Kids with ADHD need clear and consistent expectations in order to thrive at school and at home. Expectations provide structure and consistency and help kids strive to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, setting realistic expectations for a child with ADHD is hard! For the most part, the rules and guidance around typical age-appropriate expectations don’t apply. Developmentally, kids and teens with ADHD are about 2-3 years behind their peers when it comes to social skills and executive functioning skills (the skills needed for impulse control, sustained attention, planning, organization, and time management).
This developmental lag has been identified over and over again in research studies that have used parent and teacher rating scales, past studies that have gathered observations of children’s behavior, and neuroimaging studies that measured brain development in ADHD. So, while you may have a child with ADHD who is intelligent and talented in many ways, the foundational skills that they need in order to reach their full potential are relatively weak.
More often than not, parents, teachers, coaches, and other important adults in a child’s life do not adjust their expectations based on the developmental level of a child with ADHD. As a result, they inadvertently set the child up for failure by holding them to an unreachable standard. As you might expect, in these situations, the child fails to meet expectations, and their self-esteem suffers. Parents will typically become increasingly frustrated with their child, but they will also try to help improve the situation.
Sometimes this help comes in the form of typical snowplow parenting – clearing obstacles out of their child’s way whenever possible and picking up the pieces or making excuses for their child when they fail. This “snowplow” response may help in the short-term, but long-term, it does nothing to address the root of the problem – the developmental gap between expectations and skills.
To see lasting change, a strategic three-pronged approach is needed that addresses both the “skills” and the “expectations” sides of the problem:
Using homework as an example, your expectation may be that your child completes all of their homework every night, but your child may not have the skills and abilities they need to work independently for 30 or 40 minutes. Rather than have an extreme response that involves either dropping the expectation altogether or doing your child’s work for them, you can “scaffold” your child by creating a structured homework routine designed to help them work as independently as possible every night (see my previous post on homework routines for more information).
Setting clear and reasonable expectations for children with ADHD is essential to helping them reach their full potential, and for parents to avoid falling into the snowplow parenting role. Knowing where to set an expectation is hard, and not necessarily something parents should do alone. Reach out to your child’s teacher, therapist, counselor, and/or pediatrician for help.
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.
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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.