Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back-to-School Migration

Since we are all in the midst of the annual back-to-school migration, not unlike the mass migration of thousands of gazelle across the African Serengeti Plains, I thought I would share my top three ideas to help maintain sanity in spite of the confusion -- and ask you for your ideas.

My first idea: Celebrate the new school year.

My son Blake and daughter Madison love our shopping trips to prepare for school. We comb the aisles in Staples and Office Depot for Madison’s spiral notebooks featuring photos of different breeds of dogs and soft-sided three-ring binders in fuchsia, green, and royal blue. She picks out a different color for each subject and later fills the binders with paper and dividers and decorates with stickers. Then off to the clothing stores for school clothing: laced-bordered tops and tee shirts that can be layered over jeans and empire dresses with flounces.

Blake has always liked mechanical pencils for math and science, magic markers, pens with thick grips, and highlighters in multiple colors. He also likes erasable pens -- all of these items help those with ADHD. Now that he is in college, we also shop for his studio apartment – everything from dishes to towels, and vases with dried flowers to framed cityscape photographs.

Next come finding backpacks with lots of pockets that we can allocate for pens, wallets, cell phones, calculators, notebooks, laptop computers, Balance Bars, and umbrellas. The fresh supplies, the colors, the thrill of shopping and a lunch, all make for a celebration, recognizing this special annual event in their lives.

My second idea: Have a staging area in your home for all their school work and school items. (This applied to Blake when he was living at home.)

In our case, it has always been the kitchen. As I mentioned last month, we always had “Homework Club” after school. So in the interests of organization, I thought I would devote a section of the kitchen for their work and for everything related to school. A table with shelves under the window holds laptops, homework and projects “in process.” A bulletin board holds school notices, announcements and permission slips.

I have book shelves -– one for Blake (the higher one because he is taller) and one for Madison so they can easily store and swap books as they are working, and grab books as they run out the door. A dictionary, reference books, school directories, and parent lists are good to keep here, too.

A drawer (or box) with hanging files is a blessing. We make a file for each subject, and as they need to file class notes or materials, they can pull the papers out of their binders and quickly pop them into the hanging files. In this manner, we keep down the paper clutter in their backpacks and preserve the class notes from getting mashed with bananas at the bottom of a backpack.

Keep a drawer (or box) with stationery supplies -– notebooks, paper, colored paper, erasers, pens, pencils, poster board -- immediately available so you don’t have to run out and buy glue at 11:00 p.m. the night before a project is due.

I also posted a checklist for Blake (when he was younger) and Madison that they can look at before leaving the house: Do you have lunch money, cell phone, books for the day, sweater, homework and projects?

Backpacks sit against the wall in an alcove, ready to go out the door in the morning, as we rushed to the train station or to the carpool.

Having a staging area helps “corral” all the school items, but it isn’t a guarantee. One time, my husband Ben (who does not have ADHD) decided to put the homework away, despite my asking him not to touch the homework. He succeeded in putting Madison’s homework into Blake’s backpack and Blake’s math project into Madison’s backpack. Blake left for high school thinking I had placed his project in his pack. I received a panic call from him when he arrived in San Francisco, saying that not only was his project missing but it was due that day. “Why is Madison’s homework in my backpack?” he asked. I made Ben leave work and drive Blake’s project up to the city. Needless to say, Ben decided to leave the homework alone after that.

My last idea: Be proactive with the school and establish a connection.

One of the first things you will want to do is set up a meeting with your son or daughter’s elementary, middle or high school teachers. “I don’t want you to have to guess,” I told them as I described Blake and Madison’s ADHD, the treatment, the medication, the routines, advice from our doctor, the IEPs, and the accommodations. Sometimes, even a simple accommodation can make a big difference. For example, when Blake was in 4th grade, just allowing him to get up from his seat and stand in the back of the classroom or leave the room for a drink of water, helped him refocus. I also warned them about Madison’s tendency to talk, and we agreed to place her in the front of the classroom.

You’ll find that teachers don’t necessarily know nor have access to the school files and they will appreciate your openness and honesty. You will also want to tell teachers how you will work with them, that you want them to call or email you if there is a problem. (Of course, you will get the calls and emails.) You want to make things consistent between home and school, and you want your child to know that you and the teachers are working together. This is always good for a child with ADHD.

This meeting is also an opportunity to talk to the teachers about your son or daughter’s strengths, their interest in space probes or Roman history or piano or swimming. The teacher will get a better picture of who your children are as individuals and may subsequently have more patience and understanding.

One of Blake’s 10th grade teachers, who is a very stern Russian lady, listened to me skeptically at first. Then she saw his talents. She was patient with his antics and even used her sense of humor to defuse situations. Finally, she admitted to me, at the end of the school year, that she really appreciated the fact that I had talked to her at the beginning of the year. “You gave me facts,” she said, “and set the tone.”

You have my three ideas, now, let’s hear yours…