So, exams and children with ADHD don’t mix. If exams are stressful for the ‘normal’ child, imagine how appealing they are to the child with poor memory skills, low self-esteem and poor organisation skills; or the kid who can’t sit still for longer than fifteen minutes without fidgeting.
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ADHD is categorized as a learning disability, but that doesn’t mean that kids who suffer with the condition are not intelligent.
But due to the symptoms of ADHD, formal school exams are perhaps not the most accurate way to test the learning progress of these children whose executive functioning skills are compromised by a sluggish dopamine system in the brain.
Understandably then, the thought of having to sit Year 11 exams this week is about as appealing as watching paint dry for my son Kurt. As every parent of a child with ADHD knows, homework and revision are the most diabolical torture invented for children with ADHD.
Although we have turned a major corner this year with Kurt in terms of his management of his ADHD and the coping strategies he has finally begun to utilise vis a vis his school life. This time last year we were in the midst of an annus horribilis when our then sixteen-year old boy suddenly discovered every unlawful and anti-social activity invented by teenagers throughout history and went into free-fall as he tried all of them out at the same time. I would never have believed then that Kurt would still be in school today, but not only is he still at school, he appears to be thriving – he’s rarely late in the mornings, has made some friends (albeit the dubious-looking ones) and is doing some study.
Like other children, kids with ADHD come in different packages. Some will be academically gifted, others will have average ability and others will have to cope with learning difficulties. Kurt is a bright boy and if he could write his English exam on Top Gear, The Life of Kurt Cobain or Bondi Rescue, he would ace these looming exams. Sadly, Othello doesn’t quite fulfill him in the same way and to be honest, I question why a boy who has no intention of going to university needs to know about dramatic techniques, quotes and the structure of an Elizabethan play.
That’s the modern curriculum for you.
Which brings me appropriately to the first of my top tips to help you get your ADHD child through exams:
‘BE REALISTIC IN YOUR EXPECTATIONS.’ That doesn’t mean you need to lower your expectations for your child, but as their parents you know their limitations and how to get the best out of them without pushing, overwhelming or pressurising them into dangerous territory. Kurt and I negotiated an hour of revision a day leading up to these exams and his goal is to get a 50% pass in each subject. (I should note here that he believes that an hour a day of homework on top of his school day is a ridiculous demand and I should be reported to child welfare for abuse).
All kids are different and there will be those kids who study for four hours each night and started revising around Christmas-time and others who will do nothing at all. For Kurt, an hour is a good compromise – it’s one more hour of study than he’s ever done in his life and that’s progress.
‘PERSUADE/BRIBE THEM TO REVISE WITH YOU – AWAY FROM DISTRACTIONS.’ Children with ADHD need extra support and scaffolding with the organisation needed to revise efficiently. Sometimes I can persuade Kurt to let me help him revise, other days he rejects me completely. But even if he won’t allow me to work with him, if he’s in the same space as me at least I know that he isn’t flicking through another twenty-five open tabs on his computer at the same time, and he is more focused. His learning success depends on his mood when he approaches study, which in turn depends on how wrung-out he is after a long day at school, how much sleep he had the night before, if he is in the throes of young love and chatting up some girl on Facebook and how much he has eaten that day. I have upped his tutoring sessions to twice a week in the three weeks leading up to exam week, which means I can console myself that he is doing at least 2 hours of revision a week.
‘MAKE SURE THEY GET ENOUGH SLEEP.’ Kurt takes ADHD medication and as such, without the use of Melatonin, he would be up all night listening to music, vacuuming his room, drumming or on Social Media. He manages his own Melatonin now because he is old enough to know just how horribly pear-shaped the next day can go when he’s tired – like when he forgets his ADHD meds which then leads to poor comprehension and no filter, which in turn alienates friends and lands him in trouble in class – he then becomes despondent and aggressive by the time he comes home. It’s a vicious cycle that it has taken him 17 years for him to learn. I would recommend removing computers and electronic equipment from your child’s room at night if you can, but realistically with a seventeen year old, there has to be a level of trust involved (which I don’t have, so all I can do is pray that the Melatonin does its job). They do need to take the Melatonin a good few hours before bedtime.
‘MAKE SURE THEY EAT BREAKFAST AND TAKE SNACKS OR MONEY TO SCHOOL.’ One of the side-effects of ADHD medication is that it can suppress the appetite and sometimes Kurt will eat nothing for breakfast or lunch. I’ve tried everything to tempt him to eat, from cooked breakfasts to Up N Go’s, which I despise. At the moment we’re in a smoothie phase, which seems to work. They’re quick, easy for him to pour down his throat when he’s rushing out of the door on his way to school and I can secrete some healthiness into them even when he demands something completely revolting like a peanut butter milkshake. Importantly, they give him some energy to aid his concentration and lift his mood. Here’s one I made earlier with secreted banana and honey. (Shhhhhhh!)
‘REWARDS.’ These kids respond to rewards, so use them – we all need a little extra help at different stages of our life. At this stage of our school journey, I see these exams as less about measuring Kurt’s academic ability, and more about Kurt’s understanding of responsibility and accountability. A game of Trivial Pursuit shows me more about his general knowledge than any English paper on Othello could. My son is a thinker, a talker and a creative but whatever he does he will need to adapt to fit into society, learn to meet deadlines and put in the extra hours to progress further in his career. The fact that he has applied himself to school and revision this year and is about to sit his exams shows me that he is learning and maturing in spite of the limitations imposed by his ADHD. We’ve come a long way.
TRY AND STAY CALM THROUGH THE EXAM PROCESS AND ACCEPT THAT THESE KIDS ARE DIFFERENT AND IT’S MOST LIKELY THAT THEIR TALENTS WON’T BE MEASURED OR DEMONSTRATED BY ACADEMIC QUALIFICATIONS.
Think Richard Branson, Robin Williams, Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake…