Transitioning To Middle School With ADHD
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.
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
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.