Completing tasks that require responsibility and independence, like packing a backpack, can be difficult for a child with ADHD. It can be a challenge for kids with attention issues to focus and stay organized and they may become easily overwhelmed. You may have wondered: How can I get my child with ADHD to pack their backpack and be ready for school?
Keeping a backpack organized can seem especially intimidating to a child with ADHD. Their brains typically process more information and at a faster pace than most individuals, so trying to pack or organize their bags isn’t always as easy as it sounds. The task of remembering each item of necessity combined with their frequent “scatterbrain” thoughts can quickly cause the situation to become out of control. Children with ADHD are particularly susceptible to activating their “fight or flight” response when overwhelmed and then what may seem like a simple chore, like packing a backpack, could become nearly impossible to complete. Developing routines can be helpful in combating these difficulties. Those routines (including packing and unpacking their own backpack) can be very useful for a child with ADHD as the school day is made up of so many tasks and interactions that backpack organization is key for success.
Using charts and visuals to remind kids of backpack necessities and routines
Keeping chore charts and lists are a great way to reinforce routines and help children with ADHD understand what they need to do and exactly how to do it. Charts come with written tasks and photos of tasks so children of all ages are able to understand them. To make packing a backpack easier on a child, use visuals wherever possible. Goally can be an instrumental tool in helping with visual prompting and helping kids remembering routines. Another option is to make use of written words or pictures of what activity occurs on certain days and to show what must be in their backpack each night for the following morning. Understanding your child’s learning style is important for teaching children with special needs, in particular.
What items should be packed in a backpack?
Each child will have their own unique items that need to be packed into the backpack for the day. The school preparation for a child with ADHD will vary but here are some normal items to include:
- Small snacks
- Ice box
- School supplies
- Appropriate shoes such as gym shoes
- Folder with homework assignments
- Other necessary items for your child
Helping your child to start to practice thinking through what items they might need in advance will assist them in avoiding disorganization and feeling more prepared. These are important skills for a child with ADHD that will serve them throughout their lives but especially during school.
Lunch packing fun for children
The more children with ADHD can do on their own, the more they learn and retain. This added sense of confidence in turn helps them feel better about themselves overall. Pinterest has some excellent ideas for easy lunchbox packing for children with ADHD. In our house, we are big fans of the refrigerator setup that allows children to simply open the refrigerator and take individual items from specific bins or drawers to create a complete lunch for themselves. Parents can set up fruits, vegetables, yogurts, string cheese, applesauce, juice boxes, water bottles, pre-made sandwiches, pasta or salads, and similar healthy items for kids to grab at their leisure.
Allowing children to pack their own lunchbox with snacks or meals also invites the conversation regarding healthy food choices and proper food storage operations, such as ensuring there is an ice pack present so cold food, like yogurt, doesn’t go bad and make them sick. Children with ADHD often retain knowledge very easily and love to learn, so take advantage of these opportunities!
Reward each completed step in the packing process
Ok, we got through lunchbox prep for the next day - check! Time for a quick reward such as a piece of gum, lollipop, or 10 minutes of screen time banked for later. Parents should review what they just accomplished and why it is important, as children with ADHD are often very literal and logical thinkers so having facts about why they should be doing this in the first place will help retain the life lesson. With enough practice, parents may not even have to reward each small step after a while, the child will just know what has to be done and be fine with having a reward once all is done. Identifying and developing similar routines for other items in the backpack for a child with ADHD, like homework, clothes or books can follow a similar process to lunch packing with success.
Packing and unpacking a backpack with a child with ADHD can be a lively event, particularly if you can get your child talking about their day and their feelings about what happened. Each step of the process is another chance to communicate with your child about their wants, needs, likes, and dislikes and fosters their independence and self-esteem. They can pack and unpack a bag like any other child and it does not have to be an overwhelming or overstimulating occurrence each day. Just be sure to be available to help them when or if necessary and remind them of their ability to do this task!
Now that we’ve successfully packed the bag, the next step is when the child gets home and needs to unpack it. Here is how to help guide the unpacking process and ensure your child remains calm each step of the way.
Unpacking a backpack with a child with ADHD
Talking to a child after school about their day can be interesting. They just spent six to eight hours in a building doing multiple activities and interacting with various individuals, yet they sometimes can’t seem to recall one event they want to tell their parents about. Unpacking their backpack after school can be a great way to open dialogue about their day and talk about what needs to be accomplished after school, such as homework or chores.
Here are some simple tips to unpacking a backpack and having a conversation with a potentially overwhelmed child with ADHD after school.
Have them take out their lunchbox to prepare for another day of school or to wash it out over the weekend. Take this opportunity to ask them:
- What they ate from it and when
- Did they eat one of their snacks with lunch?
- What did they eat for lunch and did they like it?
- Who did they sit with and what did they talk about?
Have them take out their home-to-school folder. Are there any notes from the teacher or school? If so:
- Is there an upcoming dance or social event to talk about?
- Is picture day coming up?
- Is there a school-pride day in the near future?
- Is there homework to be completed this afternoon or over the weekend?
- How does that make your child feel?
- Are they comfortable with the material in the homework?
All of these questions are just ideas to get your child with ADHD talking through their day, organizing their minds and calming their bodies for whatever is coming next at home. At the same time, they’re successfully unpacking and reorganizing their backpack, ensuring every task that needs doing gets done!
Learn more about how Goally can help a child with daily routines, like packing and unpacking a backpack.
Ashley Lavoie is a mom of three and manages both child and adult ADHD and neonatal diabetes. She is advocating for awareness and loves writing and connecting with other families like hers.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.