Summers can be a difficult time for children with ADHD. With the end of school comes changes in structure and routine that can make it hard for children to understand and meet changing expectations, especially because rules are often more relaxed and inconsistent throughout the summer months. Furthermore, sleep routines vary more in the summertime, many children take medication “holidays,” stimulation is not as readily available leaving many kids feeling bored or restless, and social skills deficits which impact many children with ADHD may limit social opportunities during a season when many children are spending more unstructured time with their peers.
Despite these significant challenges, summer also presents an excellent opportunity for children with ADHD to practice and develop various skillsets in a more relaxed and focused manner, without the additional stressors of the busy school calendar, homework, and responsibilities that increase as children age. Kids with ADHD can use this time to develop, practice, and fine-tune helpful routines that may be difficult for children to complete independently during the school year; to practice social skills that facilitate peer relationships; to spend fun time with parents and other family members; and to engage in additional recreational activities that build skills and self-esteem.
Throughout the summer, use the 4 Rs – routines, responsibilities, rules, and rewards – to help your child maintain a happy and healthy day-to-day life. Routines encompass specific daily or weekly tasks your child needs to complete and typically include multiple steps in any given routine (e.g., morning and bedtime routines). Maintaining consistency and clear expectations will help your child internalize the routine, once it is established, and he or she will require less and less parental oversight. Routines may also include academic and other structured activities (daily reading period, household chores), physical activities (swim class, soccer camp), and free time (personal reading, computer games, or outside play). The element of free time and maintaining some choice for your child is important to give him or her a sense of ownership about what he or she does and how successfully it is accomplished. It will also help you, as a parent, to avoid over-scheduling your child, which can have a backfiring affect at creating opportunities for your child to demonstrate positive behaviors.
Responsibilities are tasks assigned to your child as a demonstration of independence and/or contribution to the family and home. Responsibilities may include “chores” such as weekly vacuuming, creation of grocery lists, or helping with training a new pet. Importantly, assigning responsibilities will help promote opportunities for your child to be successful, as well as a sense of accomplishment and being an important member of the family; successfully carried out responsibilities create opportunities for your child to receive positive attention and praise.
Rules are clearly stated expectations related to specific behaviors, and are especially helpful for curbing aggressive, destructive, or highly impulsive behaviors. Examples of rules include keeping hands and feet to self, asking permission before leaving the house, and respecting property. For each rule, your child should be aware of the specific consequences that accompany violation of that rule, and those consequences should be applied immediately when appropriate.
Finally, rewards are essential for keeping your child motivated to maintain routines and responsibilities, and to respect rules. Rewards, which may be as simple as using labeled praise, are also extremely helpful for shaping new behaviors and your child should understand at the outset which rewards go with which behaviors. When using rewards, be sure to follow through consistently – give your child a reward if he or she has earned it, and do not give them out for free. Include a variety of rewards and switch them up throughout the summer. For children with ADHD, daily rewards are ideal, though weekly rewards can be helpful, too.
Children with ADHD have trouble generalizing rules in different contexts. As you transition from the school year to the summer, and between activities within the summer, don’t expect your child to immediately or intuitively know what is expected of him or her. Make sure to set clear guidelines and to help your child adjust to new routines and expectations. Anticipate problem behaviors in various contexts and develop plans and consequences specific to those anticipated problems. Review the plans with your child before heading into a new environment and be sure to use a lot of specific praise throughout! If proper guidance and structure are provided and maintained across different activities and throughout the summer months, this can indeed be a time of great growth and skills acquisition for your child. Take advantage of this time to capitalize on the many positive opportunities it offers.