Blog & Articles

Parenting Children with Learning Disabilities and ADHD by Rick Holmes, Ph.D

In a 2003 study by the CDC, approximately 16% of boys and 8% of girls aged 5–17 years had ever had diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities (LD), according to parental reports. Boys were three times more likely than girls to have diagnoses of ADHD without LD.  Do I believe that ADHD is overdiagnosed? Absolutely.  However, even with a smaller percentage, these are huge numbers in terms of the children impacted at both home and school.  Boys, in particular, struggle with the traditional academic model of sitting for an extended period of time and trying to absorb mostly verbally presented information.


Over the past ten years, I have seen the use of ADHD stimulant medication skyrocket to help children focus better in the classroom. I have also seen more specific accommodations put in place to help children with learning disabilities.  But, I am not sure that the underlying issue is being addressed that most children tend to learn better when presented material is interactive, experiential, and mult-sensory.  I believe there are many extremely gifted teachers who are limited by having to teach to the standardized tests. This prevents them from being creative.  My personal struggle to find a better way to provide services for children with LD and ADHD led me to join the board of a proposed charter school in Delaware, Gateway Lab School, (www. modeled on the principles of The Lab School of Washington founded by Sally L. Smith.


How can parents better understand the many needs of their LD/ADHD children at home and respond differently?  Children with LD/ADHD and related disorders puzzle parents because of their many abilities and disabilities.  It can be difficult to understand how much of their behavior is the nature of the condition and how much is oppositional.  It is all too easy for parents to “catch” a child’s feeling of inadequacy and then feel bad as a parent.  Parenting approaches that include clear, concise instructions; structure without rigidity; nurturing a child’s gifts and interests; and constant approval of positive behavior help parents feel better and help children feel safe.


Parents and teachers of children with learning disabilities can help them by providing clear structuring of time and space. To help children with structuring space, visual aids can be helpful.  For example, shelves can be used instead of drawers so children can see where things belong and how to put them back.  The use of visual cues, such as lists or labels, can augment efforts to help children organize tasks and belongings.  In addition, developing understandable and reinforced routines can help with structuring time.  Breaking routines and other tasks into manageable chunks and communicating what must be done first, next, and last is important.


Children with learning disabilities begin to notice that others can easily do tasks that are intensely difficult for them. As a result of this they begin to feel bad about themselves or have low self-esteem or self-worth.  By training themselves to reinforce the positive as much as possible and offering concrete comments on what their child is doing well, parents will cultivate desired behaviors and boost their children’s self-worth.  Visual, concrete proof of progress also helps children notice and feel confident about their progress and accomplishments.  Homemade certificates, gold stars, stickers, charts, and check lists with lots of checks can be used when children work hard on tasks at home. Tasks to be rewarded can include remembering to take out the garbage, to clean their room, to set the table correctly, to make their beds, and to put the dishes in the dishwasher.


Children with learning disabilities, ADHD, and related disorders often feel powerless and inadequate.  They tend to be passive learners and need to be totally involved in activities to make them active learners.  Parents can encourage hands-on activities, such as help with cooking, cleaning, shopping, and running errands.  These learning activities have the additional benefit of resulting in tangible, visible products appreciated by the whole family.


If you are frustrated about your child’s behavioral issues at school or increased conflict at home, please make an appointment with one of our therapists to talk about strategies that may be able to help.

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