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ADHD in the Dorm: What To Buy

ADHD in the Dorm: What To Buy

By Mir Kamin

I admit it: I’ve been combing those “Essential Items For Your College Freshman” lists for nearly a year. And yes, we have the LED clip-on bed lamp and the emergency flashlight and the cork board and such at the ready, of course. But as the time for my daughter to fly the coop draws nearer, I’m realizing that—more and more—the items I’m seeking for her are a lot more specific than those generic lists. Everyone’s going to have certain foibles or preferences, but the things I find myself categorizing as “essentials” are… different.

Is my daughter a special snowflake? (Oh, you have no idea….) Ha! No, not really. But she does have ADHD and a specific set of challenges it brings to her life. So if you have a similar kid, here’s your Not-Necessarily-On-Those-Lists List of Must-Have Items for your ADHD College Freshman:

Visual Storage

Out of sight means out of mind for my teen. Here at home, she has a large-ish closet she can “never find anything” in, and at school she’s going to have a tiny, shared closet. For her roommate’s sake, I hope she figures out how to be a little less… ummmm… explosive in her management of her belongings, but in the meantime, I know we have to provide as many places for her to put things as possible, and that those places have to be visually accessible. Many dorm lists suggest under-bed or other opaque storage vessels and that will absolutely not work for my kid. So what have we acquired so far?

  • Hooks, hooks, and more hooks. My daughter’s dorm room will have a lofted bed where the framing looks like a ladder; that’s perfect for her, because it means that an inexpensive set of all-purpose hooks provides her with places to hang anything and everything (and she can face them inward, under the bed, if she likes) where she can see them. She’s also got an overdoor rack in her pile already, and depending on the setup and her roommate’s preference, we may get another one. Note: The idea of everything my kid owns hanging around the room on hooks kind of makes my eyelid twitchy, but I know that for her the alternative is everything she owns being on the floor. This is a good compromise.
  • See-through drawers/containers. Sure, there’s all sorts of cute bins and baskets and such insisting that they’re perfect for the dorm, but for my kid, we won’t be buying anything she can’t see into without opening. That means something like a little Sterilite cart may look cheap (and it is), but it’s infinitely more practical for her than something prettier where she can’t see the contents. (If this makes no sense to you, chances are excellent you don’t have a kid with the same kind of processing hiccups. Of course she knows what’s inside, say, cabinets and containers which are opaque, but somehow being able to see what’s there makes her life easier.)
  • Pouches for little things. Sure, this is a shoe organizer for most people, but I’m not even going to hazard a guess about what it might end up holding in my kid’s dorm room. I probably don’t want to know. I just know that it will be useful for her.
  • Paper organizer. Let’s not get so caught up in making her room a fun place to live that we forget why she’s there—to go to school. I picked up this file organizer at some point in the hope that the current class-management method of “dump everything in a large pile on the floor” might get an overhaul next year. We’ll see, I guess. What I like about this particular unit is that it allows everything to be seen in a small space (she can hang it on the wall, or even just hang it off the side of her desk) and allows her to grab one or two folders as needed when headed to particular classes.

Pill Cases/Cabled Medication Safe

If your kid takes meds for their ADHD, be aware that those medications are hot commodities in college communities. Counsel your teen to be careful about showing/discussing those meds, and also make sure they have a way to both 1) lock up those meds and 2) anchor that safe to a fixture in their room. (A simple lockbox is not sufficient, because someone can just take the box and go smash it with a hammer.) Also—and this should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—get a safe that takes a combination or a fingerprint rather than just a key (because guess who will probably lose a key). Both Amazon and most of those dorm supply companies offer the SAFEGO as a basic dorm safe, and while you can certainly go bigger/fancier, if the goal is to lock up a few bottles of meds, that’ll work. Make sure your kiddo knows to loop the cord around something immovable (like the rod in the closet, if that’s fixed), not just a desk leg.

Now, you can’t expect someone—especially someone with attention and processing issues!—to be opening up a safe every single day, or twice a day. We already use a weekly pill case here at home, and when it’s time for my daughter to leave, we’ll get at least one more (so that she can make up her pills 2 weeks at a time, and lock the extra case in her safe). For females, it’s easy enough for us to counsel her to keep the pill case in current use in her purse. For males, I’d recommend a deep pocket in their backpack/book bag. In either case, I might even recommend wrapping the case in a plain grocery bag, as well. You don’t want to think about someone lifting your kid’s meds, but it happens.

Fail-Safe Alarm Clock

“Your teen has a cell phone and doesn’t need an alarm clock!” all of these college-prep lists insist. That may be true of neurotypical teens, or even a few others (my son is a morning person, actually), but my daughter and most kids with ADHD I know have trouble falling asleep and even more trouble getting up in the morning. We have purchased half a dozen alarm clocks over the years with varying degrees of success. The problem with some of the “good” ones is that they’re so loud you run the risk of your child being murdered by their roommate before they’re fully awake. So! Allow me to suggest that if you have a hard-to-rouse teen you just skip all the rest and buy this Sonic Alert Vibrating Alarm Clock right now. See the little round thing on the wire? That goes under the pillow and then it shakes the entire bed so hard that even the deepest sleeper can’t sleep through it. It works, and it’s way less obnoxious for others. (I mean, it’s not silent while it’s creating an earthquake in your bed, but it’s not as loud as something that actually beeps and wails. It does have an optional audible alarm, as well, but just the shaker is enough for most.) Go ahead and buy the extension cord, too, and make sure your kid sets it up so that they have to get out of bed to be able to turn it off. (For us, lofted bed for the win—the clock will be down on her desk, so she’ll have to come down to shut it off.)

Sleep/Wind-Down Aids

You likely already know what helps your kiddo get to sleep, but here are a few ideas (always discuss with your child’s doctor, first!) to try if you’re looking for something new.

  • Essential oils. I’m not one of those people who believes you can cure everything with oils, but a nice lavender scent (or whatever else your teen enjoys) may help them unwind at the end of a long day. You could buy an expensive diffuser if you wanted, but a small bottle of oil can be used to dab directly on the skin or a pillowcase, too. Or make a rice sock (good for them to have for an emergency heating pad, anyway) and put a couple of drops in there—when you heat it up, the scent will be released.
  • Melatonin. I will reiterate: check with your child’s doctor, especially if they’re on other medications. But, for many people, melatonin is a non-habit-forming and side-effects-free supplement which can help you sleep. It’s also cheap and readily available.
  • Weighted blanket or SnugBug. Deep pressure calms the nervous system; whether you opt for a weighted blanket (these can be very expensive, and not everyone likes how they feel) or a lighter alternative like a SnugBug (it basically makes you feel tightly tucked in), if your teen has trouble falling asleep at night, this may help.
  • Personal music speaker. If your teen currently listens to music at night and isn’t sharing a room, chances are excellent that she’s using some sort of speaker dock, which is fine when you’re living alone. With a roommate, though, you can’t just turn your music on like that, and sleeping with earbuds in isn’t going to be comfortable. Something like this under-pillow speaker (you can spend as much or as little as you want on this sort of thing) means she can have her nighttime music without disturbing her roommate.
  • A small fan. It’s not for everyone, but some people sleep better with a fan running—be it the white noise or the breeze or both, it may help you sleep. If you don’t know if this works for your kid, try it at home before they leave. It if works, make sure they have a small fan they can take with them.

General I’m-Super-Forgetful Aids

Guess what! Nagging Mom is not going to college. Many of the services I currently provide are about to become things my daughter will have to figure out on her own. Here’s a few ways to support that:

  • RE-vibe bracelet. We went ahead and purchased a RE-vibe (use coupon code 5FORFRIENDS to save $5) a few months ago, and my daughter really likes it. The premise is very simple: it vibrates every 5 minutes while you’re wearing it (it has an accelerometer in it, so if you take it off and put it down, it doesn’t keep vibrating, say, while you’re sleeping). Every time it vibrates, you stop and check to see if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. If yes, hooray! 10 points to Gryffindor! If no, refocus. It seems crazy to me that it helps, but it does. It also vibrates in different patterns so you don’t habituate to it. I’ll admit to being very pleasantly surprised at how much it seems to help keep her on track.
  • Tons of snacks. Listen, I’m pretty sure that I have never “forgotten to eat,” but my kid often does, and guess who gets super cranky and spacey when her blood sugar is low? Make peace right now with the idea that you’ll be paying thousands of dollars for meals your child will never make it over to the dining hall to consume. Yep. Then send her off with snack-sized pouches (I know, I know; it’s cheaper/better for the environment to buy bigger containers, but this is about what she’ll actually consume) of high-protein goodies as well as some favorite candy. For us, that means I buy protein bars and I buy Skittles. I buy chocolate-covered almonds and pouches of applesauce and Easy Mac cups. I will send this child off with a ridiculous amount of snack food and I will beg her to stock her purse and backpack so that when her mood and blood sugar bottom out, she has a quick fix on hand.
  • Portable phone/tablet charger. I can’t even tell you how many cables and plugs my child owns. A lot. But her devices are always on the verge of dying and she either can’t find a cord or isn’t close to an outlet. Buy a good portable battery—we like this one—and while she’ll still have to remember to charge it and put it in her bag, it’s a little insurance.
  • Cord labels. And speaking of umpteen-million cords… chances are good her roommate will have a bunch, too, and keeping straight whose is whose could become an issue. Whether your kid would do best with something like Mabel’s Labels, their own label-maker, or simply some fun duct tape to flag their cords with, well, that’s up to the two of you. But have something she’ll use as her marker.
  • A clear bin of extra toiletries/vitamins with a shopping list and red pen taped to the lid. In addition to the shower bucket (or whatever) of personal hygiene items currently in use, my daughter will be taking a bin of backup items with her as well. An extra tube of toothpaste, anti-perspirant, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, etc. This is because we know she simply does not possess the planning abilities to 1) notice a supply is running low and 2) purchase a replacement before she has completely run out. The bin of extras is at the ready, but here’s the deal: When she removes something from the bin, she has to write what she’s removed on the paper. Easy enough. The tricky part is that she then has to purchase a replacement for the bin before she’s allowed to cross it off. Honestly I don’t know how that last step will go, yet, but that’s up to her. It’s a system that gives her a buffer, at the very least.
  • Make a list of reminders! It’s true that my kid’s phone seems to always be in her hand, so yes, using the calendar/reminders there can be very helpful. In addition to programming in her class schedule, I’ve already suggested she figure out what time works well for her to do laundry and put that down as a weekly (or, okay, let’s be honest, every-other-week-ly) reminder in her phone. Ditto for remembering to sit down and refill her pill cases, or even things like programming a “did you eat?” reminder on her busiest class day. Our mantra is that it’s easier to be proactive than reactive. The more your teen can learn to front-load with good choices, the less she’ll be playing catch-up.

I’m not stupid; I realize a certain amount of crashing and burning is how this stuff gets worked out, and there’s nothing I can purchase that will stop that from happening. The goal here is simply to provide some additional support to our kids who need it. (Also it brings me joy to imagine my so-not-a-morning-person kid being shaken out of her loft in the morning after years of her complaining about us having to wake her up. Details.)

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

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  • Alicia

    Great List, Mir! Hooks really are the best thing for college rooms in a Residence Hall. They are multifunctional, and they don’t take up a lot of room. 

    One thing to note though: make sure your school permits the use of extension cords. I work in an Housing and Residence Life department, and our school does not permit extension cords of any kind. But that alarm clock is about 15 kinds of awesome!

  • Kim

    Listen, the “I’ve lost my class schedule and I have no idea where to go and whoops, now I’m supposed to be taking my final but I haven’t been to the class all semester because I don’t know where it is” nightmare is still on heavy rotation, and I graduated in the late eighties. I am impressed and more than a little jealous of this list, and I see matching Mommy and Me ReVibes in my near future.

  • Kendra

    I love this list and the care you’ve put into helping your young adult with ADHD prepare for university. It can be a hard transition, and having some strategies in place is always helpful. I’m an adult (in my 30s) with ADD and there’s one thing I’d recommend you add – noise cancelling headphones.

    I use my noise cancelling headphones to help me with an open plan office when I’m trying to focus, and I bet they’d come in handy for a student in a noisy dorm / library situation. I pop on some classical or other music without words and it really helps me get into flow – no minor house distractions. They ,fight also help her if she’s in a really noisy dorm when it comes to trying to get some sleep. I found trying to sleep in a dorm torture – having trouble switching off normally, coupled with a hyper awareness of any little noise when trying to sleep made it a super hard adjustment for me. I hope it goes better for your daughter – but I highly recommend some earplugs, eye mask and noise cancelling headphones if she’s used to a quiet sleeping arrangement.

    • Great suggestions, all. Thank you so much! (I think if we have the right music solution for her, that + fan will work, but this is all good to consider, too.)

    • MR

      I was so grateful that my school had a dorm with a “quiet” floor. The noise ordinance was in effect around the clock. I LOVED it.

  • Karen

    I got hooked on using a fan to help me sleep when I was in college in the eighties…and still love some sort of white noise.  At home I now have an air purifier that provides the right noise.  But when I travel, I use a white noise app on my phone – great to have that option when you’re away from home.

  • KIm

    Double commenting, because I have actual suggestions now:

    While the fan idea is great for Chickie, I otoh hate white noise, and rock a pair of earplugs nightly. They’re like blankies for my ears!  I think it would be very worthwhile to include a box in the emergency kit, in case they work better or the fan breaks.

    this is more of a hack than a supply. Schedules in college are highly flexible, and why not take advantage of it?  By the time I was a junior, all my classes started after 11am.  I went to bed at 2am and woke up at 10. I still carried a full load and worked night shifts at the library (it helped that I was an RA, and had my own room, something else I recommend.) It was great, and I cannot imagine doing that now, so no long term effects.

    And lastly, some perspective: unless you’re going to grad school, high GPAs don’t mean much anymore.I think it’s fair to expect a few C’s in the mix as your teen adjusts, and it really isn’t the end of the world. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have standards, just perspective. For me, not attending classes/doing homework ended up being my big “wild child rebel” stage, my way of sticking it to the man, man. Which, in terms of the temptations college offers, is an incredibly mild choice. As I matured, my grades got better.
    And i highly recommend dorm life, even for local students – it’s a great way to ease in to being on your own.

  • Julie

    If you don’t know what type of dorm room your child will have, you may or may not be able to use the hooks recommended. Having put 2 thru college (and 2 more to go), Command hooks are the greatest.invention.EVER!!! 

  • Meg Murry

    In addition to the file organizer you got her, a similar but smaller one for her backpack would be a good idea. I am also ADHD (but not diagnosed until I was an adult) and I found that keeping a poly organizer like that (it doesn’t need to cascade, but it does need to have multiple pockets) was a great way to keep track of all the handouts and papers for my classes.

    Do you think she will use binders to organize her papers? If so, buy many, multiple 3 hole punches – a really sturdy one that would stay on her desk, as well as a few smaller ones – preferably one lightweight one for her backpack, and a couple for inside her desk if the others go awol. I had the best of intentions to store my schoolwork in binders (and it worked well when I kept up with it) but if my 3 hole punch went AWOL my filing went to heck fast.

    Another semi-secure option for pills is to put them in a makeup bag or pencil case with 2 zippers and use a tiny luggage lock to clip them together. That is what I do with my daily pill organizers because I don’t want my toddler getting ahold of my prescriptions if he gets in my purse.

    Also, does her dorm have a computer lab she can use for printing, or is she taking her own printer? If she’s taking her own, make sure she has a good supply of ink and paper with her.

    Last, are you ok with her ordering shampoo, etc on Amazon Prime? If so, you can help her make a wishlist of all her favorite products (and items like printer ink, etc) and then she can just hit the “order” button from her phone and new ones will show up in 2 days. I pay for the conveninece of being able to go from “I need shampoo” to “click buy on Amazon” without the intermediate steps of “write on whiteboard” “remember to add whiteboard items to shopping list” “remember to go to store” “remember to get out list at that store” “remember to actually buy the shampoo even with the list in hand while at the store”

    She’s probably going to go through a lot of systems to figure out what works, but honestly, trying a system, having it break down and realizing it doesn’t work and then implementing a new system that works for her is going to be an ongoing lifelong struggle. So go ahead and let her fail on low risk things like running out of shampoo from time to time – that’s the only way she’s going to work out what works for her (even if it’s a system that seems crazy and bizarre to your non-ADHD brain)

  • L G

    Great article! I love the tip about the alarm clock! I just ordered one from Amazon. Here’s hoping!