The Middle School Years –Transitions, Turmoil and Teenagers Who Struggle

middle school students with ADHDThe middle school years are often challenging for students with ADHD and can be especially difficult for those who possess weak Executive Function skills. As students enter middle school, the structure and teacher-centered supports that existed during the elementary school years, and often served to keep children afloat, suddenly disappear. This transition can be quite overwhelming and fraught with a myriad of stressful challenges for both parent and child.

Supporting Middle Schoolers with ADHD

For students with ADHD, academic and social problems have a tendency to escalate as they enter middle school since they are especially vulnerable to the obstacles associated with weak Executive Functions, new academic and social demands, and the significant decrease in teacher support.

To be successful, middle school students must develop the organizational skills to keep track of schoolwork, assignments, schedules, binders, textbooks, social activities and supplies both in and out of the classroom. However, the skills needed to succeed academically in middle school, high school, college and beyond, are the Executive Function skills that are often a struggle for many children and adults with ADHD.

Executive Function skills are now well known to be critical to a child’s academic and social success. These skills include the ability to successfully manage time, stay organized, remember assignments, prioritize, plan, begin, complete and hand in daily assignments, plan for long-term projects, set realistic goals and persist towards meeting these goals, manage frustrations and emotions, and shift and regulate one’s attention as needed for classwork, homework and social relationships.

These skills are often slower to mature in children with ADHD and oftentimes don’t evolve naturally resulting in frustration, a sense of overwhelm and poor school performance. While middle school teachers may expect students to have developed these skills during elementary school, many of those with ADHD and/or weak Executive Functions may simply have not. These students continue to need explicit instruction and support in study skills, note taking, homework management, time management and organization which is not provided in the curriculum.

It becomes essential, when the demands of middle school, high school and beyond exceed the child’s ability to successfully cope with these challenges, that intervention is targeted to address the specific skill deficits that are interfering with their overall success.

Often one of the greatest challenges facing students occurs when long-term projects are assigned. They may immediately feel overwhelmed, have no idea where to begin or how to break the project down into manageable chunks and, since the project isn’t due for a couple of weeks, procrastinate or forget the project (or test) until the night before it is due.

Teaching students to create visual supports through the use of graphic organizers, which detail the steps needed to complete an assignment in conjunction with the use of a weekly planner or white board calendar to manage time and project details, is an excellent way to support and develop planning and time management skills.

Working backwards from the due date, interim steps should be created within a visual format to allow for adequate time for project completion. The same technique can also be used to plan study strategies for upcoming tests or daily homework assignments.

The best time to begin supporting your child’s EF skills is while they are still in elementary school when students are most willing to accept, and often rely heavily upon, parental supervision and involvement with homework, projects and studying.

When children reach the adolescent stage of development, it is common for young teenagers to assert their independence from parents. This struggle for autonomy creates a roadblock to continued parental academic oversight in middle school and beyond. It’s not that your child doesn’t need the same level of accountability and skill support; rather it is his or her unwillingness to accept your continued support that becomes the critical issue here.

Communication between parent and child during the middle and high school years often becomes increasingly contentious due to the frustration, stress and differing perspectives surrounding academic performance. Positive relationships between parent and child may be damaged or sacrificed on the altar of academic achievement during this stage of development.

Another scenario with the potential to impact a struggling child’s ability to succeed in middle school involves their continued insistence upon far too much parental support, which inhibits the child’s ability to function independently. Further complicating matters are academic expectations that vary between teachers, reduced communication that exists between the school and home, and the exponentially increasing academic demands on students as they enter middle school and beyond.

This combination of factors, especially where students either refuse or rely too heavily on the support of parents, makes it increasingly important that intervention occurs to develop and support the acquisition of independent Executive Function skills. Specialized organizational and Executive Function skills coaching with a qualified ADHD coach is often a powerful ingredient in setting the stage for academic independence and academic success, while also serving to reduce friction between parent and child.

Coaching for middle school, high school and college students with ADHD empowers these students to develop the skills needed to get on track, stay organized, get motivated, set goals and develop the habits they need to succeed in school and in life. While middle school students may not be ready for the level of coaching appropriate for older students and adults, they can certainly learn strategies and develop greater awareness of what is getting in their way and the study skills and strategies that will set the stage for academic achievement.

Successful coaching begins with developing a relationship based on trust and the core belief that all students who want to be coached also want to perform well. When students are not succeeding it is not because they don’t want to do well, rather “something” is getting in their way. It is the job of the Coach in collaboration with the client, to uncover the skill deficits and/or Executive Function weaknesses that are getting in the way of academic or social success. Once identified, specific strategies and structures are targeted to support skill development and the creation of positive habits in all areas of the individual’s life.

Struggling students often find that grades and relationships improve when ADHD and Executive Function coaching begins. Throughout the coaching process, students and families also develop an awareness of the core symptoms of ADHD and how its impact extends beyond the academic arena into all areas of functioning. Knowledge becomes power and executive skill support becomes the lifeline to success.

Written by Marjorie Harrison, M.A, Ed.M., @2014 PTS Coaching. All rights reserved. May be reproduced or electronically distributed as long as attribution to PTS Coaching is maintained.

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