17 Life Hacks for Families with ADHD




  1. The world can be brutal for a kid who moves differently. Parents engineer their kid’s environment and help them negotiate the forces pushing on their self-concept, motivation and goal-attainment. The forces will be many.  Life is like that (for everyone). Most children with ADHD are not disabled.  Their brains are not damaged.  They move through life a little differently than most peers.  So, what?  We all belong.  If we love them well and help them through the hurdles, they can be the most interesting, engaging, creative and innovative people on the planet! I refute the medical model that places them in the victim role.  Right or wrong, it is in their best interest that everyone stays positive, focusing more on strengths than weaknesses. And remember: 75% of parenting is about just showing up, day after day.  They will become exactly who they were meant to become unless their environment brings forth trauma.
  2. Kids with ADHD look different at every age.  Early childhood and elementary can be a whirlwind as their brains are still trying to organize and manage. They have less self-control and aren’t great at organizing.   You will chase often, remind frequently and be exhausted by 7pm. They will not see the target; they will miss the targets they see.  Be there to help them interpret and recover from that.   We fret, but remember: everything prior to 9th grade is “practice”.  High schools toss the records and the slate is wiped clean. Each hurdle is an opportunity to learn and grow. A magnificent goal is that they leave the K-12 educational system liking themselves and knowing what fuels them. The rest?  Small details.  A lousy 2nd grade experience won’t break them.  Nor will that time you lost your temper. These things make great family jokes in adulthood.  Relax. They are watching how you respond.
  3. The first 8 years will be most difficult.  You will have to remind and reteach 1000 more times than your friends, but so what?  Be the calm, broken record. Ignore the future accountant next door. Everyone is on their own path.  They won’t (likely) climb on cars or jump on the couch when they are 18. Adolescence is also tricky.  Be firm about a consistent dinner time every day.  Keep them engaged in activities. Cross your fingers they find good friends. Don’t be afraid to say “no”.  Say it again and mean it.  
  4. The world will want to amplify (and “fix”) their weaknesses.  The world will be urgent about how disastrous it will be if……….(fill in the blank).  You need to be louder than the world.  Know what motivates your child.  Know what kills their motivation.  Know their strengths.  Advocate fiercely for these things. Be vigilant about this, please. Curriculum was written for the average kid.  Average is a myth. So is the arbitrary timeline.  If they don’t offer a course she/he needs, make it happen!IMG_2615
  5. Know what scares them.  Know what puts them in shame.  Protect them from these things .  Teach your kid to identify the source of fear and shame; give them words to understand it all; teach them strategies to avoid, prevent and respond. They will build a life that works for them if they are resilient in the face of fear and shame. 
  6. Don’t put them in places that kill their spirit.  Don’t send them to people who want to  punish them into submission.  There is a whole group of adults out there who believe punishment changes behavior.  They don’t know your kid or how damaging that can be.  Do not be afraid to call it when you see it.  If not you, then who?  Make necessary changes when you do. Move homes, change teachers or change schools if you have to.  There are plenty of spaces and many people who understand. Find them. They will help grow your kid into an awesome adult.  shutterstock_370944752
  7. Seek teachers who are kind, predictable, firm and consistent.  A good sense of humor goes a long way.  Ditto the ability to minimize small problems.  Avoid those who shame, blame and get anxious over small fires.  Most all of the fires are small in elementary school.  Request the right teacher for your kid.  When you are told “all teachers are good” for your kid, request the right teacher for your kid, again.  This single intervention is GOLD. 
  8. Don’t be afraid of temporary medication, especially while young and impulsive. It could save their souls from 100 redirections daily.  See #6 and 7.
  9. If lucky, you will be their “person” for life.  Your vision is large, yet they are writing their own story.  Teachers see them for 9 months and can get anxious about details (tests, curriculum, unfinished papers, preparing them for the next teacher).  You want them to be decent, productive humans at age 30. One test, one missing assignment, one bad day is only a blip. Help them recover well.  Don’t let one person diminish their story.
  10. Don’t ruin your relationship battling about homework and grades.  They either choose to invest in school or not.  Crazy, right?  If they leave the system liking themselves and knowing where their passions lie, they will figure it out once they have to buy their own toilet paper. (see #14)
  11. CHORES and a McJOB teach work ethic. Work ethic is taught at home.  Start early and be consistent. Create chore schedules and be vigilant.  Teach them to do it well. Give feedback and make them do-over until they get it right. Soon they will be on auto-pilot. Jobs at 16 are also important.  Taking direction from someone other than you will prepare them for next steps. #winwin.

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12. ADHD does not make kids angry, aggressive, lazy, disrespectful or mean.  Poorly engineered environments with punitive/non-restorative practices do.  Unresponsive humans do.  Non-restorative practices do.  That said, focus on teaching core social-emotional literacies.   Kids who are self aware can self manage. Kids who are aware of who and how  they are in the social environment build better relationships.  Emotionally literate kids make responsible decisions and build healthy relationships.  We need better humans.  These skills are taught.

13.  Their inconsistent timetable may not jive with other kids.  They are on their own path.  They don’t have to go to college (the US has a shortage of skilled trades).  They don’t have to start college right away. They don’t have to finish in 4 years.  Be clear you will support as long as they continue educating themselves . Do not allow basement dwellers over age 18. Key point:  be transparent about this at about age 15.  

14.  Teach and model life hacks.  Help them take pictures of everything important (social security number, directions , invitation dates, etc).   Store it in google drive. Obtain multiple copies of textbooks (home and school). Have multiple copies of car keys and burying them everywhere.  Automate bill paying (and get overdraft protection). These hacks are like health insurance: they save your hide. This will be a lifelong endeavor. TRUST ME.

15. There is a reason people with ADHD aren’t great with details:  the world only needs so many compliance officers, accountants and lawyers.    Their gifts lie elsewhere.  They need to engineer  their life so that they can pay others to do their taxes, weed their garden and clean their house.  OR be ok with a weedy garden. There are worse problems.

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16People with ADHD often  think “messy”.  Creativity happens in that tangle.  Innovation is born out of that mess.  Remember:  Einstein’s desk was a mess when he died!

                                      Everyone else                                            Person with ADHD

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17. People with ADHD may approach problems in fits and starts (this will always be true).   Others will be more linear. Take breaks while you process things.  Get back at it soon. Create a life that supports this need. You will produce more when the rhythm is right.   Your work day may be longer, but more engaging. 

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The Engaged Classroom: Current State

The data we have about trends in student engagement are worrisome. A 2015 Gallup poll of more than 800,000 students nationwide in grades 5 through 12 found that, while 50% of all the students polled reported feeling engaged at school, fully 29% of students overall reported not feeling engaged, and an alarming 21% reported feeling actively disengaged at school.  

Engagement decreases steadily from fifth grade through middle school and high school.  The lowest point occurs in the junior year of high school.   In fifth grade, three-quarters of students feel involved in and enthusiastic about school, but by 11th grade, the same is true for only about one-third of students.







Attention varies within an individual, across the day and over time


Phillip Schlecty’s theory on engagement dictates that even highly engaged classrooms will have students who are not committed and whose attention is diverted.  His model reveals a continuum of engagement, going from Rebellion (low committment-diverted attention) to Engaged (high commitment-high attention).  In between we have Retreatism, Compliance and Strategic Compliance with varying levels of commitment and attention.  Many of our most academically successful students do what they need to earn the grade but do not see the value and do not retain what they learned.  These Strategically Compliant students associate value with the other extrinsic things (parental approval or grade) but are not learning at high levels.  They are not truly engaged.


What can we do?

For answers, we can look at the student, parents and/or community.  We can look at the whole school.  Research, however, suggests that the most powerful influence on outcomes that educators can impact relies on the classroom teacher and the culture that is created within.

The classroom teacher is among the most powerful influences in learning.  –  John Hattie

  Next up:  The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

The Cure for Shenanigans

The only thing I dislike more than cats on the counter?  Barking dogs.  There is one cure and one tool.  First the tool:  




The cure?  Are you ready?  One word:  


You need to be BORINGLY predictable.  Have the bottle ready at every moment.  Use it.  Soon, you don’t have to use it.  You just have to show it.  Before you know it, the cat stays on the floor; the dog shows a little self control.  Simple.  


Ben barks because his "brother" barks.  Not anymore!

Ben barks because his “brother” barks.

If it doesn’t work, one mustn’t blame the bottle.  Clearly, the bottle works, even though it is just water.

It is like that with kids too.  All kids.  Even the “spirited” ones.  Especially the spirited ones.  You don’t need to come down more harshly.  Sending them to the administrator is also less than effective.   If you feel the need to reach for the hammer, consider

  1. your relationship with the child
  2. your culture of engagement
  3. your ability to consistently respond in gentle ways

It isn’t about WHAT we use as much as it is THAT WE RESPOND.  Every time.  Calmly,

quickly returning to building that culture of learning.  

A classroom engaged rarely has problems.  




The REAL World

No Such Thing!

No Such Thing!

Thinking of comments made by a retired educator this week while she defended some practices that felt highly punitive and judgmental to me. “I need to prepare them for the REAL WORLD~!” (she said, condescendingly)….

Not a John Mayer fan (he’s a bit Abercrombie, for my tastes) BUT he’s got a few things to say about this.

What IS the REAL world? And do we KNOW what that means for today’s children? I think not………………….As Howard Gardner now says, I think we want GOOD people; GOOD workers; GOOD collaborators; GOOD citizens. We rarely get that by punishing in the absence of a relationship and teaching! 

My head immediately goes to the John Mayer song, No Such Thing.

“No Such Thing”
Welcome to the real world”, she said to me
Take a seat
Take your life
Plot it out in black and white
Well I never lived the dreams of the prom kings
And the drama queens
I’d like to think the best of me
Is still hiding
Up my sleeve
They love to tell you
Stay inside the lines
But something’s better
On the other side
I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you’ve got to rise above
So the good boys and girls take the so-called right track
Faded white hats
Grabbing credits
Maybe transfers
They read all the books but they can’t find the answers
And all of our parents
They’re getting older
I wonder if they’ve wished for anything better
While in their memories
Tiny tragedies
 We need the folks who are compelled to stay between the lines as much as we need those unafraid to venture out.  Diversity is about more than just religion, skin color and sexual preference.  
 We all belong………..

Why Do I Need To Learn This?


An article by Audrey Waters, Is Math Education Too Abstract  , on Mindshift discusses the idea that the typical way of teaching math over time is not the most effective.  Water pulls from an op-ed article by Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford:  

“Today,” they write, “American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.  The authors contend that the “traditional” math curriculum focuses too much on abstract reasoning and abstract skills. “Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering,” they suggest.

Audrey’s central question:

“But does thinking about “applied mathematics” mean necessarily that we have to steer clear of algebra and calculus as their own units in math education? Does putting math in context mean that we cannot teach math in abstract?”

The answer seems clear to me:

we need both the pieces and the whole.

There are many sound reasons for teaching the elements and the contexts in which the elements live.   Addressing BOTH is important; doing so is:

  • relevant
  • comprehensive
  • engaging
  • it takes knowing to understanding
  • it allows one to do something with their personal understanding

If we teach the elements and the whole, and  do it well, we will get many questions.   This  will not be one of them:

Why do I need to learn this?

What Does It Mean To Understand?

mid“… Instruction begins when you, the
teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his
place so that you may understand what he
understands and in the way he understands it….”
– Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals, 1854

What is Understanding?

“The performance view of understanding is consonant with
both common sense and a number of sources in
contemporary cognitive science. The performance
perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter
of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things
with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and
examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and
representing the topic in new ways.

From The Teaching for Understanding Guide by Tina
Blythe and Associates (Jossey-Bass, 1999)

I would like to highlight the doing part.  It isn’t just knowing.  It is also doing something with what you know.  

Teaching for Understanding is a framework , developed in a research project at Project Zero during the early nineties, links what David Perkins has called “four cornerstones of pedagogy” with four elements of planning and instruction.

 Four Central Questions About Teaching

What shall we teach?

What is worth understanding?

How shall we teach for understanding?

How can students and teacher know what students understand and how students can develop deeper understanding?

The Teaching for Understanding framework

  • Throughlines, or Overarching Understanding Goals (extend through the entire course—focus learners on BIG understandings)
  • Generative Topic (the content we focus on in our unit; what it is about the topic that motivates us to learn more)
  • Understanding Goals (extend through a unit; connect to Throughlines and stem from the Generative Topic)
  • Performances of Understanding (learners demonstrate their understanding of the topic at various points in a unit)
  • Ongoing Assessment (learners assess themselves and one another, and receive frequent formative feedback from the teacher)

Here is an example of a unit planning guide, created by staff at the Washington International School.

Here  is an organizer to use when creating a project.

For more information, including registration for the High Quality Instruction and Delivery course offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, go here.

We need to teach the parts.  They need to know the elements.  But more importantly, they need to put the knowledge to use in meaningful ways to truly know and understand.  

This is learning in a meaningfully engaged way.  

Teaching the Whole


In his book, Making Learning Whole, David Perkins uses the game of baseball as an analogy to discuss the concept of teaching whole concepts in education.

An article in  Ed., the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online magazine, includes an interview with David Perkins.

““From the beginning I built up a feel for the whole game. I knew what hitting the ball or missing the ball got you. I knew about scoring runs and keeping score. I knew what I had to do to do well, even though I only pulled it off part of the time,” he writes in the book. And then, the epiphany: “I saw how it fit together.” Why not apply this same logic to teaching, Perkins thought, especially in subject areas like math and history, where students often struggle to make connections?

Read more: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2009/09/let-the-games-begin/#ixzz2aLz3IwIH

We teach the ‘whole’ beautifully in reading and the arts, where students see complete models and get to practice being a reader, an artist, a dancer.  

Why not other areas in school?  From the Ed article

“Partly it’s because learning bits and pieces now and putting them together later simplifies the classroom routine: it’s easier to work on isolated pieces. Partly because when kids make mistakes, the most obvious mistakes concern the pieces — arithmetic errors, misspellings, facts not remembered. Partly it’s a failure of imagination, a failure to figure out what small-scale accessible meaningful versions of mathematical modeling or building historical interpretations would look like for children.

Read more: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2009/09/let-the-games-begin/#ixzz2aM6YMKHv

Elementitis and Aboutitis

The first plague of education:

We educators always face the challenge of helping our students approach complex skills and ideas. So what to do? The two most familiar strategies are learning by elements and learning about. In the elements approach, we break down the topic or skill into elements and teach them separately, putting off the whole game until later — often much later. So students end up practicing meaningless pieces to score well on quizzes without developing a sense of the whole game, like the kids . . .who can do the computations but don’t know what operations to use when. This is a persistent plague of education, so to have a little fun I call it ‘elementitis.’ “

The second plague of education:

In the learning about approach, instead of teaching how to do the thing in question, we teach about it. For instance, we teach information about key science concepts rather than teaching students how to look at and think about the world around them with those concepts, which supposedly comes later. But again, the information tends to be meaningless without a context of use, and often “later” never happens. This is another plague of education, so to have some more fun I call it ‘aboutitis’. “

So, how do we avoid this?

Perkins summarizes the “Seven Principles of Teaching”:

1.    Play the whole game.

2.    Make the game worth playing. Motivation and relevance are key.

3.    Work on the hard parts. While he advocates the whole game, he clarifies that he doesn’t mean “just” the whole game.

4.    Play out of town.  In Red Sox Nation, it’s a resonant sports metaphor, but it also refers to the transfer of knowledge from one context to another. 

5.    Play the hidden game.  A stats view of baseball is one of baseball’s “hidden games.” In baseball, algebra, or anything else we learn, there are richer, more layered aspects than show up on the surface…drawing “learners into the game of inquiry.”

6.    Learn from the team.  Perkins notes the importance of social learning, and he urges students to learn from teammates and from other “teams”–other students in different roles.

7.    Learn the game of learning.  Perkins suggests that teachers allow students to be  in charge of their own learning by putting them in the driver’s seat and letting them take control–rather than having them sit in the passenger seat and watch their education
roll by.

Finding the sweet spot where we teach the “elements”; we teach “about” in the context of a meaningful whole,  is how we engage students in deep understanding and meaningful learning.

Learning to bat is virtually meaningless if you never get to “play ball”.