Licensed clinical social worker and therapist, Julie Hanks, has a step by step plan to offer support and find solutions to your child’s attention difficulties.
Your child is having problems finishing schoolwork or paying attention at school. You wonder “is it ADHD”? Parents have a variety of responses when the teacher calls to express concern about their child’s school performance or behavior. You may wonder if you’ve “failed” as a parent. You may feel sadness for your child’s struggle. You may want to dismiss the teacher’s concerns. Here is a step-by-step plan to help you support your child, to find answers, and to find solutions to your child’s attention difficulties. You are your child’s best advocate!
STEP 1-Get the facts
What are the teacher’s specific concerns? Ask for specifics on problem areas. Is there a certain time of day or a certain subject is particularly difficult for your child to concentrate?
What is your child’s experience? Ask your child about his or her experience. What are they feeling, thinking, wanting, and needing when they are having difficulty concentrating.
EXAMPLE (from a teacher’s perspective) – Krystal, a 2nd grade teacher, says that calling parents regarding attention or learning problems is difficult. “I hate making those phone calls (to parents), especially when the parent just doesn’t want to accept it. A lot of times it is their first experience. Since I teach in the lower grades I often have the first student in their family so they really don’t know what “normal” looks like. From a teacher’s point of view, I appreciate parents who will work with me to help their child be successful in school. I support whatever decision they make in regard to medicating or not, just as long as they are actively seeking help and a solution, too. I’ve already had to have a few of these conversations this year, and it never gets any easier. It’s such a delicate issue.”
STEP 2 – Examine the environment
Health issues, class room distractions, peer problems, family stresses, family losses, skipping breakfast, eating too much sugar or caffeine, sleep deprivation are just a few of the environmental factors that may lead to difficulty concentrating and completing school work.
EXAMPLE – Several years ago I counseled a family whose son was distracted, rambunctious, fidgety, and was having difficulty completing work and getting along with peers. In seeking solutions to help her son succeed in school and in relationships, his mother looked for factors in the environment that may be exacerbating his attention difficulties. She also suspected that there was a nutritional component involved, and found that he focused better when he ate fewer processed and sugary foods. She worked with her pediatrician to find effective medication, and met with natural health care providers to find nutritional supplements that were effective for her son. She also accepted that he was born with a high-energy temperament and needed a lot of physical activity, so she enrolled him in swimming, running and other sports.
STEP 3 – Translate problems into needs
When your child’s teacher identifies a problem behavior, ask yourself “What does my child need?” He or she might need extra time to finish work, may need to move to the front of the room, may need incentives to stay on task, may need to bring work home, a tutor after school to develop academic skill, a therapist to help with behavior modification or emotional coping skills, and more physical activity during school.
EXAMPLE – A family I’ve worked with for several years has a young daughter with Asperger’s and ADHD. The mother, a schoolteacher by profession, understands this concept of translating her child’s problems into needs and is an amazing advocate for her daughter. Here are a few examples of how one mother has helped translate problem behaviors into needs.
A) Problem – not completing work during school
Need – decreased volume of school work as long as she showed competency in that area, bringing home work to finish at home
B) Problem – difficulty staying on task at school
Need – behavioral charts to reinforce completion of work, ADHD medication, frequent breaks from learning to exert physical energy
C) Problem – angry outbursts, self-harming behavior
Need – healthier ways to express frustration and anger, individual and family therapy
STEP 4 – Focus on your child’s strengths
Every child has strengths that will help him or her overcome life challenges. Many children who have attention difficulties have other strengths including creativity, sensitivity, energy, independence, and flexibility.
In which area does your child have natural strengths and abilities? Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences is a helpful tool in identifying your child’s natural intelligence.
• Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
• Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
• Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
• Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
• Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
• Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
• Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
• Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)
Which style best describes your child’s learning style? How can you use you adapt your child’s educational experience to his or her learning style?
STEP 5 – Build a support team
Solutions are a team effort with the child, teacher, parents, and school counselor. Put a specific behavioral plan in place that all agree on to help your child succeed. If problems persist, consult a pediatrician or child therapist for help with a specific diagnosis and treatment options for ADD/ADHD.
EXAMPLE – Recently, I worked with a blended family whose son has been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. Their multidisciplinary support team includes his schoolteacher overseeing behavioral interventions at school, a child psychiatrist monitoring medication, a social skills group to help their son get along better with peers, a therapist to help develop emotional coping skills, and a couples therapist to help parents manage their own stressors.
Finding solutions that work for your child means identifying the specific problems, advocating for your child needs, and building a team to help support your child succeed in his educational experience.
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW is a therapist, self & relationship expert, media contributor, and director of Wasatch Family Therapy. Visit www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com for individual, couple, family, & group counseling services designed to strengthen you and your family. We treat mental health and relationship problems in children, adolescents, and adults.