“Now What Do I Do?” Coaching Tips for Educators of Children With LD and ADHD

 By Steven A. Richfield, Psy.D.

Children with learning disabilities (LD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) challenge and enrich the daily experiences of teachers and school counselors. The vulnerability of a fragile ego, the unthinking behaviors rooted in impulsivity, or the steep decline of yet another emotional meltdown can prompt a call for help from even the most experienced educator.

The above-mentioned scenarios fall under what I have come to call the “Now what do I do?” syndrome. It is a question that echoes through the minds of adults trying to help kids in the throes of emotion but realizing that we’re not sure what will help. No doubt it’s a familiar position to parents of all children.

Today’s children are often bombarded with social, academic, familial, cultural, and personal pressures that sometimes make growing up feel like living in a boiler room. Add to these situations the diminished resources of ADHD and LD, and such pressures intensify. Since the children I treat as a child psychologist are among this group, I have developed coaching tools to help them prepare for and effectively manage these pressures.

“Coaching” is the term I use to designate how caring adults use informed knowledge to help all children—especially those with special needs—manage the bumps and bruises along their childhood paths. This knowledge is used to help children improve upon their self-control and social skills in a world with high expectations and sharp penalties.

The selection of the “coach” role grows out of my belief that those who guide children benefit from a reference point to guide their own efforts. While much of my professional time has thus far been devoted to developing and expanding upon the parent coaching approach, the tools and techniques lend themselves directly to educators. If you are one of the millions of teachers or school counselors who seek to steer ADHD and LD kids straight along the path of growth, I offer these tips to you. Hopefully, these notions will provide some answers during the “Now what do I do?” moments.

1. The coaching role stresses that adults demonstrate through words and actions that they are on the same “team” as the child.

When emotions are peaking, children with ADHD and LD tend to perceive adults as taking sides and rushing to judgment. Sometimes these perceptions are accurate. Therefore, the coaching approach requires a nurturing tone of voice and an open mind to listen to the child’s point of view. Foremost in the coach’s mind is the thought, “I want to make this child feel safe enough to let me use this situation to help them improve their handling of it next time around.”

2. When it’s time to huddle, have your “verbal playbook” ready.

Once you have built a trusting dialogue, it’s time to offer them your explanations about what went wrong. Explain how their thinking side (the part of their mind that makes good decisions and watches over their behavior) sometimes loses control over their reacting side (the part of them that reacts emotionally to triggers in their life). This commonsense dichotomy resonates with most children’s experience and allows you to explain how certain traps in their life trigger the reacting side. Typical traps include being teased, insulted, or feeling embarrassed by some difficulty. Give examples of how this has happened in your life and perhaps in the lives of famous people.

3. Offer “thinking side messages” as preventive strategies.

Many children don’t appreciate the significance of how their thoughts fuel their actions. This internal language is often running in the background of their interactions with others, sometimes spurring them on to an impulsive response to one of their traps. Explain how the way we talk to ourselves when we are facing one of our traps sets the stage for whether the thinking side or reacting side wins the battle for control over our behavior. Emphasize “we” to reduce the chances of sounding accusatory or blaming. Give examples of how if they say to themselves, “I’m going to get even with that kid,” the results are going to be much different than if they say to themselves, “I’m not going to take the bait from that kid.”

4. Offer “talking tools” to manage the power of peer dynamics.

One reason that kids succumb to their traps is the wish to “save face” during potent peer encounters. But well-chosen words—to which ADHD and LD kids may not have quick access—convey power. Here are several responses to propose to the child who becomes inarticulate when the pressure builds: “This is just the kind of situation that leads you on the wrong road; Be my guest, but don’t wait for me to follow because you’re on your own; I don’t have to prove anything to you that I already know to be true; If you can’t see where this is heading, then I suggest you take some time to think it over.”

5. The prevention of future trouble is aided by practicing and processing.

You can prepare the child for improved coping by speaking beforehand about what is likely to happen in a given situation. Self-control is also fostered by rehearsing situations with the child so that they can practice their silent self-control strategies. Afterward, process the child’s experience by reviewing how well they coped with their trap. Reassure them thatit requires a lot of practice for all of us to use our thinking side when our traps are tempting us. Praise them for their willingness to discuss and desire to change for the better.

Please accept these suggestions as my expression of appreciation and offer of help to those who devote their professional time to enriching the lives of children with ADHD and LD. It is my sincere hope that some of these ideas will make for more meaningful experiences for you and those you teach and/or counsel.

Steven Richfield, Psy.D., is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills-building program called The Parent Coach. He can be reached at director@parentcoachcards.com or 610-238-4450.

About Steven Richfield

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Categories: Family, Positive School Climate | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on ““Now What Do I Do?” Coaching Tips for Educators of Children With LD and ADHD

  1. Beverly Melton

    Great article, I had been looking for some strategies to help my grandson, who has ADHD. I am looking forward to trying this. It sounds just like some of the situations he gets in. He is easily embarassed, even if he gets call out for good deeds. Then he reacts.

    • Dear Beverly,
      Many children with ADHD are aware of their self-control difficulties, and are embarrassed by them. This self-awareness
      can be used to an advantage when approaching them with coaching strategies. Perhaps you could suggest a “private
      signal” (such as a tap on the desk) be used by a teacher or parent when they need some cool off time. Another idea is to see if your grandson would be willing to review some self-talk strategies on a card when he first arrives at school. Thanks for your comments.

      Dr Richfield

  2. Lisa Wolf

    LIked the points in this article! I have used them and have seen them work with our son who has ADHD and with many students.

    Unfortunately during Middle School peers convinced our son–in his mind anyway– that he did not need medication for focus. Impulsivity began free reign in him. He was happy to walk, no run, down that road mentioned in point 4. He barely graduated from high school.

    ADHD is a complex issue.

    • Peers are a very powerful influence in the lives of all children, but those with ADHD often are more impressionable and tend to be more easily led down the peer-advised path due to the rush to find acceptance and the tendency toward narrowed thinking. For instance, the ADHD child may not take the time needed to consider the “whole picture” behind a peer’s comments and/or actions, or may not fully understand all the behind-the-scenes factors that contribute to a peer’s actions or words. That is where trusted adults, such as teachers and parents, need to be approached. Thanks for your comments!
      Dr. Steven Richfield

  3. Well written and very insightful article. Thank you for your contribution.
    Debra Severson

  4. Mary

    Sorry, but I don’t understand the purpose behind using the suggested phrases, “This is just the kind of situation that leads you on the wrong road; Be my guest, but don’t wait for me to follow because you’re on your own; I don’t have to prove anything to you that I already know to be true; If you can’t see where this is heading, then I suggest you take some time to think it over.” Who says these phrases, the child or the teacher?

    Also, some of the phrases could be worded a little differently, to allow for more a more empathetic approach, such as an alternate to “wrong road”. I would use something like, “This is one of those situations where you tend to get distracted, what is one strategy you can use to cope with this?” Also, instead of “prove anything to you”, you might try, “In my experience, I have learned that I don’t need to prove what I know on other people’s terms, I am sure that I understand the information fully and accurately.”

    If you could provide feedback, I would appreciate that.

    • Thanks for your questions and comments. The phrases are to be proposed to the “ADHD child

      who becomes inarticulate when social pressure builds.” Very often the ADHD child has

      difficulty with “saving face” when contending with peer provocation and this leads them to

      respond in an impulsive and thoughtless manner. I understand that an empathetic

      approach might be easier for adults to hear but may backfire in the face of peers. My advice

      is to help the child resist being baited into a bad decision by peers by suggesting they have

      phrases they can easily “pull out of their pocket” (have memorized) and which blends with

      peer culture. Otherwise, what they say might lead to ridicule and greater chance for

      impulse breakthrough.

      Dr. Steve Richfield

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