You may not be in the classroom when your child acts up or tunes out, but you can still help. A good relationship with your child's teacher, along with planning and practice at home, can turn around behavior problems at school. Your kid will be a lot happier, and so will you and his teacher.
Team Up With Your Child's Teacher
If your child has behavior problems at school, your best ally is his teacher, says Stephen Brock, PhD. He is the school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento, and co-author of Identifying, Assessing, and Treating ADHD at School. While school psychologists and other experts may be able to help, too, the teacher will have the most contact with your child. Do everything you can to make that relationship work.
Keep your cool. Parents of kids with ADHD dread that phone call from the teacher about bad behavior. You may feel embarrassed and upset and react defensively. But the teacher isn't criticizing you, says Richard Lougy, an ADHD specialist in Sacramento and co-author of The School Counselor's Guide to ADHD. They're just trying to help.
Be respectful. Remember that your child's teacher has a lot of other responsibilities, Brock says. Stress that you're there to help, not make their life harder with lots of demands. Keep the focus on helping your child, not on what you think the teacher may be doing wrong.
Ask what you can do. Find out what the problem behaviors are and how you can support the school's rules. Consider what changes you can make at home that will match the rules at school, such as a more formal routine or a new reward system for good behavior.
Stay in touch. Whether it's by email, phone, or in person, keep in regular contact with your child's teacher. See if you can get a daily or weekly report on how things are going.
Find out about resources. Most public schools have support teams for kids with ADHD, Brock says. The team might include school psychologists, guidance counselors, or other experts. Ask the teacher if you can all meet together.
Volunteer. "Help out in the classroom, or donate supplies," says Jennifer Helm, a mother of two kids with ADHD in La Verne, CA. Become known as someone who's helpful and an all-around asset to the school. The teacher will appreciate it.
If you and your child's teacher butt heads, you may want to give up and talk to the principal. But don't go down that road unless you've tried everything else, Helm says. It can backfire -- and your child could pay the price if you're feuding with their teacher. Instead, focus on working with the teacher, not around them.
How Schools Can Help
Once you've got a partnership with your child's teacher, and maybe the school psychologist or a counselor, work together to come up with a plan to manage your child's behavior. Some parents keep these agreements loose. But more formal arrangements can be a good idea.
A 504 plan guarantees that kids with certain disabilities get "special accommodations" in the classroom to help them learn. The accommodations depend on the child. Even small changes can help a lot, Lougy says. A 504 plan might allow a fidgety kid to stand instead of sit at his desk, or give him extra time for schoolwork.
Some kids with ADHD get help from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under this federal law, your child has access to special education and an IEP, or individualized education program. An IEP covers more than a 504 plan, but it's also more complicated. It might also mean your child won't be in the regular classroom.
"I generally try to get a kid with ADHD onto a 504 plan first to see how that goes," Brock says. "If it doesn't work, then we consider an IEP."
Changing schools is an option, too. But Lougy only recommends that route if the child is having very serious problems with conduct, bullying, or safety. It can also be a good choice if your child has other problems besides ADHD, such as learning disabilities, depression, or anxiety.
A new school should be a last resort. It could make things worse. "Kids don't like to change schools," Lougy says. "It's hard on them emotionally and often academically."
Find the Compromise
ADHD behavior problems are usually a symptom, not a choice. So a good school behavior plan will never force your kid to be like everyone else. It's about compromise.
"Parents of kids with ADHD do need to support the school's rules," Brock says, "but the school needs to recognize that they should cut kids with ADHD some slack."
"Kids with ADHD are different," says Kristine J. Melloy, PhD, professor of education at Santa Clara University. "Don't try to make your kid into someone he's not. Appreciate who he is, and help his teachers appreciate him, too."