Packing and Unpacking A Backpack for a Child with ADHD

Doing tasks that inspire responsibility and independence can be difficult for a child with ADHD, Autism or SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder). It can be difficult for children with these types of special needs to focus and stay on task and they may become easily overwhelmed. 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 could become nearly impossible to complete. 

Helping a child with ADHD pack a backpack

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 after school:

Have them take out their lunchbox to prepare for another day of school the next day or to wash 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 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! 

Now that we’ve unpacked the bag, the next step is to pack it back up and get ready for the next school day. This can be overwhelming to a child with ADHD as the school day is made up of so many events and places that they go. Here is how to help the repacking process and ensure your child remains calm each step of the way. 

Using charts and visuals to remind kids of backpack necessities and school schedules 

Keeping chore charts and lists are a great way to help children 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 their backpack easier on a child, use visuals wherever possible. Make use of written words or pictures of what activity or specials occur on certain days and further charts 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? 

  • Lunchbox:
    • Small snacks
    • Lunch
    • Beverage
    • Ice box
    • School supplies
  • Appropriate shoes such as gym shoes
  • Sweatshirt/jacket
  • Folder with homework assignments
  • Other necessary items for your child

Lunch packing fun for children

The more children can do on their own, the more they learn and retain and the better they feel about themselves overall. Pinterest has some excellent ideas for easy lunchbox packing for kids. 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 compose 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. 

Child packing lunch for school

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 special needs 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 like clothes or books can follow a similar process to lunch packing with success. Unpacking and repacking a backpack with a child with ADHD can be a lively event, particularly if you can get your child talking about their day and/or their feelings about their school day. 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!

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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.