A Tale of Two Afterschool Programs, Part 2
As I recounted in Part I of this series, I came to the conclusion last fall that the after school program my son was attending was not suitable for him, and probably not for any child who was imperfect in any way. It certainly was not suitable for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Lawrence was not happy there, and I was concerned about what the impact of the constant reprimands and punishments would be. I felt that if Lawrence was always seen as the bad kid he might eventually decide that it wasn't worth even trying to behave.
In addition, the lack of a clear disciplinary process and escalation of issues seemed very unprofessional. I felt that the people running the program were well-meaning, but ill-equipped to handle even minor conflicts. And with ADHD, even if the child is taking medication, you're always going to have a certain number of conflicts.
I turned to an afterschool program we had investigated the year before, the Jewish Community Center of Berkeley. I had read great reviews of the JCC on Berkeley Parents List (which boasts lots of good advice, even if you don't live in the area). We set up a visit immediately, and I was favorably impressed. Not only were there several rooms for the kids (unlike one small room at his current afterschool program) and a large outside area, but the children were able to take classes like cooking, theater, art, dance and even a circus arts class (held at an outside location). This was a definite plus, as children with ADHD need novelty and intellectual stimulation. We enrolled Lawrence at the JCC, and he settled in happily.
One afternoon when I came to pick Lawrence up, about six weeks after he started at JCC, the afterschool program director, Joey, asked to talk to me in his office. I had the ADHD parent's knee-jerk reaction, "What has he done now?" Joey assured me that no big problems had happened, but that he wanted my help in dealing with Lawrence's disruptiveness, especially when Joey was taking attendance, and during the Shabbat service.
I explained that Lawrence's ADHD made it very difficult for him to sit still and be quiet for longer than a couple of minutes. "I have ADHD, and I can assure you that he's not being intentionally disruptive or rude - he's just dealing with more ‘ants in the pants' than a lot of other kids, and it takes more control for him to stay quiet and still." I added that Lawrence really wanted to be helpful and liked Joey a lot.
I explained a little bit more about ADHD and what challenges Lawrence faced with it, such as impulsivity and social awkwardness. Joey listened intently, and when I was done said, "Okay, good. I understand better now what he's dealing with."
Joey brought Lawrence in, and both of us explained to him what we had been discussing. Joey impressed on Lawrence that he would be helping Joey a lot if he could keep the fidgeting and talking out under control while attendance was being taken. "I need you on my team, Lawrence," he said, "helping me to get things done." Joey came up with the idea of reminding Lawrence what he was supposed to be doing, in a way that wouldn't embarrass him. He would say, "Lawrence, you on my team?" if Lawrence was acting out.
So Joey took what I told him about Lawrence wanting to help, and used it to get through to Lawrence in a positive way. The next day, when I came to pick Lawrence up, Joey called me over to him. "I just wanted to tell you," he said, "Lawrence has been great today. He's really trying."
It was absolutely amazing to me that the situation could be handled in this way, given that our experience with his previous day care was mostly calls telling us we had to pick him up right away. All of the teachers at the JCC understood that kids need positive reinforcement and will cooperate better if you make them a partner in the disciplinary process.
If you're in the process of finding day care or afterschool care for your ADHD child (and have the luxury of more than one possible choice), you might want to start with referrals from other parents with an ADHD child. Also, it's well worth taking the time to quiz the director and perhaps talk to other parents whose children are enrolled with the program. Here are a couple important things to consider:
1. Education/experience/credentials of staff. Does the staff have any special training in dealing with children with ADHD?
2. Ask about disciplinary process. Is there a formal behavior plan that you can look at? How are things escalated? How are conflicts between children dealt with? At what point are parents contacted? If there is no clear disciplinary procedure, that's a red flag. This lack of a formal process might be okay for kids who are perfectly behaved (about as common as a unicorn), but it doesn't work for kids with ADHD, even kids who are high functioning.
If you don't get satisfactory answers to these questions, you need to keep looking. In the end, the work you do in finding the facility will pay off. I have had no more than two conversations with staff at JCC regarding incidents in six months. They're realistic and know that there will be conflicts and kids acting out occasionally, and they handle almost everything themselves without calling us. Obviously, the problem was with the elementary school after school care. Lawrence is the same kid at JCC as he was there.
No, wait, that's not true. He's much happier!