When my son was diagnosed with ADHD at ten years old, I treated it like a homework assignment. I immediately bought a whole bunch of stuff to help us stay organized: wall calendar, rewards chart, alarm clocks, lists, and lots of fidget spinners. What I got wrong was that most of these methods are strategies that work for me, but not necessarily my son.
In those early days of learning how to support my son, I experienced a lot of frustration. The things that worked for me just didn’t work for him. He didn’t need a planner, or a bunch of reminder lists pinned to his wall.
- He needed me to learn that his brain works differently than mine.
- He needed me to respect the way he thinks.
- He needed me to accept that my answers may be right for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for anyone else.
As soon as I stopped expecting my son to do things my way, he flourished. Even at ten years old, he was pretty good at identifying strategies that worked for him. The more I encouraged his honest opinions, the more we figured out. I wrote about some of the strategies that worked for him in my latest middle grade novel, A PERFECT MISTAKE.
In this story, a boy named Max has been recently diagnosed with ADHD and is starting sixth grade, the same as my son. Max isn’t exactly the same kid, though. Every person is different, and every person’s experience with ADHD is different. I let Max’s character evolve in the ways he needed to for the story, but several of the strategies he uses in the book are strategies we used in real life with my son. I offer a brief summary of them here, in case they are helpful to anyone else.
1. Launch Pad. We made a special place for my son’s book bag and other school supplies, which he used as a dumping ground for anything he needed to remember to take to school. I didn’t worry about making this look nice. The point was to give him dedicated space that he would physically pass on the way in and out of the house every day and use however he needed to use it.
2. OHIO. This acronym stands for Only Handle It Once. The idea is to avoid setting something down before you’re where it actually needs to be. OHIO is a quick thing my son can say to himself to give himself permission to take a folder directly to his book bag instead of stopping to do something else in his room. It’s helped me, too!
3. Leaving Things Out. I’m the type of person who like things neat. Cleanliness soothes my anxiety. My son always leaves a ton of stuff out in his room. Every horizontal surface is covered in objects. That bothered me until he explained that having things in his line of sight makes it easier to find them and use them. That really made me question myself. Who’s to say that a clear dresser is more functional than one covered in objects you need to use? This was a case of ME needing to let go of my idea of functionality in order to support him embracing what works for him.
4. Accommodations. We worked with our school to develop a 504 plan that supports my son’s needs in the classroom, such as extended testing time, limited homework, permission to wear headphones, and solo testing if needed. In my opinion, most students benefit from many of these supports, but for my son, accommodations made a huge difference in his ability to enjoy school.
5. Reminder App. Now that my son is a little older, he keeps the Reminder App on the homepage of his phone. This way he sees his primary to-do list every time he uses his phone. He even showed me how to do the same thing!
6. Medication. At 16 years old, my son started on a low dose of ADHD medication to help with the extended focus that is required in his vigorous high school classes. We had always spoken about the possibility of using support medication, so he was comfortable bringing it up when he felt like it might be needed. He reported a huge reduction in his anxiety and a big increase in his stamina for note-taking, so the medication has been a great choice for him.
In A PERFECT MISTAKE, I also mention how Max wrote a manual of the strategies that worked for him with his therapist. The idea is that we all have a user manual, but what’s written inside is different for each of us. As Max identified strategies that worked for him, he wrote his own manual. This isn’t something that I did with my son, but I would do it for him now if I could go back in time.
Navigating the education system isn’t easy for any parent, and it’s even more challenging when you need extra support. It can be tempting to try to control every part of the situation and pave the way for your child, but I found that what’s most necessary is letting go of your expectations and embracing your child’s needs. Your whole job as a parent is to help your child identify what works for them, not to make them fit into any pre-determined box.
When we support our children with open minds, they can and will find their own paths.
Melanie Conklin grew up in North Carolina and worked as a product designer before she began her writing career. Her debut middle grade novel, Counting Thyme, is a Bank Street Best Children’s Book, winner of the International Literacy Association Teacher’s Choice Award, and nominated to four state reading lists. She is also the author of Every Missing Piece, A Perfect Mistake, Crushed (2024), and her picture book debut, When You Have to Wait (2023). When she’s not writing, Melanie spends her time doodling and dreaming up new ways to be creative. She lives in New Jersey with her family.