Back to School Tips for the Family with Executive Function Challenges


The lazy days of summer are nearing an end and the kids are finally heading back to school. This time ofback to school tips when both parents and kids have Executive Function challenges year can be a relief for many parents, but it can also feel overwhelming: How will we be ready for that hectic first day? Where is that school supply list? Did my child complete their summer reading log? If your child has Executive Function issues, much of the burden often falls on you, as a parent, to help your child to be prepared for the first day of school. But what if you also struggle to stay organized? It’s not unusual for parents to face similar challenges as their children. In fact, one reason that some adults and kids have trouble with Executive Functioning is due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. According to research studies, about 40-50% of parents of children with ADHD are also diagnosed with ADHD themselves (for comparison, under ten percent of adults in the general population are diagnosed with ADHD). Planning and organizing may not come naturally to you or your child, but a little strategizing can make back to school time feel a lot less painful.

Issue #1: Waking up is hard to do

After a summer of leisurely mornings, the 6:00am alarm on the first day of school can be a rude awakening for everyone. And it’s not just the waking up part that’s hard. The whole morning routine during the school year is different than in the summer. So much needs to be done. Breakfast needs to be eaten, lunches packed, and everyone needs to be dressed and out the door on time. School mornings are the ultimate time management challenge. Aside from drinking a gallon of coffee and waking up at 3:00am in order to get everything ready, what can be done to make the mornings run more smoothly?

Some suggestions to manage the morning:

Consider doing a trial run. The week before school, set the alarm for 6:00am (or whatever time everyone needs to wake up). If your body is already in the routine of getting up early, it’s less of a shock when the alarm goes off on the first day of school. Discuss the morning routine with your family ahead of time, or make a checklist of what needs to be done before heading out the door. Disclaimer: Your child will probably not agree to wake up early or go through the morning routine the week before school. But even if you, as a parent, are the only one practicing a portion of the routine in advance, you’re not only serving as a role model for your child; you’re also putting yourself in a position to feel cool, calm, and collected on the big day (see Issue #2 below!).

Issue #2: So much anxiety

Parents are under a lot of pressure to help their kids to be prepared for the first day of school. There is so much to do: filling out dissertation-length school forms, remembering to attend the back-to-school potluck, and the dreaded shopping for school supplies. Stepping into a crowded office supply store with reluctant children and a floor-length list in tow is no one’s idea of fun. (Are they really asking us to buy five one-and-a-half inch D-ring binders in all different colors?) The kids are clearly anxious too; they've been needling and clobbering each other, even more than usual. It’s enough to make a person sit down and cry, right there in the binder aisle.    

Some suggestions to manage anxiety:

Make a list of specific issues that are causing anxiety. If your child feels anxious about attending a new school, try to get them to articulate what exactly they are anxious about. If they are worried about finding their way in a new building, schedule a time to take a tour beforehand. If warranted, reach out to others for help. The same strategy can work for one’s own worries. Think of it as a small experiment: make a list, break down tasks into smaller steps, and set reminders. If the kids follow your lead, that’s great! But even if they simply overhear you saying to yourself, “I’d better set my phone alarm to do the laundry this afternoon so I don’t forget”, you have, at the very least, modeled effective planning. Not to mention that it feels pretty good to have the laundry done before your child has the chance to ask, “Where's my favorite shirt?”

Issue #3: Paper, paper everywhere

It’s the night before the first day of school, and (surprise!) both the book report and the math packet are missing in action. And what about the aforementioned packet of school forms that was sent out back in June? Keeping track of papers is not easy, and it’s frustrating when the most important ones tend to disappear into the ether. Maybe the dog really did eat my homework, one might think, while scouring every last closet looking for the lost papers.

Some suggestions to manage paper problems:

When important-looking papers arrive in the mail, snap a photo (or if they arrive via email, a screenshot works too). Though the camera on your phone will get the job done, scanner apps can be particularly helpful in keeping track of papers electronically. A lower tech alternative is to create a binder labeled “things we need for the first day of school”. Every time you get a  school form, store it in the binder. The same goes for the kids’ summer projects and book reports. Even if you’re not organized by nature, implementing one new organizational tool or habit can help the whole family to keep track of important papers.

The takeaway:

When parents face similar Executive Function challenges as their children, family life can feel overwhelming, especially during back-to-school season. Creating a workable plan of attack ahead of time can go a long way towards smoothing the transition for the entire family.

bookLooking for more parenting tips and strategies to help your child be successful in school and beyond? Michael Delman's book Your Kid's Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention is available in print and as an e-book. Download a free excerpt below.

download an excerpt >


Please see this page for comprehensive information about Executive Function in Elementary students.

About the Author

Pia Cisternino

Pia Cisternino, M.A., M.S. is an executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a speech-language pathologist, with over a decade of experience working with students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and learning disabilities. She received her B.A. from Tufts University, where she majored in English and Italian, and continued to study literature at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. A strong advocate for students with special education needs, Pia founded and facilitated a support group for parents of 2e (twice exceptional) children, and served for two years as co-chair of the Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC) within her local school district.. Pia’s approach to coaching centers around enabling students to build skills by utilizing their own individual strengths. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children.

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