Bright Child, Poor Grades?

Messy Room DoorHELP! I have a bright child, poor grades and a messy room!

If you have a bright child, poor grades are a sign of a performance dysfunction. And where there is poor performance that is not in keeping with innate ability, there is a high chance you are dealing with ADHD in some form or another.

This is a common problem. Often, a female with ADHD inattentive type who is bright, has good academic skills, and is motivated, just cannot get organized sufficiently to complete homework well and to remember to turn it in. This is also the child whose bedroom, closet, dresser drawers are a disaster, and, despite numerous efforts to organize her, it just cannot be sustained. This child also often has poor handwriting skills so that teachers may complain about the lack of legibility of the work that is handed in. And.. the backpack, the school locker, the notebook! Yikes. These children are like entropy-machines, spewing out chaos with every step. It frustrates the child and frustrates the parent.  So what can be done?

It is important to recognize, and to insist that teachers recognize, that this is not an issue of being lazy or unmotivated, but is the demonstration of dysfunctions in one or more areas of executive functioning. A child with ADHD who is a bright and competent student may very well have difficulty with the execution of the lengthy tasks that school requires, especially as they enter middle school and high school.

They may:

  • forget to write down assignments
  • lose papers
  • finish homework but lose it before it gets to the teacher
  • feel so overwhelmed by assignments that the child does not complete them
  • be unable to “give it their best”

External structure is important, even though the child is at an age and grade level where more and more independence is expected. Teachers and parents need to work cooperatively to define those areas that are interfering with performance and to then define strategies for supporting the child with structure. Many teachers, and especially special education teachers, along with school psychologists, have experience with organizational strategies that can be very helpful for the child. These may include teacher writing assignments in the assignment pad, teachers emailing parents with assignments, developing an organization plan for the notebook, or even inclusion of an iPad at school (see this post about iPad apps for organization). However, it is very important to remember that an organizational system that works for you or the teacher doesn’t necessarily work for the student. So keep options open and take cues from the student!

Fortunately, technology can be a huge support for the ADHD child. Use of a personal laptop or iPad can be a significant aid to address a number of the executive dysfunctions. Assignments can be entered on the iPad, the student can email the assignment  to the parent or to herself, and homework can be completed on the iPad or laptop and emailed to the teacher. One advantage of typing the homework and submitting it via email to teacher is that the student tends to write more complete responses to the homework, resulting in a better representation of the student’s ideas and knowledge. An ongoing challenge for ADHD kids is the physical and mental fatigue of getting an idea from brain to paper. As students pick up typing, they are able to communicate their idea faster and with less fatigue. In my experience, the quality of an ADHD child’s work can drastically improve with this intervention.

Initally, the best approach may be for the parent to meet with the child’s teachers to describe the problem and develop a voluntary plan. Many teachers will gladly make modifications to help support a child who is struggling. This isn’t always the case and when a voluntary plan isn’t possible, then a more formal plan will be necessary. As a child diagnosed with ADHD, the child is eligible for a 504 accommodation plan under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school district may require the parent and teachers to complete executive functioning ratings scales to document the dysfunctions, and could even suggest evaluation to rule out learning disabilities. This may be a useful approach to supporting the child and I encourage parents to use this evaluation as a tool for giving their child the most specific support possible.

Check out the resources section of this site for some excellent books on assisting children with executive functioning, there are many practical suggestions for parents in them. As for the messy bedroom, experience has taught me to keep the door closed!

Donna B. Amberman of Capital District School Psychology specializes in independent evaluations, child development, ADHD & second opinions in Albany, Troy, & Saratoga, NY.
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