By Beth Levine
Let’s say things have been going great at school for your ADHD child. They are making progress, learning coping techniques, thriving in a structured environment and have a strong support team.
Then summer hits and that structure and additional help falls away. Come September, they may have to relearn some skills.
“This is true for all children, learning difference or not,” says Melanie Bieber, a licensed professional counselor and primary school counselor in New Jersey and founder of Level Up Counseling and Consulting, a private mental health practice. “If we stop practicing skills we’ve been learning, when we return to them, they’re weaker, and they take more time to strengthen. This can be true about reading and math, but it’s also true about remembering how to pack a backpack, how to organize a planner, how to ask to play with a friend. The more we can strengthen those other skills, the more mental capacity they have available for the grade level skills being introduced at the beginning of the next school year.”
That all sounds good, of course. But it’s obviously easier said than done. Here are some ideas for making your child’s summer fun, safe and relaxing without losing ground:
Keep a schedule
This doesn’t mean every day has to look the same. There is plenty of room for spontaneity, but try to keep the basics — meal times, bedtime, screentime — on a schedule.
“When they have specific anchors in the day, you’re allowing for flexibility of activity between those set parts of the day,” says Bieber, who is also the co-author of Aaron Daniel Henry Davis: Just Another Day at School, a resource book for children with ADHD and their parents. “If you’re going on a day trip, plan what you can. Do your best to keep lunch at the same time, and consider packing a lunch with foods that are familiar to your child. This structure enables children to engage in many different experiences while maintaining a sense of predictability, which can help them manage transitions without stress.”
Stay current with extra support
If your child meets during the school year with a therapist, keep those appointments through the summer, if possible.
“Some of the best work you can do with a kid is in the times where things aren’t much of a struggle, because that gives them the capacity to work on some of these things that are really hard to do, and are taxing on their resources,” says Megan Agee, a licensed psychological associate and owner of Velaris Psychological Services in Charlotte, NC.
Think through medications
If your child is on medication, there are pluses and minuses to not continuing through the summer. On the plus side, it gives your child a break from side effects and also allows for a growth spurt. (ADHD medications tend to suppress appetite so children don’t grow as fast.) On the minus side, if your child is going to camp or other activity, they will still need help navigating social situations and transitions.
“You need to look at your child and figure out what is best for them,” Agee says. “Take it case by case.”
Enroll them in structured (but fun!) activities
There are a wide range of camps and city and library programs for kids in the summer. Look for programs that play to their strengths and interests such as sports, robotics, dance or coding.
But not every program is set up to give the best experience to a child with ADHD. Check it out ahead of time to see what its philosophy is. If there are so many kids that the counselors can’t possibly help your child, think about going elsewhere — possibly to a program that specializes in children who are neurodiverse.
“Being up front and sharing openly about who your child is throughout the decision-making process with the camp is one of the best things you can do to set them up for success,” Bieber says. ” It’s about knowing your kid, what they love and what they need.”
Build confidence by collaborating on reachable goals
Ask your child if there is something they want to work on or towards this summer: Building their own go-kart or learning to draw superheroes. Or maybe just getting better at monitoring their own time.
Then together, break that down into small steps. What would that look like? Celebrate after they achieve each step. It doesn’t have to major — just having them email a favorite teacher to tell the teacher about their accomplishment might be enough.
“A collaborative approach tends to be the most successful situation because it gives them a sense of accomplishment, control and agency,” says Agee.
Encourage regular reading habits
Encourage your child to read regularly — but don’t make it a chore. You can pick a fun series and read to your child. Or if it’s a “just right” leveled book, your child can read alternating pages, so they can listen and enjoy and practice the active experience of reading.
Some libraries have programs where a child can read to a therapy dog. Or every once in a while, call a “read at the table night” — where everyone can bring a book to dinner and they don’t have to make conversation.
If your child is having difficulty with comprehension, consider listening to audiobooks with family. You can occasionally pause the book and ask questions of the child to make sure they are understanding the intricacies of the plot.
Monitor screen time
With all that glorious summer downtime, most children — neurodiverse or not — can end up spending hours upon hours on screens.
“Children with ADHD in particular can hyper-focus and get lost in time,” Bieber says.
You should set clear expectations, such as: “You can watch one episode. When the episode ends, your job is to turn off the TV.”
If your child’s screen time doesn’t have a finite end time — like watching videos, YouTube or gaming — then a timer is helpful. Timers with a visual component and a sound component are ideal as that creates a multisensory approach. In these cases, you also have to teach reasonable boundaries.
“If the alarm goes off and they are in the final minutes of a video, allowing them to finish but not allowing them to start another one is a logical decision, as it mirrors what we as adults would also do,” Bieber says.
Feed them the proper fuel
Choosing a healthy diet may help with moderating ADHD symptoms. A study published in the April 2020 issue of the journal Clinical Nutrition ESPEN found that a “healthy” dietary pattern “loaded with vegetables, fruits, legumes, and fish has decreased the odds of ADHD up to 37%.” The study found that adherence to a “Western” dietary pattern that included red meat, refined grains, process meats, hydrogenated fat and sweetened beverages and desserts increased the chances of ADHD.
Another study, published online in May 2022 in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience found that children with ADHD who ate fewer fruits and vegetables were likely to have more severe symptoms of inattention.
“Just as with anyone else, you want to stick to the carbs, protein, produce, water — the basics that keep you feeling energized,”Agee says. “Watch out for impulse processed food snacking. There’s also some literature that tells us that food dyes can exacerbate ADHD symptoms.”
And most of all, let them relax
Be sure there is downtime for your child to just climb a tree, stare at bugs, run through a sprinkler or skip around.
“Just be prepared that downtime for a kid with ADHD is not going to look the way downtime for an adult would,” Agee says.
We would probably want a quiet read, some silence, maybe some low lighting. They are going to need high-sensory play.
Agee adds: “It may be a little louder than you expect, but know that they’re still getting a lot out of that sensory input.”