Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Start the School Year Right II: Homework and the Home Environment

guest blog by Beth A. Kaplanek, RN, and Linda Smith

Last week, in part one, we discussed how parents can effectively communicate their child’s needs through a letter to his or her teacher(s). This week, we'll address how you can set up the home environment to effectively organize and plan for those dreaded-by-parents-and-kids-alike homework sessions.

When your child has ADHD, it is important to set up a home environment that facilitates homework completion. Because many children with ADHD have problems with organizational impairment due to executive functioning deficits, the following proactive strategies will help take some of the stress out of the homework process.

Organize a space in your home for doing homework. Choose an area that is away from distractions and has ample room. Depending on their age, some children do better working independently in a quiet place that is away from other family members and distractions. Younger children often need to be in an area close enough to mom or dad so that progress on homework can be monitored.

A large calendar on the wall can be helpful for keeping track of your child’s assignments, when they are due, and when your child will be working on parts of long-term assignments. It can also be beneficial to include the dates of other activities such as soccer games, piano lessons, and so forth. This will help you and your child see the big picture of what needs to be done each week. Post-it notes and a bulletin board to put them on can also be a helpful organizational tool for older children.

Make sure all supplies for doing homework are organized and accessible close to the homework area. It can be helpful for the supplies to be sorted in containers or bins or placed in a regular spot on a shelf. Items that students often need to complete assignments include paper, pencils, pens, colored pencils, crayons, erasers, magic markers, a ruler, a calculator, a stapler and staples, scissors, glue sticks, and report folders. Different kinds of paper, such as lined, graph, computer, and construction paper are important to keep in the designated homework area. And for those moments when your child announces at 9 PM that he just remembered he has a project due for his science class tomorrow, it is wise to keep a supply of poster paper and maybe even project board on hand.

One essential tool to have in the homework work area is a timer that can be set to break the homework session into manageable units. Setting the timer for fifteen minutes of on-task work followed by a five-minute break can give the fidgety or frustrated child an opportunity to get up, move about, and then refocus on the work. Repeat this process for as long as is necessary to complete the evening’s homework.

Time limits will vary depending on the age of the child, his/her ability to stay on task, and the child’s difficulty with and/or interest in the assignment. The timer can also be a tool for teaching the child time-management strategies. Parents can make the child aware of the importance of using strategies, such as a timer, when they model using it to break homework completion into manageable parts.

Prepare a notebook for the handouts your child’s teacher sends home. This notebook will be for you. It is hard to remember classroom policies, course outlines, and grading scales for all teachers. Create a section in a three-ring binder for each of your children, using notebook dividers with pockets. When your children bring home correspondence during the school year, you will have a place to keep it. When you need to refer to the information, you will know right where to find it.

Schoolwork and the stress that it brings can be difficult for families dealing with ADHD. Help get the new school year off to a good start by setting up your home environment so that your child — and you — are ready to meet the challenges of homework completion.

An earlier version of this post appeared in Attention magazine. Join CHADD and receive every issue!

Beth A. Kaplanek, RN, and Linda Smith are two of the founders of CHADD's Parent to Parent: Family Training on ADHD.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Start the School Year Right: The Teacher Letter

guest blog by Beth A. Kaplanek, RN, and Linda Smith

When August arrives, it's time to start putting systems in place to ensure that your child can have a successful school year. You can help get the new school year off to a good start by effectively communicating your child’s needs to his or her teachers and by setting up a home environment that facilitates homework completion. This week, let's look at the first of these tasks.

How do you get pertinent information to the teachers who are working with your child? A letter can be a good start and is a great vehicle to give the teacher an opportunity to become aware of your child’s special education plan. Even if no formalized plan is in place, a letter is a great tool if the teacher needs to know more about your child.

Never assume that just because a formalized plan has been created that your child’s teachers have been informed about its contents. Remember, it only takes a week to get behind in school, and then the stress of playing catch-up never seems to end — for your child and for you. If the special education department within your school district has a system in place for getting the details of your child’s plan to the teacher, then collaborate with them to convey your child’s information to the teacher.

Write a letter to your child’s teacher

Does your child have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 accommodation plan for school? Does your child require special classroom interventions? Has your child’s teacher been made aware of the plan? If you answered yes to the first two questions, and no to the last question, then take out your pen out now and write a letter.

The purpose of the letter is to make your child's teacher(s) aware that your child has an educational program. They may not have received those records from the school administration yet, and you want to make sure the information is conveyed to them. Write the letter in the spirit of providing support to the teacher, while making sure information about your child has been made available.

Below you'll find a list of important points to address in your letter, as well as other items that can be included based on your child’s individual needs. A sample letter is also provided.

End the letter by saying that you look forward to meeting the teacher(s) on back-to-school night. Then be sure to attend! If your child’s school does not hold such an event, say that you would like to meet the teacher(s) before the parent-teacher conferences at the end of the grading period, and ask what day and time would be convenient. Send the letter to all of your child’s teachers — including physical education teachers and coaches — and be sure to share a copy with the school principal.

Important points to include or address

  1. Your name and relationship to (child’s name) 
  2. Your contact information: phone/fax numbers, mailing address, email address, best times to reach you
  3. Your aim to work as partners to ensure a successful year (for teacher and child)
    •   establish positive, open communication between home and school
    •   offer cooperation, collaboration, assistance, support
    •   provide helpful information about your child
  4. Information about your child’s disability and educational program (IEP or 504 Plan)
    •   instructional needs, modifications, and/or accommodations in the plan
    •   behavioral needs, modifications, and/or accommodations in the plan
  5. System for home-school communication
    •   daily homework and assignment sheet
    •   daily/weekly behavior report
    •   progress report, problem-solving, as needed 



Dear Mr./Ms./Mrs. _____,

My husband and I are writing this letter to introduce ourselves and to open a door of communication. We are the parents of [child’s name], who will be a student in your class this year. We are looking forward to a successful school year for both you and [child’s name], and as parents, we want to work with you and the school as partners in [child’s name]’s education. We will be happy to help you and [child’s name] in any way we can.

In case you have not had the opportunity to receive the records from special education, [child’s name] has an educational program [insert IEP / 504 Plan as appropriate] to address needs related to ADHD, which affects [Insert appropriate information here. For example: his ability to sit still, pay attention, and control his behavior. He has particular trouble getting organized, staying focused, completing and turning in assignments on time, and memorizing information, such as math facts.] We want to take this opportunity to share information about his educational services in a simplified format, including the modifications and accommodations he receives.

Listed here are the main provisions of his [insert IEP/504 Plan and list specifics below; this is a sample]:
Preferential seating
Extra time on tests
Test answers recorded in an alternate manner, as needed — especially for short-answer and discussion items
Second set of books at home
Use of a calculator for math
Shortened homework assignments for math and writing
Homework, long-range assignments, and tests recorded in planner, signed by teacher, and sent home every day
Resource room, 45 minutes 4 times per week for math
Foreign language exemption
Home-school reward system for homework completion and turning in assignments on time

We would also like to take this opportunity to set up a system of communication between home and school. You may already have such a system for your class that we will be happy to adapt and use. If not, then we will send a planner to school with [child’s name] everyday. It will always be in his backpack. He is to use it to write down his daily homework assignments, as well as any long-range assignments, such as upcoming tests, so that we can help to monitor his schoolwork at home. I will also use the planner to communicate with you on a weekly basis. Would you please assist us by reviewing and signing his planner before he leaves school each day and sending a note home in the planner on Fridays, so that we can help [child’s name] come to school prepared and reward him for his weekly school progress?

We would like to thank you in advance for taking the time to read our letter and helping with this important program. Having a system of support in place at the beginning of school will help to get the year off to a good start. My husband and I look forward to meeting you on Back-to-School Night, [insert date if known].

Please do not hesitate to contact us about problems or call on us for assistance at any time. We have included our phone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses below.

Best regards,


Parent(s) Full Name(s)
Street Address
Town, State, Zip Code
Home Phone, Cell phone, Fax number
Mother’s e-mail, Father’s e-mail

An earlier version of this post appeared in Attention magazine. Join CHADD and receive every issue!

Beth A. Kaplanek, RN, and Linda Smith are two of the founders of CHADD's Parent to Parent: Family Training on ADHD.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pack It Light, Wear It Right: Backpack Awareness

 by Zara Harris, MS, OT

This year, National School Backpack Awareness Day will be Wednesday, September 16. All across the country, backpack events will educate parents, students, educators, and school administrators about the serious health effects heavy backpacks worn improperly have on children.

More than 2,000 backpack-related injuries were treated in hospitals and clinics in 2007, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Countless students display stooped posture and complain of aching backs and shoulders and/or tingling arms. Too much weight improperly supported over time can cause long-term problems for developing spines. According to a Boston University study, approximately 85% percent of university students self-report discomfort and pain associated with backpack usage. Good habits need to be set during the school years.

For those of us whose children have ADHD, more often than not we are more concerned that our kids have remembered their backpacks and have the right books in them than that they are carrying them correctly.

For students with organizational challenges, taking everything with them all the time seems like the best strategy. But the weight soon adds up. Using their lockers between classes to switch out books is often a step too far in time — and that locker has its own organizing challenges. So, what do we do?

Start out right

At the beginning of the school year, pick the best backpack for your student (see the guidelines below). If your student carries a laptop or tablet to school, consider getting a backpack with a special padded compartment that can be accessed from the outside without disturbing all those bits of paper. Buy a second (labeled) power cord that can either live at school or in a compartment in the backpack. Keep the other one permanently plugged in at home.

When possible, have a set of duplicate textbooks that lives at home. This both reduces the weight of the backpack and the frustration of not bringing home the right books. Label these books well so they do not creep back into school later in the year. When buying school supplies buy the jumbo packs, keep a supply in the backpack, a set at home for homework, and keep the rest in a closet ready for when the first lot go missing.

Most students with ADHD struggle to use ring binders effectively and do better with an accordion file so that papers can just be dropped into the well-labeled pockets. Beware, though, that these fill fast. Beware also that if the accordion file is dropped, it is a paper disaster. Get a tabletop box of hanging files (with the same labels) and plan to transfer papers once a week from the accordion file to the box file.

After-school activities or subjects like music or sports that require special clothes or equipment on special days present extra challenges. Consider having a separate bag with those items that can either be carried separately or inserted into the backpack on those days. At one time I had a Monday bag, a Tuesday, bag, and so forth. It might be useful way of recycling last year’s backpack.

Privacy issues

As students gets older, the contents of their backpacks become increasingly “personal.” Before school starts, make a plan to manage the organization at a regular time and give the student time to remove any “personal” items before you sort it together.

If you can, arrange for a regular locker check, too. This may be done with the help of the teacher or a better-organized student. Make sure that your student can use the padlock provided for the locker and can reach the hooks within. Invest in some locker shelves and organizers to help your student see belongings more easily.

The older the student, the more he should be responsible for his own belongings. Backpacks fall into the must-be-done category, however — think about those week-old sandwiches under the social studies book, to say nothing of that completed science project she forgot to hand in. A regular weekly backpack and locker check can be an essential tool for school success.

•    To fit the student, the bottom should rest in the curve of the lower back and NEVER more than four inches below the waistline (two inches for smaller kids).
•    Broad, well-padded shoulder straps and back of pack.
•    Adjustable straps to fit the pack to the child and to allow for growth during the year.
•    If possible, find one with waist and chest straps to secure the pack to the child’s body.
•    If a younger child has to carry many books, then consider a wheeled bag with a handle long enough that he or she can pull it without stooping.
•    If the student will carry a tablet or laptop, consider choosing a backpack with a special pocket that opens to the outside (handy for airports, too).
•    Label it well!

•    A full backpack should not weigh more than 10% (15% absolute maximum) of the child’s body weight.
•    Load the heaviest items closest to the child’s back. 
•    Arrange books and materials so that they don’t slide around in the backpack.
•    If the backpack is too heavy, consider having the child hand carry a book or lunch box. It can be useful to have one that clips to the backpack for storage in school.

•    Distribute weight evenly by using BOTH straps. Wearing a pack slung over one shoulder can cause a child to lean to one side, curving the spine and causing pain or discomfort.
•    Wear the waist belt and chest strap if the pack has them. This helps distribute the weight more evenly.
•    Adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack fits snugly on the child’s back. The bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back and not below the waist. A pack that hangs loosely can pull the child backward and strain muscles.

To ease those dreadful morning scrambles, load the backpack the night before and place it by the door.

More information is available in the Backpack Awareness section of the American Occupational Therapy Association website.

Pediatric occupational therapist Zara Harris, MS, OT, is based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Licensed in both the United States and the United Kingdom, she has had over thirty years of experience. Specializing in helping students who are struggling with handwriting, homework, attention, time management, and organization, Harris has worked with international schools on three different continents.