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Transitioning To Middle School With ADHD

Transitioning To Middle School With ADHD

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom—official name is still TBD—and today is our first reader question. We just felt like Amy does such a great job with her Advice Smackdown in handling the little-kid questions, why not try out a similar format for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


Hi there!

You’re very pretty. 🙂

I have two beautiful, smart daughters. My elder one, 11, has ADHD-PI. She is so smart but scattered like whoa. I get it, I have some of those traits myself, but I feel like there is a large debris field in her wake. I’m sure it’s multiplied because of tween X inattentiveness.

She’s starting middle school in 3 months, and I am TERRIFIED. How is she going to stay afloat? Her 504 with the middle school is not as robust, because they want to see if she matures more and can handle it better than elementary school.

Any tips? Techniques? Favorite flavored adult beverages?

Rueful in Roswell

Dear Rueful,

Fist bump of solidarity, Mama. My daughter has ADHD-PI and wasn’t diagnosed until well into high school, which means I still have several years of therapy ahead of me to finish conquering the guilt of all those years of “but why can’t you” and “didn’t you pay attention” and “just do it already!” People (and especially girls) with inattentive type ADHD sometimes fly under the radar until well into adulthood (or, you know, forever), and spend their lives thinking they’re lazy and/or dumb. So let’s start with the good news: You already know, at 11, that this is her challenge. That’s huge. And I’m not just saying that because I feel bitter and guilty that my ADHD kid floundered through middle school because we hadn’t figured this out.

You say “her 504 with the middle school is not as robust,” which has me a little confused. Am I understanding correctly that you’ve already met with the middle school to discuss, and they took out some supports she was provided in elementary school? If so, my level of concern would vary depending on what those supports were, exactly, although I would also be making the argument that transitioning to a new school is not the time to be helping her less. That said, in the interest of not alienating any of the staff you’ll be needing to work with for the next three years, I would be very tempted to request another meeting (either now, over the summer, if they’re available, or, say, the week before school starts), and I would probably do that by contacting the person who coordinates 504s and saying something like, “We’ve been looking over her plan and still have a few concerns. While we’re willing to try backing off on [whatever they originally cut] a little bit, we want to be certain that contingencies and some sort of rescue strategy are in place just in case this doesn’t go as smoothly as we all hope it will.” If anyone tries to tell you to just “try it out” and have a meeting a few months into the school year, reiterate that upon review (and if you feel like you need more clout, you can throw in “and upon the advice of her doctor” or something similar) you feel the plan is not ready for action. It’s your right to ask for a meeting at any time if you have concerns, so be persistent if you need to be.

Backing up here a little bit, when my kids transitioned from one school to another, part of that process involved having someone from their team at the previous school come be part of the meeting at the new school. It’s a great way to debrief on current issues in the language school officials understand. If you didn’t have that experience, and if someone at her old school might be a good advocate for her needs and is willing to come to a meeting, ask for that person to come with you once you have a meeting set. Parents can ask for anything, but in my experience, school officials are more willing to listen to other school officials, especially when they can say, “We tried X, but found that she really responds best to Y.”

Lots and lots of kids will experience a period of academic “drowning” when they start middle school. A good school will both see this as typical but also work really hard to prevent it—for everyone. The problem when you’re advocating for your easily-overwhelmed kid (and perhaps we could change ADD to OMG, if your kid is anything like mine) is that some of the things which are no-big-deal, we-can-handle-this for neurotypical kids turn into “I give up” for kids like ours. Unfortunately, some school officials might not see the difference during planning time. To wit: Someone might say, “Well let’s just [whatever wait-and-see strategy they’re advocating] and then if [your kid is down at the bottom of the pit] we’ll revisit.” That is why you want another meeting, because you need to clearly convey that what is an acceptable and recoverable level of disorganization/falling behind for a neurotypical kid is not going to be workable for your child.

If they are completely unwilling to provide what you feel are reasonable supports in the name of “seeing if she’s matured” or whatever, focus on building a safety net. Clearly define what happens if/when she misses deadlines and get front-loaded with a parental notification system. (Notification is crucial so that you don’t end up with a stressed-out kid buried under weeks worth of work.) If she doesn’t have an accommodation for extended time to make up assignments without grade penalty, get that added. If she doesn’t have an accommodation stating written instructions for every assignment (perhaps emailed to you, as well, if you’re comfortable asking for that), get that added. And do disaster planning now—map out the level of trouble you would consider her maximum load (5 missing assignments, say, or whatever you think makes sense) and what the strategy is to get her back on track at that point (including, perhaps, reinstating old supports because she’s not functioning well without them).

While the whole point of IEPs/504s is that they’re customized, here are some of the supports we have in place for my own ADHD-PI kiddo: The aforementioned extended time to make up assignments without grade penalty (and if for some reason an assignment cannot be made up—it happens, sometimes—either an alternate assignment or the grade is dropped). Extended testing time. Written instructions for everything. Larger assignments must be broken down into smaller steps with teacher checkpoints. Back in middle school and even early high school, we had a system where she had to record assignments and the teachers signed off on whether she’d done that or not, every day (we no longer need to do this, but it’s a pretty standard shaping exercise for a kid with organizational challenges). Even now my rising senior has it written into her plan that missing work requires a written notification both to her and to us. No, I’m not going to college with her, but as long as she’s a minor, I get to know when she’s slipping so that I can help urge her along.

Get another meeting. Bake something yummy (or pick up a yummy snack, if you’re not a baker) and present it with a smile and tell the team how grateful you are for their time and their partnership in supporting your child. Have a list of points and don’t let them shoo you out the door until you’ve gone through it all. Stress that everyone knows management is an easier and kinder road than recovery, so obviously everyone wants to set your kid up for success.

And then take some deep breaths and remind yourself—and her—that the first few months may be rough and you’ll get through it, together. Keep all lines of communication open and as the saying goes, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. My bet is that with you in her corner, she’s going to be fine.

Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

Find more Back-to-School Ideas here!

Published May 28, 2015. Last updated August 2, 2018.
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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  • […] read it), and the first one is up today. Woohoo! You can hop on over there to read about transitioning your ADHD kid to middle school, which is a scary proposition under even the best of […]

  • Kim too

    May 28, 2015 at 10:37 am

    My, your hair is looking especially pretty today, Mir! And your brain, too.  I’ve got 3 solid years before my girl transitions, but all of these made great sense. I made the mistake* of having my girl evaluated by the school after she started on her meds, so her while her processing deficit is apparent, the discrepancy no longer qualified for services.  Which is fine, right now, but this advice is going to be helpful in the future.
    *Maybe.  It’s not like I’m planning on taking her off the meds any time soon.  I was diagnosed (at 48, thanks very much) shortly after she was, and the drugs help both of us immensely.

    • Mir Kamin

      May 28, 2015 at 10:49 am

      So here’s another tip to tuck into your back pocket for future reference: Schools love to tell you that if a child is performing “at grade level” or “difficulty is not causing failing grades” they don’t qualify for services. Neither of my children have ever bombed out to this criterion, but testing reveals that they each have one or two areas wherein they perform significantly lower than expected based upon their other scores. That is sufficient qualification for support, whether the school volunteers that information or not. Sure, my kid’s working memory percentile is maybe at 50, but with scores of 99+ in everything else, that’s an obvious area of deficit for her. Maybe for another kid, a C average is the best they can do, but for this kid, a C indicates a serious problem. Etc.

      Medication is helpful but not a cure-all, obviously. The school’s goal is to provide as little as possible, most of the time (and this is not to malign schools, but IEPs and 504s make additional work for everyone and smart kids with disabilities are not as pressing of a concern as kids who are failing out or who need accommodations just to function), and your goal is to advocate for your child. When the time comes, you should still have plenty of ammunition to advocate for support.

      • Carrie

        May 29, 2015 at 10:35 am

        I am so thrilled you are writing this column! And for the first topic to be so on-point with my fears over the coming years. This particular nugget is really helpful.

        My ADHD-inattentive snowflake is wrapping up 3rd grade, the first full school year since her diagnoses/medication. She’s gone from her teachers wondering if she’s understanding anything to being identified as GT. Not everyone at the school is a believer that a child performing above grade level in certain subjects should get “special treatment,” so I’m steeling myself for the upcoming battle and already getting anxious about the middle school transition. She has documented deficits in processing speed and other areas so you are helping me define my strategy for the fall. 

        I really appreciate you sharing some of your daughter’s specific accommodations – there have been a couple of things she continues to struggle with (reading logs are the bane of my existence), and these accommodations are nice articulations of the vague ideas I have in my head 🙂

  • Jean

    May 28, 2015 at 11:36 am

    My PDD-NOS boy is transitioning to middle school next year as well (most of his issues are social/emotion – and he is VERY hard on himself). We just had our meeting with the school yesterday, and his guidance counselor for the next three years. Every item on his 504 plan is still in place for next year. We were also assured that they really hand hold the sixth graders during the transition (and I was assured this not just by the guidance counselor but by many many parents as well). I think you definitely need to fight for all of your child’s accomodations. I am surprised they removed some. Good luck!

  • Jodie

    May 28, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    Your hair DOES look mighty pretty today 🙂

    This advice column makes me so happy.  Now that my oldest daughter is 9, the advice smackdowns aren’t relevant as often. Not to mention I’ve used your many many pieces of IEP and older kid advice plenty.  

  • Penny Williams

    May 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

    My son was in 6th grade this year. The start was a nightmare — he was overwhelmed and his needs were under-served. Through many a morning meltdown, we were finally able to discern that the crowded hallways and kids on top of each other at lockers was causing him great anxiety and distress. The school agreed he could change classes before or after all other kids and that he could carry a backpack and not use his locker. This was a huge help to him.  

    Be sure that you are talking with your child each day about how it’s going and what they are struggling with or what makes them uncomfortable. Addressing those issues, even if just making a plan together, will help immensely. 

    Penny Williams
    Author of “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD” and “Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD”  

    • Mir Kamin

      May 29, 2015 at 2:10 pm

      Great suggestions, Penny! Thank you very much. (We went through this with both kids being offered the chance to change classes at a different time, and that was ultimately rejected by both, at different times, as making them too conspicuous. Both kids have adapted to just not using a locker at all. Their backpacks are overstuffed but they find it easier that way.)

  • Teri

    May 29, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    I posted this on WCS, but then realized that I should have put it here instead. Sorry about the double posting.

    Mir, I almost cried reading your AlphaMom column. I have a 10th grade girl with ADHD-PI who refuses medication for the ADHD (though she has just recently tried Zoloft for depression). She went to a fabulous (private) middle school with tiny class sizes, where she excelled — like, she won a major national science fair and was flown to Washington DC, and she won regional fiction writing prizes. She’s smart.

    And then she went to high school, and after two quarters with stellar grades (99.78…) the bottom dropped out. She developed a relationship with homework and schoolwork that is halfway between “I quit” and acute anxiety. Her grades dropped into the 20% range. She was diagnosed with depression/anxiety disorder. She started to self harm. She threatened suicide. She locked herself in the bathroom repeatedly and wrote about death on the walls in a secret code. She attacked us with her fingernails, and screamed at us that she wanted to kill us.

    And you know what? I think it all comes back to the ADHD-PI, and I never put it together, not really, until today when I read your column. Today, 16 months after she crashed, she still is barely negotiating school. She rants about the educational system crushing people’s spirits. Her grades are way below passing unless I get involved (which she hates and resents) and get special permission for late work to be turned in without penalty, and then she’ll get a 99% for the quarter. She dropped math and science and is just barely treading water with her other core classes. Her therapist says that she has something like “academic anorexia” — she reacts to schoolwork the way an anorexic responds to food, and forcing her to do it is just as counterproductive as forcing a child with an eating disorder to eat (she also has an eating disorder and other control/oppositional issues).

    Your suggestions about accommodations were incredibly helpful. I will see what I can do to get my daughter on board with something like the extended time for homework without penalty. I’m printing your response and taking it with me to my next 504 meeting. Any other advice you or your readers might have is more than welcome, but mostly I wanted you to know that you really made a difference today.

  • AmyZ

    August 28, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    While I fully support the request to meet, please also consider emailing each middle school teacher with a brief introduction, a mention of the 504, and an offer to communicate/help/support. Sometimes in the swap of schools paperwork is not always well communicated, and it’s easier for a teacher to miss a kid when their case load is 130+ vs 25. Mentioning it on the front end, and letting teachers know you’re willing to support ahead of problem so goes a long way!