Years ago, when my sons were toddlers, I had lunch with a good friend who was a special education teacher.
We had gone to school together and although I made the decision to leave the special education classroom early on, she stayed and had been teaching for almost ten years.
Over a salad and bread sticks, we talked about how different the classroom really was from what we learned in school. I shared my experience and she shared hers.
At some point, the topic of behavior management came up. She had several boys in her classroom who did not really fit anything we had learned about back in the 90’s.
She talked about ADHD (a very new diagnosis to us both at the time) and other co-morbid diagnosis that made it difficult for these children to be in a mainstream classroom, but also left them adrift in the world of special needs.
With a look of intense commitment, she said, “No one ever taught me how to help them. I have just been trying to figure it out on my own. At this point, the only thing I know that works is choices and timers.”
Choices and Timers.
It may sound simplistic, but please, hear me out.
This is by far the most helpful, real life, make a difference in the actual things happening in my home today advice I have ever been given about parenting a child with ADHD.
Over the years, as my son’s needs became more and more apparent, and my inability to help him became more and more terrifying, every once in a while I would hear her voice.
The only thing I know that works is choice and timers.
So I would try it – and it would work.
The Best Advice I Have Ever Heard About Parenting A Child With ADHD
The concept of choices and timers is pretty straight forward. When you have a child struggling to focus, struggling to calm down, struggling to transition, and/or struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin, you offer them a few simple choices and then give them a short, doable time frame for completion.
Let me share an example –
We need to leave for my son’s art class. He is all over the place and will not get his clothes on. I kindly give him a choice.
“OK, it’s time to get ready. Would you like to put your shirt on first or brush your teeth?”
Sometimes, this is enough. I am pretty sure making a choice uses a different set of synapses in the brain than transitioning to a new activity (I am not a doctor, but I have years of anecdotal evidence to support this theory.) There are however, times when my son replies with something along the lines of
“I don’t want to do either one!”
Rather than getting outwardly frustrated, I continue with another choice.
“OK, well it’s time to get ready. Let’s see. Would you like to put your shirt on first or get Sammy’s leash and vest ready to go?”
Usually, at this point, I have his attention. He makes a choice.
Now, I set a timer and brightly say,
“We have ten minutes until we need to be in the car. I’m going to set the timer on my phone so we make it.”
If I notice my son getting off track, I will grab my phone, check the timer and again, calmly and with a smile say,
“Oh, we are doing so well. We only have four minutes left. Should we brush your teeth and get our water bottle ready now?”
When the timer goes off, I usually celebrate our progress, even if we are not 100% complete.
“We got a lot done. We are almost there. Let’s give ourselves two more minutes.”
When we are finished up, I congratulate my son like he just finished a race and we move on with our day.
Here’s the thing – it may seem very specific and little over the top, but once you are used to the choices part, it becomes second nature.
This advice has saved me from many a meltdown, and it also takes a lot less time,effort and energy than saying over and over again,
“Get dressed! It’s time to go. We need to hurry. Come on. We only have ten minutes. Why are you pulling toys out of your closet right now? It’s time to go. Get dressed!”
Why It Works
The more I have learned about my son’s differences, the more I understand why choices and timers work so well. Here are the benefits I see every day in my home.
A Sense Of Control
Because my son is given a choice, he feels a sense of control, even when he is struggling. This decreases the likelihood of resistance and allows him to proceed without any major emotional dysregulation.
Not Focused On The Transition
Again, as I said above, making a choice seems to use a different set of synapses in the brain than transitioning to a new activity. For a child who struggles with transitions, this is a godsend. I am not sure why it elicits such a different, less fight or flight response, but it does.
For a child who struggles with executive function and even working memory, getting started on a set of steps can be daunting at best, and even impossible some days. I have learned that I cannot simply say, “It’s time to go. Please go get ready.” For my son, that requires too many steps and completely overwhelms his ability to proceed.
Offering choices naturally breaks down any requirement into smaller, more manageable steps. For the child with executive function deficits, this is essential.
Here are some additional examples of when this has worked well in our home –
Transitions between school subjects
When I can “feel” a meltdown coming on
When oral sensory issues are creating havoc at dinner time
Basic daily hygiene (showering, brushing teeth, styling hair, etc.)
When my child “can’t wait” to go to the fun thing that doesn’t start for 3 hours
I am sharing this simple, but effective tip with you today as another mom, trying to figure this out. Again, I am not a doctor or therapist. Like you, I am trying every day to put together the puzzle that is my family.
Choices and timers make such a significant difference in my day, I couldn’t help but share it with you.
Parenting a child with ADHD: A Comprehensive Look