Working with Children with ADHD


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is an increasingly common problem among young people. Your host parents will tell you if a child in the family has been officially diagnosed with ADHD.

All children have fairly short attention spans, but children with ADHD have an extremely difficult time focusing. Schoolwork is very difficult for them, even though many children with ADHD are quite intelligent. Children with ADHD often cannot tell the difference between important information and unimportant information, and are distracted very easily. They are very fidgety - they can’t seem to stop moving their bodies or playing with nearby objects. They are even more impulsive than typical children, and are frequently very disorganized. ADHD children may also become over-excited and out of control when overstimulated.

Children with ADHD have a hard time reading social cues. This means that they often say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they don’t realize when they are making other people angry or upset. As a result, children with ADHD often have few friends, and other children tease them or do not include them in play and activities.  

Children with ADHD have trouble following directions. If you tell a child with ADHD to “Go upstairs, pick up your toys, get your backpack, then let’s get ready to go,” you are likely to find him several minutes later, playing in his room, because he forgot what he was supposed to do. In this situation, a child with ADHD is not defying you on purpose. He just can’t follow complicated directions without some help.  

All children have fragile self-esteem, but this is an even bigger factor for children with ADHD. They get in trouble a lot at school because they can’t pay attention, and the other children may make fun of them. Children with ADHD hear “no” a lot. Most of the feedback they get from adults is negative. As a result, their self-esteem suffers. They may feel that they are not very smart, or that they are bad in some way.  

No matter how hard they try, they often have a hard time pleasing people.  

As an au pair, you can make a big difference in this child’s life.  Here are some tips for working with children with ADHD:

  • Praise good behavior. Tell the child when they do something right - this will reinforce the good behavior and encourage the child to continue the good behavior. It is also a nice change from hearing “No!” all the time.

  • Praise effort, not just results. Children with ADHD give up easily because they are accustomed to failure.

  • Provide a structured environment and a predictable routine. Your host family will help you to create a schedule for the child. It is helpful to write the schedule down and to hang it where the child can see it often. Example: “3 p.m.: Home from school. Hang up coat and backpack. Take books and homework to desk for later. Leave lunchbox in kitchen for tomorrow. Have cookies and juice in kitchen for snack.” Work on the schedule together with the child, so that he can share the accomplishment and have some control over the task.

  • Directions should be explained clearly. It helps to write them out, just like the schedule. Complicated items, like “clean your room” should be explained step-by-step: “1. Put toys in toy box. 2. Put dirty clothes in hamper. 3. Put garbage in garbage can.” 

  • Be consistent.  Make sure that you and your host parents have the same expectations for behavior, and the same understanding about consequences. 

  • Before you discipline the child, make the consequences for behavior very clear: “If you do not pick up your clothes, you cannot watch television.” Then, if the child does not correct his behavior, carry through with the consequences. This will enforce the structure and consistency these children need.

  • Provide opportunities for achievement with activities the child enjoys and can complete successfully. This will help to boost low self-esteem. 

  • Provide opportunities for high-energy activities, such as sports. This will help children with ADHD to work off some of their extra energy.

  • When the child does homework or other tasks involving concentration, make sure he has a quiet work area with no outside distractions like television or loud conversation. 

  • Communicate often with your host parents. Share strategies and successes.

  • When you speak directly to the child, make eye contact. This will help them to focus on you.

  • Develop a “secret signal” with the child, such as touching your ear. When the child sees the signal, he knows he needs to work on paying attention.  

Many families help to treat their child’s ADHD with medication, so know when and how to give your child his medicine. Some families also change their child’s diet. Talk to your host family about these issues.

Siblings of children with ADHD may feel jealous or resentful because their brother or sister gets more attention, or seems to get away with bad behavior. As an au pair, you can help these family members too, by giving them lots of individual attention and encouraging their strengths and talents.

Next: Safety with Children »

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