Managing the Ups and Downs of ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

It’s Monday afternoon and your child comes home from school with a behavior chart full of stars and a folder full of completed school work. You breathe a sigh of relief and happily think that you can look forward to a good week at school. On Tuesday anticipating the best you enthusiastically ask to see your child’s behavior chart and completed work folder. As he or she reluctantly pulls the items out of the backpack your heart begins to sink. You look and see that the completed work folder is practically empty, and the behavior chart contains only the smallest smattering of stars. You ask you child what happened that made today so much worse than yesterday, but he or she doesn’t have an answer. Your child just shrugs his or her shoulders and walks away.

Dealing with the ups and downs of ADHD is frustrating for parents, teachers, and kids. When kids with ADHD have good days sometimes it’s easy to think they could have good days all the time if they would just try harder. However, there are many factors that go into making any day a “good day” for kids with ADHD, and only one of these factors is how much effort a child puts into staying focused and in control of his or her impulsive behavior. As a result, a child can feel like he or she is trying as hard as he or she can to pay attention, or complete work quickly and carefully, and still not be able to meet the standards that teachers and parents have set for him or her.

If you have a child with ADHD whose focus, organizational skills, work completion, and/or impulsive behavior varies greatly from day to day or activity to activity, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Shift your own focus away from thinking about your child’s intentions or effort and instead think about other factors that may consistently interference with your child’s ability to pay attention and get things done. If you focus on changing these factors, you’ll be setting your child up for success and soon they’ll be having more good days than bad.  

There are many factors that impact a child’s ADHD symptoms. Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Nutrition and Sleep. Good nutrition, consistent meal and snack times, and a full night’s sleep all impact ADHD symptoms. If your child is hungry or tired, then his or her ADHD symptoms will be much harder to control, and he or she will be much more likely to have a difficult day at school.
  2. Physical activity. More and more research studies are pointing to the importance of physical activity for managing ADHD symptoms. If your child is engaged in regular high intensity exercise (i.e., running around and working up a sweat rather than simply going for a walk) for about 45 minutes a day, his or her ADHD symptoms will be easier to manage. If your child spends most of the day sitting (at school, during homework time, watching videos or playing video games), then he or she will be more likely to have difficulty keeping his or her ADHD in check.
  3. Distractions in the classroom. It may seem obvious that distractions in the classroom can make it hard to stay focused and productive. What is not always obvious is knowing which things are distracting to an individual child. Some kids with ADHD are highly sensitive to certain noises (e.g., a printer warming up, a heating fan) or movement (e.g., kids walking by quietly in the hallway) that are not even noticeable to other kids in the room. So, even in a classroom that may seem to have very few distractions, there may be things that are making it hard for your child to focus.
  4. The subject matter. If your child consistently does much better in some subjects than in others (e.g., much better at writing than at math), then it’s possible that he or she may have an underlying learning difficulty or simply needs some additional support to be successful in the weaker subject areas. You can request an assessment from the school and seek out additional tutoring and learning support services from a private learning center.
  5. Medication routine. If your child takes ADHD medication, then it’s important for him or her to take it at the same time every day as prescribed. If your child is consistently taking medication, but it’s not working as well as it used to then talk to your child’s doctor. Medication doses often need to be adjusted as a child grows and sometimes a new medication is needed to replace one that is no longer effective.

The daily ups and downs of ADHD can be frustrating, but there are things you can do to support your child. Sometimes a few relatively minor changes can make a big difference and go a long way in helping your child have more good days at school and at home.  



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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