Popular media and big-box commercials paint the back-to-school season as an exciting time, full of fresh starts and fresh school supplies. But for parents of kids with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia, the reality is more challenging.
Understood.org’s Back-to-School Stress Study, conducted online by The Harris Poll, revealed that parents of neurodivergent children feel a lot of stress about the back-to-school season. In fact, 94% of these parents said they feel anxious or stressed at summer’s end. Many also said they feel unprepared or scared.
The study found that parents of kids with learning and thinking differences are more likely to feel lonely than are parents without neurodivergent children.
The stigma around ADHD often leaves parents feeling isolated and unsupported. Sometimes other people just don’t get it. They may misinterpret a bright and capable child who is struggling as “bratty” or unwilling to “put in the work.” Until more people understand learning and thinking differences, parents of these kids will face an exhausting and often solitary battle.
The transition back to school is often very different and much harder than it is for other parents who don’t face the same challenges. But there are steps parents can take to reduce the stress, feel less isolated, and make starting the new school year a bit easier.
Here are five things that neurodivergent families can do at the start of each new school year.
Because kids with ADHD and learning differences process information differently than their neurotypical peers, new situations may overwhelm them. To help, create simple daily schedules. Talk about their new classes and teachers. If your child is attending a new school, schedule a few visits beforehand. Familiarity helps simplify routines for a child whose brain has trouble filtering through new information.
For children with ADHD, new situations can trigger anxiety. Talk about calming techniques like deep breathing, exercise, or connecting with a friend. Learning how to manage physical reactions to stress can help kids deal with new situations.
A child with ADHD needs their teacher to be an ally. Share insights about your child’s strengths and challenges within the first few weeks of school. Discuss whether you’ll text, call, or email — and how often. This way, you can advocate for your child and suggest strategies before issues arise.
Children find it easier to navigate high-stress situations when they know how to regulate their bodies and have permission to do so. Rehearse how your child can ask their teacher for a break. If your child can’t do that verbally, create a card they can share with the teacher to self-advocate.
It’s crucial for parents to join a community where they can connect with other parents and experts who understand what they’re going through. Understood.org’s Wunder app offers parents access to credible resources and experts. And they can connect with parents like them in a judgment-free space.
It’s OK — and normal — to be worried about a new school year. But taking these steps and finding a supportive community can help you start the year feeling more confident and energized.
Andrew Kahn, Psy.D., is Associate Director, Behavior Change and Expertise at Understood.
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