Bring order to the chaos

How to set up your child with ADD/ADHD for success this school year

No matter how much they grumble about the end of summer vacation, most children look forward to going back to school.

But in families where a child’s brain works differently – one that feels bombarded by stimuli that he or she can’t filter out – the massive change involved in getting up and out early, managing homework and tight schedules, can be the stuff of nightmares.

“For children with ADD or ADHD, transitions can be very challenging,” Sue West of Organize NH said. Strategic planning and establishing a routine for the entire family is key.

Diane Connell, EdD, a professor of special education at Rivier University, said children need to understand their brains work differently. Once they understand what this means, you can help them find ways to “self regulate.”

“Most people with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder, leading to inattention) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which includes hyperactivity and impulsivity) are relieved to understand how their brain is different, especially when you talk about the brain strengths they have,” Connell said.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; the weakness for a child with ADD/ADHD is paying attention when the teacher talks.

“Children need to understand their brain first, so they can ‘buy in’ to finding ways for self-regulation,” Connell said.

Visual cues help to stay on track

Children need to get used to the idea that schedules change, West said. Make it easier on everyone with visual reminders. Children who can read need a list or chart, something on a door or wall and bathroom mirror. Older kids with phones can set reminders there.

Have lots of clocks, West adds, “because that helps wake up the brain. They can see that 15 minutes have gone by and I have 20 minutes left.” (Parents, expect to monitor time and tasks closely the first few weeks to see what’s working.)

 “The more [clocks] you have, the more likely they will look and see them.” At, you can buy a clock that shows bright red when there are 10 minutes left.

“The time left gets ‘skinnier’ and you see the red. Kids get a sense of time passing and that attention piece is critical. Plus they don’t have to know how to tell time,” West said.

Kids with ADHD need something “in their face, since their sense of time is not as strong; they start daydreaming and get distracted. A list in front of you is a gentle reminder of the next thing.”

Working memory, West adds, can be poor, meaning they can’t hold many things in their mind at once, so use posters and charts so they can see what’s next, that they haven’t got their lunch, haven’t fed the dog, etc.

She recommends having a family meeting to imagine what the first day of school will be like, from when to get up, to breakfast, getting dressed, lunch, the afternoon, and dinner, up to bedtime.


“Getting everyone to visualize engages the brain. If children aren’t engaged, they’re not going to remember it.”

Get everyone to join in and “walk” through day as if it is happening tomorrow, all the way through to the end of the day.

After-school activities

Every child benefits from getting out and moving after school, so Professor Connell doesn’t like the idea of doing homework just then. Activities such as sports, martial arts, and Girl or Boy Scouts are great outlets.

“Scouts and martial arts once a week are structured programs, where kids earn badges or belts. Plus there is the social component,” she said. Many kids have trouble with boundaries, so the structure and emphasis on respect in these activities, and in sports, helps them gain control of their minds and bodies.

Get a good night’s sleep

What time does bedtime have to be? Teens in particular need more sleep than they typically get.

Everyone’s brain needs to wind down to ensure a restful night, and using electronics such as computers, video games and TVs – i.e., “screen time” – has the opposite effect. Set a time to unplug and stick to it.

For overall stress relief and focus, yoga and/or a mindfulness practice – i.e., meditation – is soothing. Reading out loud before bed also helps everyone wind down, so they can rest up for the next day.

Food for thought

There are other strategies in addition to organizing you can try to help manage ADD/ADHD.

Dr. Robin Bruck of Bedford Chiropractic Associates said chiropractic treatment can help eliminate things that stress the nervous system.

“ADHD is a combination of an overactive nervous system (which controls the function of every cell, organ and tissue in the body), and a brain difference (where it’s tough to filter out other distracting sounds, thoughts and emotions).

“When your spine is misaligned due to injury, poor posture and/or muscle weakness, these ‘subluxations’ irritate your nervous system and interfere with signals to the brain. Allergies, food sensitivities and exposure to toxins also stress the nervous system,” said Dr. Bruck.

“Chiropractic care keeps your spine and nervous system healthy.” Plus, Dr. Bruck adds, certain foods lead to poor health, such as refined carbohydrates and most sugars, processed foods and those with additives.

“The entire family should enjoy mostly lean proteins, vegetables, nuts, fruits, and whole grains. If you don’t eat salmon or tuna, supplements of Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are helpful because they provide fuel to your cells. Enjoying food in its most natural state,” she said, “is an important element of a wellness lifestyle.”

Alan Brown is an ADD coach who blogs and gives advice on his website, He said the ADD/ADHD person’s brain wiring is best fueled by a high-protein breakfast to last until lunch, and calls omega-3 and omega-6 supplements “brain boosters.”

You can also talk to your family physician about exploring an elimination diet to see if taking something out of their diet or a different way of eating could help your child. 

For parents who have ADD/ADHD (or think they do):

In adults and particularly women, many of whom have never been diagnosed with ADD, Sue West said, their memories are affected. Multitasking is self-defeating.

“Many women don’t want to take medication,” according to West, so strategies like getting exercise and meditation can help. Coaching in “executive functions” such as planning and time management helps, too.

Chaotic brains need clutter-free environments; get help from a professional organizer if necessary.

Alan Brown said his ADD causes him to be “addictive” in his use of screen time, whether gaming, TV or the computer.

This inhibits restorative sleep, but he’s broken the habit. If you get sucked into the Internet vortex via Facebook, or are hooked on late-night TV, Brown suggests listing your electronic habits in order of the time you spend on them. Identify which one you can reduce or eliminate. Then “assign a new, more productive or enriching activity to take its place,” Brown said.

Minding your use of media and gadgets is important. “Research shows that kids are stressed by the feeling of having to compete for attention against their parents’ iPhones, Facebook feeds and so on,” he said.

Brown adds that when he needs to focus, he “labels” it What I’m Doing Now. When his attention wanders, he asks himself if this is a trivial distraction, is it something that’s important but not urgent, or is it “what I’m doing now” to bring himself back to the task at hand.

Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional.

Categories: ADHD series, Behavior and Learning