Prepare Your Teen for Success in High School

 ADHD Weekly August 30, 2018

Does your new high school student head out the door for the first day of school next week?

The beginning of the school year may feel like a fresh start for you and your child with ADHD, but September can also mean starting a new school year with some new headaches. The transition to high school is a big one for any student, of course. But if ADHD symptoms have been most obvious in your child’s struggles with organization and time management, the effect of starting ninth grade is likely to be magnified.

“The primary challenge with transitioning to high school is that it is a time when academic expectations are ramping up,” says Joshua Langberg, PhD, co-director of the Center for ADHD Research, Education and Service, and director of the Promoting Adolescent School Success (PASS) Lab, both at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Langberg is also a member of CHADD’s professional advisory board.

“Students are expected to take on more responsibility and do more tasks independently,” Dr. Langberg says.

Parents recognize that as their children are looking down the road, often toward college, they need to be in charge of their homework and schedules and develop the skills to manage them. But what many parents end up doing is to be become completely hands-off all at once, he says —meaning their kids go from a high level of support in middle school to very little support in a short period of time. This is a recipe for failure.

How can you help your child adjust to high school?

Making your expectations clear is the most important and helpful thing parents can do, says Dr. Langberg. Instead of telling your new ninth grader, “I’d like to see you be more independent,” help her create a plan and set measurable goals toward independence. That might include keeping an online calendar with all her homework assignments and tests in it and checking it at least once a day. You might ask her to show you the calendar every day as well, so you can see what’s happening. Another expectation might be that she keeps a backpack organization system for her schoolwork, rather than having a mass of loose papers stuffed inside it.

Choose basic but important behaviors that she can handle independently, and then praise her for what she’s done—right from day one, rather than waiting until a couple of weeks or a month have passed.

“The only way to encourage independence is to define specifically what you’re looking for on a day-to-day basis,” says Dr. Langberg. “If you define what you want to see, monitor it regularly, and provide encouragement and positive feedback on a daily basis, then you can gradually reduce the frequency of your monitoring, once you see those behaviors are in place.”

Dr. Langberg stresses that it’s important to offer praise for what is going right, rather than react only to failures, which is what happens all too often.

“We hope for the best, and then wait for them to fail and point it out when they fail,” he says. That often turns into negativity and consequences, with upset parents and children, which is not a good way to encourage independence.

Frustrations and expectations

There is no guarantee that a given approach will be 100 percent successful, and that’s okay, too.If your child becomes overwhelmed, she is more like to lose any internal motivation she had to move toward autonomy. Failures can add up in her mind, says Dr. Langberg. It’s important that you keep in mind her experience with success and failure up to this point. Perhaps she has come up short on many things parents and teachers asked her to do over the years, and she sees these as failures. The weight of these perceived failures can get to a level where she does not see the point in working toward success she feels she cannot achieve.

“You have to ask yourself, why would someone who’s experienced those failures be motivated to try something new, and double down and put in increased effort just because she’s starting high school? If you think about it that way, it’s logical that many adolescents with ADHD struggle with their motivation to do these things,” he says. It is up to you to help your child get the sense that things can be different for her in high school.

“You have to make it realistic and easy to achieve,” says Dr. Langberg, adding that taking a step-by-step approach is the best route, increasing goals and expectations as your child achieves the ones you already set together.

“The adolescent high schooler has to get this sense of, ‘This is going to work this time. This is different—I feel better about this. My parent is pleased with me. We’re focusing on the things I’m doing well. We’re not focusing on the negatives, so now I can add more things and move forward,’” Dr. Langberg says. “Oftentimes when the system doesn’t work, when they experience failure, it’s because we’ve asked too much out of the gate, and we really need to guarantee success.”

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