left at certain activities.

What Else Do Kids With ADHD Need?

Stephanie R. told Scary Mommy that they are already practicing schedules. And not just morning routines — her kids are slow eaters, and they’ll only have half an hour for lunch, so they’ve started to work on that. Parents of kids with ADHD need to think ahead for roadblocks, like not enough lunchtime, that could derail a kid’s day on a regular basis. What will my kid have trouble with, and what can we practice now?

Many parents said they get things ready the night before, down to clothing. Shannon L. said, “Set up required materials in advance – like sports stuff. Be sure all the uniform pieces are through the wash, gear packed in advance. Last minute panic doesn’t work.” Laying out clothes — or even sleeping in them — was a help to many parents. I prep my kids’ toothbrushes with toothpaste in the mornings so they see them when they go into the bathroom.

Kids with ADHD don’t do well with changes in their structure, either. When something different comes up, it’s good to prepare them as much as you can. Tiffany M. told Scary Mommy, “Always prepare them for activities and events. Go through potential situations that might happen so their brains can prepare for the unexpected as much as possible.”

Many parents pointed out how important it was to simply assure kids with ADHD aren’t hungry or thirsty or overtired. Simply because they have difficulty with self-control, their meltdowns tend to be more spectacular than other kids’ (at least my kids’ are). My husband is a genius at remembering this one. If one of our kids starts acting off, he first asks: “When did you last eat? What did you last eat?” (Rachel A. pointed out how important it is to get good protein into all their meals). Then he moves onto, “What have you had to drink today?” Rachel also notes how necessary good sleep hygiene is for kids with ADHD.

Almost everyone told Scary Mommy that kids with ADHD need physical activity. Even if it’s walking around the house or walking the dog, kids have to move — preferably with as little structure as possible. I throw my kids in the backyard with their trampoline and giant play structures (we’re really privileged to have all of it) and allow anything that isn’t intentional bodily harm. This includes digging giant holes and filling them with water.

Genius Miscellaneous Tips

Halfpoint Images/Getty

Getty Images

Meghan G. told Scary Mommy that she uses sticky notes — and puts them in places people touch, like door handles and faucets and even her husband’s deodorant. They’re much more likely, she says, to see them that way. I’m probably going to implement this like, now.

Pamela T. had a great idea that saves everyone a lot of headaches: kids with ADHD tend to lose things. “For executive function challenges with losing things – I stick a Tile in anything of value (backpack, trumpet case, keys). I’ve watched his trumpet ride around on a school bus several times!” (That clicking you hear is me ordering Tiles. Multiple Tiles).

Ariell F. said to Scary Mommy that she keeps a “basket by the door with oft forgotten last-minute essentials or to redo morning steps (extra masks, extra hairbrush, wipes, sunscreen, socks, a few granola bars, etc.)… If you drive your kids to school, put an extra toothbrush, hairbrush, and wipes in the car.” Way to make sure everything doesn’t go haywire at the last minute!

My kids will love this stuff! Hopefully, your kids with ADHD will benefit from it as much as mine. I feel a lot more confident walking into the school year with tips like these — they’ll make our (now nonexistent) routine a lot smoother.

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