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Is there an ADHD learning style?  Yes, although of course a parent or good tutor should try different ways of presenting information to any child to see what’s most effective. But there is a learning style we often find in our work with ADHD students. Let’s call it an Interactive Learning Style. One you understand this, you’ll see why your child needs you to work with them during homework time, rather than nag them to get started on their own.

A review of research into learning styles can be frustrating. Researchers have proposed numerous models, ranging from simple labels — visual, auditory or kinesthetic — which only partially fit most students — to complex theories too detailed for parents or tutors not trained as learning specialists. (If you do want to dig a little deeper, our favorite model is Felder-Silverman, summarized here).  So we have come down to Interactive as a good starting point for our homework coaches when they first meet a new student.

The only learning style model we’ve found that includes an Interactive style is the Institute of Learning Styles Research, which identifies seven “perceptual” learning styles related to the five senses. (We are sorry for the student with an olfactory learning style — good luck learning calculus by smell!). According to ILSR, the Interactive learner

Learns best through verbalization
Often hums or talks to self or others
Likes to use other people as a sounding board
Enjoys question/answer sessions
Finds small group discussions stimulating and informative
Prefers to discuss things with others
Usually is not quiet for great lengths of time

If you look at that list you can guess that it will not be effective to expect your student to study for tests by staring at a dense paragraph or complex diagram. They will struggle to stay focused, especially if they are ADHD and disinterested in the topic. They will find themselves reading and re-reading the same sentence again and still being unable to tell you what it’s about.

HomeworkCoach has found, through our work with dozens of client, that ADHD children (and LD children generally) learn best in an interactive environment. Simply having someone study with them makes all the difference. Review the work your child has done in school each day by reading aloud the study guide or notes. Then discuss what you’ve read. Or ask them to teach the material to you. That way you will know if they understand it, and it will help them remember it when they take a test. And verbally quiz them before tests as part of their studying process. It’s not that they are loo lazy or undisciplined to just sit and study on their own. The way they learn needs someone interacting with them.

Many parents know this; they often say their child does better when they take time before a test to go through the material verbally. But parents may not have the time and, as children gets older, they resist the parent interfering – but will happily work with a younger homework coach who will do just what the parent would have. That’s the great value of a homework coach. The coach can help the student review material by reading it with them and asking questions, and can quiz them verbally for tests. That helps keep the ADHD child engaged and more likely to absorb the information.

Call us at 877-715-5442 for more information about our HomeworkCoach service.

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If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, they are entitled to special accommodations from the school, per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Such accommodations, logically called 504 Plans, should be agreed in writing by your child’s school.  The 504 Plan will not call for specialized instruction, but will expect your child’s teachers to make provisions that help your child manage their ADHD — for example, preferred seating away from distractions or extra time on tests.

If your child has a disability that does require specialized instruction, the relevant law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the school should develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The IEP requires documentation of measurable growth and will spell out specific educational goals.

It can be pretty overwhelming knowing how to go about getting the right services for your student. You’ll be doing a lot of research on your own.  The purpose of this post is simply to provide a printable handout that will give you some idea of the sort of accommodations and requests you should consider for your child’s IEP or 504 Plan.  Here it is: click and print!

HomeworkCoach offers limited Advocacy services, including IEP or 504 Plan review.  Call us at 877-715-5442 if we can help.

Free Download: Accommodations List for IEP and 504 Plan

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A guest post by Charles Carpenter of HealingSounds.info, describing how music can improve focus and cognitive ability in children diagnosed with ADHD.

Nineteenth century French novelist Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” It’s long been known that music possesses healing and therapeutic powers that are little understood even today.

Alzheimer’s patients whose memories have been ravaged by the disease respond joyfully to music that their brain suddenly recalls from decades ago. And research has shown that music can help improve focus and cognitive ability in children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). It reaches deep into those parts of the brain involved with communication and learning, boosts self-esteem and puts a new form of communication in children who struggle to maintain control of themselves.

A 2011 study found that music increases levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure in the brain, a substance people with ADHD have in low levels. Typically, chemical stimulants have been used to treat the disorder, but the effectiveness of music offers a positive alternative that not only helps children cope with their condition, but has proven effective at helping kids perform better at school.

Music as communal activity

The ensemble nature of music gives children with ADHD a fun opportunity to engage in a social and collaborative activity. ADHD patients engage with music in an informal manner which encourages creativity and builds auditory pathways that help children improve in their ability to focus and pay attention. Playing music together also relieves stress, reduces feelings of anxiety, mitigates depression and lessens the agitation and frustration that children with ADHD often experience. Whether singing together as a family or making music with friends in a therapeutic setting, kids experience positive feelings of shared enjoyment and the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal.

Rhythm and focus

Music therapy also reduces restlessness and impulsive behavior in children with ADHD, a significant problem for kids who have trouble controlling themselves in the classroom. This form of therapy uses the linear structure of rhythm to calm the brain and help kids stay focused. There are two basic approaches to music therapy with ADHD patients. In the active form of therapy, patient and therapist work together to make music, both vocally and instrumentally; in receptive therapy, the therapist plays music that the patient focuses on intently. Both give the patient an opportunity for creative expression and interpretation and helps activate the right side of the brain.

Universal language

Classical music is most often used in therapy; however, in recent years, therapists have branched out into other musical forms and styles, though loud and dissonant rock music is sometimes discouraged as a therapeutic medium. Today jazz, rhythm and blues, folk, blues and Broadway tunes are all used in therapy.

Much has been written about the Mozart Effect, which has proven effective in helping children with ADHD, autism and other developmental problems. French physicist Alfred Tomatis made the connection between learning difficulty and the middle ear, which differentiates between hearing and listening. Mozart’s compositions tend to occupy a higher frequency range, which Tomatis believed to be highly stimulating to that part of the brain that controls attentiveness.

Finding the right instrument

If finding the right instrument for your child seems elusive, consider the expansive woodwind family. For example, the saxophone is an instrument with a highly versatile tonal range. There are more than a dozen types, ranging from soprano to bass. It can be a challenging yet rewarding instrument to learn, though it’s important to select the right one for your child’s skill level. Consult your child’s instructor or band director, and take advantage of the experts at your local music stores.

Music for life

Try incorporating music into your child’s daily routine. Play the music of Mozart, Brahms and other Miles Davis on the way to school, or while your child is doing homework. Encourage new forms of music as a way to foster learning and instill a sense of discovery, and encourage your child to play an instrument. The more you can incorporate music into your child’s life, the more he or she will benefit from its remarkable ability to help increase mental focus and acuity.

Gust post by Charles Carpenter. Charles created HealingSounds.info. He believes in the power of music and sound as a healing tool. Image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

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In terms of non-medical treatments, parents often don’t know where to turn when their children have been handed an ADHD diagnosis. There are plenty of brain-rewiring programs, psychologists and counselors, natural remedies, nutritional programs, and 504 plans. But many parents want someone to come the their home, help their child with their schoolwork, and be a good role model–and that’s where tutoring comes in. But tutoring kids with ADHD is vastly different from standard tutoring. Here, I’m going to tell you what an ADHD tutor does, and what separates the good from the bad.

Also sometimes called an ADHD coach or a homework coach, an ADHD tutor can have a huge impact on a student’s life. One 2013 study of 148 college students found that after eight weeks of ADHD coaching classes, students enjoyed significant improvements in learning, self-esteem, and school and work satisfaction. Another study found improved executive function in terms of goals attainment skills, well-being, and self-regulation. As the youth speaker Josh Shipp puts it, “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

But what makes ADHD tutoring different?

An ADHD tutor does not work as much on specific assignments and courses the way a typical academic tutor does. Instead, the tutor will take a holistic approach to all of the student’s schoolwork, helping him work out a schedule that works and maintain a good daily workflow. They will set goals together and talk about ways he tends to get tripped up–for example, procrastinating because an assignment seems more daunting than it really is.

A huge difference in teaching style is that ADHD tutors need to be more affirming, positive, nurturing, and patient than regular tutors. This is because ADHD students tend to have lower self esteem, and have often internalized the message that there is something wrong with their character. On the other hand, ADHD tutors should also be organized, dependable, and firm, able to resist their students’ tendency to talk about something other than the work at hand.

Tutoring Kids With ADHD Takes Patience and Positivity

Because kids with ADHD tend to be more discouraged and have lower self-esteem, they need to know that their tutor believes in them. This goes way beyond the normal call of duty, as far as tutoring is concerned. If you need to get ready for the SAT or pass chemistry, you need an expert in one of those areas. An ADHD tutor, on the other hand, needs to be gifted in the area of motivation. This starts with the tutor’s demeanor; there should be a lot of positive reinforcement, but not in a patronizing way. Rather, kids need to hear simple things like, “That’s neat how you came up with that,” or, “You know, you have a knack for writing.”

ADHD kids often don’t get around to the work they said they would do. They can be frazzled and overwhelmed. A good tutor will respond to these setbacks without judgment or criticism. Instead of saying, “I thought you were going to do this before our next session,” they may say, “Ok, let’s put together next week’s homework schedule a little more carefully and perhaps you can send me a text when you’ve completed each step.”

From Focus to Follow-Through, Executive Functions can be Taught

ADHD students are sometimes characterized as “lazy,” “disorganized,” “unmotivated,” or “impulsive.” But these are not character traits, they are signs of deficient or immature executive function skills. A good ADHD tutor would never think of their student as lazy or unmotivated, they would rather note the underlying executive function challenges, such as the student has trouble getting started on homework, has a hard time switching from one task to another, or gets sidetracked easily.

Behind these behaviors is always a “why.” The student may procrastinate starting on her research project because she hasn’t broken it down into little bite-size chunks yet, can’t remember where she put the outline instructions, or feels overwhelmed because she’s never put together a bibliography. The tutor and student can talk through all of this and write down the steps that need to be taken, then put together a task list.

We aren’t born knowing how to eat with a fork, and we certainly aren’t born with the ability to write a good task list. The same goes for to-do lists, weekly calendars, agendas, and so on. An ADHD tutor doesn’t just assume that the student already knows how to organize his life on paper like this. That’s why so much of tutoring kids with ADHD is about setting goals, writing things down, and using practical tools.

The same goes for another problem with ADHD kids: time blindness. With ADHD, an hour can feel like five hours, or it can feel like five minutes, depending on how distracted or hyperfocused he is. ADHD tutors work on time management by helping the student project ahead of time how the rest of his day and week will look. She may have him estimate how long a set of problems will take, and then time him on it. People with ADHD often push off doing important things because they wildly overestimate how long it will take. On the other hand, they wait until the 11th hour to start on things because they figure it won’t take long. With practice, ADHD kids get a better grip on how their time and workload fits together.

Non-Judgmental Teaching Yields the Way

I have always wanted to hire a home organizer. My closets are all full of clothing, knick knacks, and keepsakes that I don’t want to throw out, but also don’t know where to put. What keeps me from hiring someone, aside from my budget, is the fear of being judged. I think this is how ADHD kids feel. Any time they have been approached by an adult regarding their cluttered book bags or terribly maintained agenda, it has been with an attitude of, “What’s wrong with you?”

And that attitude is almost always met with defensiveness. When you get defensive, you can’t hear what another person is saying. You are too overwhelmed with the feeling that you need to protect yourself to even hear what the other person is saying. A good ADHD tutor knows how to say, “Let’s organize your papers together,” and guide the child to a filing system that works for them. The tutor never imposes a solution on the student; together, they develop the tools that help the student feel more organized and on top of school work. This is why our company calls our tutors “homework coaches” — the coach observes and guides the child to be the best they can. Slowly, that sense of order being unattainable goes away. It’s amazing how enthusiastic, even zealous, an ADHD kid can get about order once they start to feel empowered.

If you are looking for an ADHD tutor, please consider HomeworkCoach. We have put hundreds of hours of research into tutoring kids with ADHD. We work with students everyday who are facing these struggles. We recruit, train, and certify tutors all over the country. Follow these links to learn more about our tutoring program and ADHD tutors.

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A few nights ago, my six-year-old asked to set the table. I left the kitchen to put on America’s Got Talent. When I came back, my daughter had loaded the table with Bavarian dessert plates, melamine Hello Kitty dishes, Japanese rice bowls, plastic champagne flutes, and a family heirloom–a 1910 deviled egg platter–that I’ve been looking for since the Fourth of July before last.

She had abandoned the place-setting to scrub maniacally at a dinosaur sticker that has never come up since my three-year-old stuck it there after a trip to the museum. For this task, she was using two rags, a scrub brush, and about a quart of water. She looked up at me, did a backward somersault off of the high-backed chair, and burst into tears when her knee banged against a cabinet.

As you may have guessed, my daughter has ADHD. If your child also struggles with this invisible disability, I think this guide will help. This back-to-school toolkit is the culmination of years tutoring ADHD kids, plus a comprehensive review of the best current literature on ADHD tools and best practices.

Setting up the Perfect Homework Station

As an ADHD tutor, I don’t always expect much out of the first tutoring session with a new student. I often walk in to find my new pupil clearing space in a bonus room, tracking down his laptop, ransacking a junk drawer for a ballpoint pen, and yelling, “Mom, what’s the Wifi password?”

I like to tell these parents the same thing I’m about to tell you: if you want your child to take her schoolwork seriously, you have no idea how far a clean, organized, dedicated homework station will get you!

Photo by Nick Amoscato / CC BY

This is not just for organization–though ADHD students really do need help here. A personal work space makes children feel like their work matters. It makes them feel important. It gives them a sense of ownership.

If you have room in your home office or even a spare kitchen nook, set up an inviting homework space. Fill a nearby cabinet or rolling storage cart with little baskets and totes for pens and pencils, paper clips, loose leaf paper, binders, and other supplies.

While many kids use their parents’ home computers, I usually recommend that they have their own. Kids take their work more seriously when they don’t feel like they’re working on a borrowed computer. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Google Chromebooks are lightweight, simple, and reliable; plus, they’re less than $200 a pop. Make sure to bookmark important websites, such as school portals and an online dictionary.

Photo by lozikiki / CC BY

Younger kids and extraverted kids often do well at the kitchen table. In this case, you can imbue the space with importance by having a caddy nearby with supplies, folders documenting finished assignments, and cork boards and family calendars hung up just high enough for them to access and see. By the time kids reach high school, they do better in a quiet office or a desk in the bedroom. Introverted children often relish the private, studious rush of excitement in their own personal space.

ADHD children benefit from something called proprioceptive input. They fidget and squirm because it helps them focus. For this reason, you may want to buy your child a special seat. Younger kids do great in a HowdaHUG. This chair allows them to rock gently, and they tend to stay a lot more focused. Some of my older students swear by exercise balls. I have also seen success with exercise bike chairs such as the DeskCycle.

Telling Teachers That Your Child has ADHD

We all know that first impressions matter. That’s why it can be nerve-wracking to tell your child’s teachers, right off the bat, about her ADHD diagnosis. But things really do go more smoothly when you get it out in the open.

I usually recommend that you write down the most important information ahead of time–especially if it isn’t obvious.

Last year, one of my fellow tutor’s students, whom we’ll call Julie, was going from a small private middle school to Westpoint High School in Connecticut. Along with ADHD, Julie suffered from social phobia and agoraphobia (a fear of crowds). Julie’s mother explained to her teachers that they would probably see this manifest in ways they didn’t expect. Julie sometimes came to class late. Or, she would forget to get her homework from her locker. Because her teachers knew that she was not only forgetful–a hallmark symptom of ADHD–but also unsettled by crowds, they didn’t assume that she was being careless or lazy. They were more careful not to reproach her in front of her schoolmates. And they allowed her to sit in the back of the classroom where she would not feel as exposed.

Our understanding of ADHD is advancing all the time. Teachers are usually too busy to keep up with the latest research. Because you, the parent, know your child best, you will be doing everyone a favor by discussing what works and doesn’t. If your child acts like he doesn’t care to cover up shame and embarrassment, his teachers can really work with that. If he learns better with a discreet fidget cube in his pocket, that’s good information, too.

Here are some other examples of great talking points:

Discuss options. These may include 5-minute movement breaks, an extra set of textbooks, copied notes (perhaps in collaboration with another student), a pocket fidget cube, etc.
Get parent contacts. Ask to be introduced, perhaps via email, to other parents of classmates with ADHD.
Go Over the 504 Plan. Discuss the details of whatever IEP or 504 plan you have set up with the school to make sure the teacher’s understanding of what is required matches yours.

The Phone Buddy System

If your school sends home the contact information of other families, send out some emails until you are able to designate a “phone buddy” list. ADHD children are constantly leaving books and papers at school and forgetting to write down instructions. These extra contacts will be lifesavers in those moments. If your child is old enough, have her get the names, numbers, and addresses herself: one for each class.

Corkboards, Calendars and Clocks

Remember how cool office supplies seemed when you were a kid? All those brightly colored sticky notes; those important-seeming “While You Were Out” pads with the yellow and pink receipts. Office supplies can bring a sense of fun to schedules, agendas, routines, and to-do lists. They can make those lists seem like something more than a jumble of information in their brains and a mess of paper stuffed into their book bags.

There are a lot of ways you can use office supplies to engage your ADHD child. Here are some ideas.

Write morning, afternoon, and homework checklists on chalkboards or dry-erase boards within eye level of your child. That way, instead of asking in that strained voice why his shoes aren’t by the door, you can say, “OK honey, go ahead and check your after school board to make sure you remembered everything.”

Photo by eflon/ CC BY

Get a corkboard, thumbtacks, and flashcards for things that need to get done at school, from turning in a research outline, to getting a classmate’s contact information for a science project. After school, ask your child what he did. Let him take those items off the board herself!

For kids with ADHD, it isn’t enough to simply write down due dates on a calendar. There are some really fabulous academic planners that will help you and your child diagram the minutiae of her life into a schedule that works. One award-winning planner by Order Out of Chaos has such clever features as an after-school 2-9pm planning section and a vertical index design that allows students to write down their school subjects just once.

Other tools that are well-known for helping ADHD students include color-coded binders, sticker charts and analog clocks and timer — choose analog so that your student can visualize the passing of time. You can even go shopping together and let her pick them out herself. Target has some seriously cute office supplies.

Leaving Summer Behind

When I was in highschool, my friend Cam dared me to try and drive his dad’s Miata. We were hanging out at his house. We wanted to hit up Wendy’s for our favorite snack–french fries and a Frosty. I had never tried to drive a stick shift before. I figured it was just a mile away though, and he said he would buy my food if I made it there without wrecking the car. We spent at least ten minutes in the driveway as I tried to engage the clutch, stalling the car over and over instead. Then I almost hit his mailbox as the car lurched sideways like I’d hit a patch of ice. I made it to the end of the neighborhood, then tried to turn onto the main road as an ominous grinding growl sounded from deep inside the car’s metal entrails. The car jerked halfway into the road then froze, oncoming traffic approached, Cam screamed, I screamed, I hit the gas, and we careened into a ditch. This was the beginning and end of my career driving stick shift.

This experience may not have been my most proud formative moment, but it did prime me for the task of parenting a child with ADHD. No, they are not more likely to go joyriding in their dads’ precious sports cars. But they are more likely to struggle terribly with transitions.

Psychologists call this problem cognitive inflexibility. This is the inability to flow smoothly from one task to another, to multitask effectively, and to try a new strategy when the old one no longer works. As anxiety levels rise, kids can act out or become uncooperative.

Cognitive inflexibility can cause your child anxiety as the school year looms closer. Just when you need to start getting them to bed earlier, limiting their screen time, and reigning in their nightly Nutty Buddy consumption, you may encounter way more pushback than you expected.

The best way I have found parents work around this problem is by making external changes without the power struggle. They may put up a new family schedule on the fridge, for example, and when their children resist, they refer to the schedule itself as the “bad guy.”

Conversations can go something like:

“I’m sorry, I wish we could watch another episode of Heartland, too. But it says on the schedule, no screen time after 7.”
“I know, I don’t want to make you do your homework, either. It’s just that it’s on the schedule for right after school today, so we have to do it.”
“No, we can’t go to the pool after school. The schedule says bedtime is at 8. But we do get to take the boat out into the harbor on Labor Day. That will be fun, right?”

Ease your child into the year by talking about the good things late August will bring. Anything you can do to drum up excitement–new lockers, better cafeteria food, basketball tryouts, brand new back-to-school clothes–can alleviate fears. Walk through the new routines often. Talk about how your child will put out clothes at night for the next morning, and how your morning will go from wake-up call to walking out to the bus-stop.

Perhaps the best thing you can do, though, is help your child get a good sleep schedule.

You can tuck your child in at 8, but that doesn’t mean they will go to sleep. ADHD kids are far more likely to suffer from sleep-onset insomnia. This isn’t a side effect of ADHD medication, as unmedicated children also have this problem. Their minds race as they try and go to sleep, only to drift off into a shallow, fragmented state often punctuated by nightmares. Many of my students admit that they have a real fear of going to sleep. Maybe that’s why they tend to catch that after-dinner second wind that’s so pervasive in the ADHD population.

If you are wary of the idea of a melatonin supplement, take a look at the research. It’s well-studied as safe and effective for treating insomnia in ADHD kids. Just check in with your pediatrician first.

Your To-Do List

Let me end by modeling how you should often end a discussion with your ADHD teen. Don’t expect them to hold many thoughts in their working memory. Instead, write them a brief, actionable to do list. Here’s your back to school checklist:

  • Create and stock an appealing homework space
    Prepare well for a conversation with your child’s teacher, then make sure it happens
  • Put together buddy list you can call when your child loses a book or is confused about an assignment
  • Create a family calendar showing daily routines and extra-curricular activities
  • Ease the transition by frequently talking through back-to-school routines
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Your ADHD child is resisting getting started on homework, as usual. You’ve learned that yelling and nagging won’t work. So what should you do? This blog post suggests a starting point: determining whether your student is overstressed or bored.

The graphic above — which we have taken from a nice article by BEabove Leadership — illustrates an interesting aspect of ADHD.  Your child’s ADHD-typical behaviors, such as poor impulse control, procrastination, inability to follow directions, lack of organization, can result from both stress and boredom.

These behaviors are managed in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, and this part of the brain functions best when it has the optimum level of neurotransmitters.  If your child is bored or un-stimulated, the pre-frontal cortex will not have enough dopamine or norepinephrine to kick-start homework.  If your child is stressed, too much dopamine or norepinephrine will have the same effect.  Lack of focus, inability to get started. That’s why the BEabove authors joke that the pre-frontal cortex is like Goldilocks.  It needs its neurochemicals to be just right.

So that’s the theory. How does that help you as a parent?  Our suggestion: find out which side of the curve best fits your child right now and from that determine the best strategy to get them going on their homework.

When your child is stressed:

You can usually tell when your child is stressed. Anger toward you or a sibling is one sign. Did something happen at school?  Talk to your child, see if they can identify what they are feeling. Simply naming their feelings can begin the process of reducing stress and lowering adrenaline levels.

Create a relaxing homework environment

Remove distractions including pets and have your child sit at the homework table or desk. Background music is effective with a lot of children.

Try breathing exercises

If your child still seems agitated, see if you can get them to take deep breaths for a few minutes.  Here are some ideas to make the breathing exercise fun. Keep a pinwheel on hand, for example, and see how long your student can keep it spinning by breathing out slowly.

Help them get started on the first assignment

Many ADHD children struggle with “initiation” which is not quite the same as procrastination.  Often you will find that if you help them start their homework, for example, complete the first math problem or write the first sentence, they will keep going without you.

When your child is under-stimulated:

Turning to the left hand side of the curve, you no doubt know when your child is simply bored and is therefore resisting what seems like the torture of doing homework. Your goal is to find a way to increase the flow of dopamine to the front cortex and that is usually all about rewards.

Set short-term goals with a reward at the end

ADHD children do not respond well to far off goals (“get good grades so you can get into a good college”). They do better with a short-term incentive that will help them focus. If they have a daunting worksheet of 20 problems, break it up into 5 problems at a time with a reward of a cookie or two-minutes to check text messages.

Find ways to challenge your child

An ADHD child really struggles to focus on a topic that holds no interest or challenge.  See if you can work on that somehow.  Can you talk through the history assignment and find ways to make it interesting? Can you make a game out of a repetitive assignment, timing how long each homework section takes, and seeing if you child can beat the clock?  Challenges and sparking curiosity have both been shown to stimulate dopamine production.

We hope you find these ideas useful. If you wonder whether you have the time or energy to put these ideas into practice every school night, you might consider hiring a homework coach who can help your child complete homework while strengthening their executive function skills.

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It creeps up on you: the uncomfortable realization that your son or daughter is not doing well in school. Soon after, you reach the point where you know you need to intervene. Where to start? In this blog post educational consultant Amy Eisner leads you through the steps you should take to seek help for your struggling child. (Amy is also one of our best Connecticut tutors.)

The first thing every parent with a struggling child in school should do: get a copy of your child’s cumulative files.  Simply write a note to your school “requesting a complete copy of my child’s cumulative files”. You sign and date this, and then give this to your school secretary (keep your own copy). Under federal law your school has 10 business days to produce a free copy of your child’s cumulative files.

Something magical happens when you put in a note for these files! Some people in your school may start paying more attention to your child, or will tell you about some brainstorm they had to help your child. This happens because bad news travels fast! The schools are very aware that a parent who asks a copy of your child’s cumulative files is probably getting advice from an attorney or a savvy advocate. Your school is now on alert that you are serious about getting your child some help.

Your school will not call you to tell you that your records are done. I advise my clients to call the school about 3-4 days after they submit the letter. Your school is on the defensive now, and they suddenly become very accommodating.

Hiring an advocate

You’ll need your child’s cumulative files for your advocate. “Do I need an advocate?” you may ask. Yes, if you are serious about helping your child, you should hire an advocate to represent you at your local school. Your child is your most precious commodity but this also means you may not be objective about their situation. An advocate will give you unbiased advice on how – or whether – you should go about seeking the special services your child is entitled to.

When should you hire an advocate? My advice is don’t delay. Contact an advocate as soon as it becomes clear to you that you need to talk to the school about your child’s progress.
Make a checklist to help you choose the right advocate. In my view, a good advocate should:

know the curriculum (a former teacher is ideal)
have knowledge of all forms of ancillary testing
strong test interpretation skills
be a skilled negotiator

Of course it’s hard to tell that just from talking to the advocate, so be sure to ask for references! A good advocate will have a list of happy clients which you should read carefully

What is the difference between hiring an attorney vs. hiring an advocate?

An attorney will be 10 times more expensive! And many don’t know a thing about curriculum, testing requests, or testing interpretations. We’ll discuss later when you may need an attorney but for most parents, all you will need is a good advocate.

You cannot trust the school to do the right thing for your child.

In an ideal world, you, your school system and your child’s teacher would all be on the same side, wanting the best for your child. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Why? It is all about money! Your school is not going to tell you about all of the services you can get to assist your child. In fact, many school systems impose a gag order on teachers, preventing them from advising you on how to get either extra help or special education services for your child. Special education/accommodation plans are more work for your school. This means it is labor intensive, costing your school more money. This is another reason to have an advocate who can walk you through the eligibility process to getting those special education services for your child. It is also the main reason I left teaching. If I cannot advocate for the kids in my own classroom, then I really shouldn’t be there!

Major red flags from your schools that your child really needs extra help are comments from your school such as “She is so cute;” “Oh, he is just a little immature don’t worry;” “She really tries hard” and stories to regale to you about something your child did are frequently deliberate avoidance tactics by your school.

Types of help the school should provide. Accommodations vs. Special Education

Services to assist your child to be more successful in school usually fall under two categories. This first category is from the American Disabilities Act. This law was originally written so that children who had diabetes could not be excluded from gym. Under this law, your child may be eligible for a 504 Accommodation Plan. Accommodations usually do not involve direct teaching services from a teacher. Examples of what you can get from your 504 accommodation plan include things like seating in the front of the classroom (to help your child stay focused); being provided with a copy of the teachers’ notes; extra time on tests; prior notice of any/all tests and quizzes; being allowed to take tests in a separate, quiet room; all are examples of accommodations that can be made for your child.

A 504 accommodation plan is not for special education students, who require a specifically designed curriculum in order to learn the concepts. It is ideal for the student who only requires a “few extras” to get by. There are many pluses and minuses of the 504 Plan. A 504 plan does not get your child extra help from either a special education teacher or the regular education teacher. But it does not include due process rights! There really is no accountability in a 504 plan unless you are a diligent parent. My son has ADHD of the combined type, and I put him on the 504-accommodation plan instead of under special education. He does not require a special curriculum to learn. (He would have been mortified to be pulled out of his regular classes to go work with a special education teacher!) My son gets 50% extra time on math tests, preferential seating, and is also entitled to a copy of the teachers notes. He is also allowed to take a picture of the blackboard at the end of his classes to ensure that his notes are adequate. This has been a great plan for him: his grades went from D’s to being an honor roll student!

If your child is significantly behind his peers what should you do?

Accommodations may not be enough. Let’s get back to that advocate you found and your cumulative records. A good advocate should go through your entire cumulative files, paying particular attention to teacher comments, low grades, and especially your state’s annual standardized test results.

Each state has its own name for its annual assessments. In Connecticut it’s the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Georgia has Milestones, Florida the Florida Standards Assessment, and so on. You need to pay attention to this data! It shows you where your child is functioning in the Language Arts and math in comparison to his/her peers. If you take the time to read it there are clear statements such as “a child functioning of this level will most likely require significant help to achieve this task.” Your advocate should be gaining information on the specific testing to request to flush out the nature of your child’s disability. For example, when if I see a low score in the area of phonemic awareness then I am going to ask your school to do the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP)

How do I get Special Education Services for my Child?  Remember that teachers are often discouraged from advising you when it comes to spending the school’s money on testing!  Your advocate should tell you to get a “special education referral form”. Every school district has their own referral form. The form will ask you the nature of your concerns and what interventions have been tried in the past.

Once you turn in this form, the school should schedule an initial meeting promptly. Different states have different names (and slightly different processes). I will use Connecticut’s terminology. In CT, you will be invited to a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. It takes two PPTs to get through the eligibility process.

PPTs are often scheduled back to back for multiple children. The schools like to rush you in and out! When they start your meeting by saying there is only a half hour time slot for the meeting, request another one that offers you more time.

Preparing for your PPT

Being prepared for your meeting is key! Bring in work samples that your child has done which shows he is struggling to understand concepts, or which demonstrate immature handwriting to help make your case.

Another key component at your PPT is that special education comes with its own form of language by using 3-4 letter anachronisms, such as IEP, SLD, ISS. You will need to learn the special ed lingo, or you will be lost the entire meeting! (Check out our “learn the lingo” guide.)  For those parents who are seeking special education services for the first time, you will have the most work to do.

You should have a 3 ring binder with every form and piece of data that your school gives you. Put your material in chronological order. (your hearing officer is not going to appreciate your looking for documents to show him/her) Write your questions out prior to any meeting. Finally have respect for everyone’s time. Everyone is busy! You will do the best if you learn the lingo, organize yourself, and write out your questions prior to your meeting. Never give your only copy of anything to anybody. Photocopy it first. Your school has an uncanny way of misplacing your documents.

PPT I is very anti-climactic. The only thing decided at this meeting is generating a list of tests recommended for your child based on their strengths and weaknesses. It is very easy to get bamboozled at this PPT! For example, there is one language test that your school tries to give your child when asked to assess language which allows the child to get the question right by randomly pointing to one of four pictures and does not test for syntax or grammar. I instead would request a more comprehensive test such as the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals. Everything is a negotiation. You need someone to help you who knows all about these tricks, and will intervene on your behalf! As a parent you have no reason to know about the various tests available and what they measure. Do not just say ok to their proposed testing!

After agreeing on the testing, your school then has 45 school days to complete the assessments and reconvene PPT II. This is the meeting where your child’s testing is reviewed, and a determination is made whether or not your child qualifies for special education services. This is where your advocate should shine! Are you familiar with the saying that “statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics”? Your school will highlight the positive and gloss over your concerns. Tricks schools use are to only give the child a (easier) portion of a particular test; they may also use composite scores to show that your child scores within an average range. HOWEVER, when there is a lot of scatter in those numbers (showing that your child does OK on some portions of a test but badly on others), they will only focus on the positive. You need an advocate to speak up and say, “Hey this child is over two years behind in math”

Anything you ask your school for (eligibility, Out of District Placement, pencil griper) that is denied, have the school mark it on page 3 of your IEP document under “Actions Refused.” This is how you lay a paper trail if you feel your case may go to due process. Another tip: be sure to read any minutes the school provides to make sure it is an accurate reflection of what occurred during your meeting. I started doing this because I would get my page 2 back from the school, read it, and wonder if we were at the same meeting!

What to do if you and the school disagree on the right plan for your child?

Ideally – with your advocate’s firm but polite presence – the school will agree to provide the special education services and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that your child needs. If you do not come away from the PPT II satisfied, however, there are two approaches you can take: mediation or a due process hearing. I recommend mediation first.  Have your advocate help you fill out a “request for a mediation hearing.” You do not need an attorney.

Once you’ve turned in the mediation request, you will receive a call from a State Department of Education consultant or hearing officer. The actual mediation occurs at your home school. You are in one room with your spouse and advocate and the school staff is in another room. The hearing officer will listen to both sides, by going back and forth between the two parties at the meeting. At the end of your mediation, a hearing officer will decide who is in the right/wrong. Mediation is a legally binding agreement. Mediation is also free to parents. Do not attempt a mediation hearing if you are by yourself, as the schools all have top-notch lawyers! Your advocate can handle your mediation hearing.   If you choose to skip mediation or do not accept the mediator’s proposed resolution, you have a right to IEP due process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA). This is where you have to open your wallet and bring in a lawyer. You and the school district will present written and oral evidence about the disputed issue before a hearing officer. You can appeal all the way to state or federal court.

An example of when you’d want to hire a lawyer is if you believe the school is not able to serve your child properly (in legal jargon, “has not provided your child with a free and appropriate education”) and you are seeking an out of district placement. Your school will go to any length not to give you that out of district placement as it will cost the school system on average $150,000 dollars annually, not including transportation costs. Since your school will have to pay the tuition it is worth their while to try to fight you.

Some final tips as you seek help for your struggling child:
Dress for success — you are working with professionals!
Assertive not aggressive
I over E:  intellect over emotion
Ask pointed questions
Learn the lingo so you understand everything that comes up at the meetings
If your question goes unanswered wait for a break in the conversation and repeat your question
Always be polite, but you can stand your ground while being polite
And did I mention, hire an advocate to represent you
Empower yourself with knowledge!

This article was written by Amy Eisner, MA.  Visit her website at www.help4specialeducation.com

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If you have a child with ADHD, you probably know they don’t relish studying for tests. The challenge is that test-taking anxiety makes ADHD symptoms, such as hyperactivity and low impulse control even worse. I want to share with you what methods work best for me as an ADHD tutor.

Set short-term study goals
I usually start out my tutoring sessions by helping the student break down the different areas of study. Then we talk about how long we will spend on each subject. This helps them to feel less overwhelmed. Use a timer (a visual, analog timer is best for ADHD kids) to keep track of how long they have been studying. If they get really into one particular area, we may stay there–and you can do the same. Just make sure they aren’t hyperfocusing to the point of getting over-prepared.
Establish rewards for completing a study session
I like to tell my students that if they work hard on an area they find the most frustrating, we can move on to the more fun areas next. Or I will say, “Let’s put five more minutes in, and then we’ll take a break and get some fresh air.” As a parent, you have a lot more leeway. Rewards can run the gamut from screen time to a later bedtime to cold, hard cash. Also feel free to reward them with plenty of praise.
Start studying early
ADHD children have time blindness. Even if they know the test is next Tuesday, they may not realize this is a few short days away. They may avoid studying for a simple vocabulary test out of dread because they think it will take hours, while thinking they will breeze through a term paper in a few hours. That’s why studying early is so crucial.

A final note: If your child (or anyone) brags that they get their best results when they pull an all-nighter cramming for a test, they are almost certainly kidding themselves.  Plenty of research shows that depriving yourself of sleep will almost always result in academic problems.

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Once a parent realizes their child may have special needs and seeks support through their school system, they will soon be engulfed by a tidal wave of Special Ed jargon and acronyms.  It’s not that the counselors and school officials are trying to intimidate or confuse you (well, sometimes it is!) but these are simply terms that will come up again and again as you navigate the system to obtain the right services for your child.  Let us help you with the alphabet soup. 
Here is a list of some of the more common abbreviations, provided by our tutor Amy Eisner, who runs New Beginnings, a successful advocacy service for Connecticut parents.

































American with Disabilities Act

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Behavioral Intervention Plan


Developmentally Delayed

Emotionally Disturbed

Early Intervention Plan

English as a Second Language

Extended Year Services

Free and Appropriate Education

Functional Behavioral Analysis

Intellectually Delayed

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Individualized Education Plan

Intelligence Quotient

In-School Suspension

Local Education Authority (your school district)

Least Restrictive Environment

Multiply Disabled

Other Health Impaired

Orthopedic Impaired

Out of School Suspension

Occupational Therapy

Planning and Placement Team

Processing Speed Index

Physical Therapy

Specific Learning Disability

Speech and Language Impaired

Traumatic Brain Injury

Visually impaired

Hearing Impaired

If you need an explanation for any of these terms or have run into any other jargon you’d like explained, please make a note in the comments section and we will elaborate. 

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Students diagnosed with ADHD often struggle with note-taking.  ADHD-related inattentiveness makes it hard for them to stay focused during a lecture and when they must split their attention between listening and writing, they may be unable to keep up with writing the key points as they listen.  Here are six proven strategies to make note-taking easier and improve academic performance.

6 Ideas for Taking Notes
  • Eliminate distractions. Encourage your child to sit near his teacher and away from friends. This will help to increase his ability to focus on what the teacher is saying and to reduce distractions. Additionally, if your child is an auditory learner, encourage him to look down at his notebook rather than at his teacher during lectures – this will reduce the distraction created by visual stimuli and allow him to focus on what his teacher is saying.
  • Write down the main points. Good note-taking must filter out less important information and summarize information in real time.  Teach your child to recognize the teacher’s visual and verbal cues as to what is important. The bullet points on a slide are of course indicators of what is important; your child should at least write those down (as well as obtain copies of the slides from the teacher).
  • Find a “note buddy,” someone in his class who takes detailed and legible notes. He can then compare his notes with theirs at the end of class to ensure that he gets any information he might have previously missed and to make any corrections (due to hasty writing, poor spelling, etc.) that may be in his own notes.
  • Utilize technology. Note-taking accommodations are common for ADHD-diagnosed students. Ask your child’s teacher if he can bring in a tape recorder and record lectures, so that he can listen to the lecture more slowly after class to fill in information he may have missed during class. If your child feels he can write and listen at the same time, but just can’t write quickly enough, his teacher may allow him to take notes on a laptop or tablet rather than by hand.
  • Ask for an outline. Many teachers outline their notes prior to lecturing. Ask if your child can get a copy of the outline or slide presentation in advance so he can fill in additional information right on the handout during lectures. This can also help to keep your child from becoming distracted during lectures, as he will have something to follow along with throughout the lecture.
  • Create a shorthand system to speed up note-taking.  Since many older students are familiar with “text-speak” (where vowels are often left out, such as “txtbk” for“textbook”), this may be an easy way for them to quickly write notes. Other ideas include using symbols (@ for at) or shortening words (“b/c” for“because”). The student should write out the notes long-form later, which is great way to help retain the information. Of course your child must remember what his shorthand stands for; otherwise, this strategy will not work.  Here’s a web page with a list of shorthand abbreviations commonly used by students.
If you think these are great ideas but know your child will not listen to you, why not bring in a homework coach? Our trained coach will work on building note-taking and other study skills that will help your child succeed in school. Call us!
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