Back to school with ADHD

Whether you are a high school, college or graduate student yourself, or the parent of a youngling child with ADHD, here are some ideas to start the year off right.

Prepare mind and body:

Start your sleep schedule early

Going to sleep is so often a struggle for ADHDers. Missing sleep can make our symptoms worse and medications less effective. If your summer included later nights and later mornings then you keep during the school year, then it's going to take some effort to adjust your sleep schedule to get up for school. You don't want to start the term in sleep deficit.

Start a week or two before the start of term. Try getting up a little earlier each day to adjust your sleep schedule. Research shows that our diurnal rhythms make it exceptionally easy to stay up later. That means that it might take a few tired days of getting up earlier than you want to before you'll be able to effectively move that bedtime up, too. Even then, it takes time and effort to adjust your sleep in the "early" directtion.

If going to sleep is especially difficult for you, try more exercise, melatonin, or other sleep aids as recommended by a doctor.

(Of course, giving yourself more time to adjust your sleep schedule is better. But more than two weeks out might feel too far away to really be imminent. That makes harder to get motivated enough to begin. Make sure you're setting a realistic goal for yourself.)

Plan an exercise program

Studies show that regular exercise improves cognitive performance, especially in those who have exhibited lower working memory capacity (which you often see in those with ADHD). Exercise aids concentration, sustained attention, error detection... The list goes on. Added bonus: exercise helps regulate sleep and ease stress and depression (common comorbid companions to ADHD.)

Prepare your environment:

Setup a study location

Doing the same activity in the same or similar environment primes our brain for that activity. If you always study in the same place, facing the same picture, after a while your brain will expect to start studying when you sit there. None of us want to sit down to study, but any resistance we can remove will help a little.

Remove distractions from your study location. Pick a spot that doesn't face the whole room. Clean up the visual space around your study area to remove distractions.

Make the space yours. Add a few pleasing colors or pictures to your study area so that you almost enjoy going there. Not so many decorations so as to cause more distractions, but you should have reminders of who you are outside of this new, diligent studier.

Setup your "launchpad"

This is a place, preferably near your door, where things go that you take with you in the morning. Special items like permission slips go here, but also regular items that you always take with you (e.g. keys, homework to submit, wallet, etc).

This space is sacred. Nothing else goes here, and everyone has their own launchpad space. Keep an eye on your launchpad to weed out clutter early and often.

Make a fresh start

Don't start off the term with old things hanging over your head. Although this part is primarily for middle school to graduate students, kids can take this time to purge old clothes and toys they aren't using. After all, the fewer things around, the easier it is to find the important things.

Get rid of your backlogs. Take inventory of all the stale, old projects that haven't happened yet. Those cards you never sent a year ago? The old term project you thought you might bind into a book? That overflowing email inbox? Write them down.

Let it go. (As the song says...) For 90% of these stale old projects, it's probably best to drop them or do them now if you're ever going to. Right before a new term it's harder to kid yourself that you'll somehow have more time for all that once the term begins in earnest. Is it time for "email bankrupcy"? What can you let go of?

Check your support systems:

  • Are you or your children going into this term with the emotional and structural support you need?
  • What lessons have you learned from past terms that you can apply to this one?
  • What rules, boundaries, precautions do you think might help prepare for the term?

There are people who want you to succeed, so gather your support around you.

Now go and make this your best term yet!