Tips & Advice

How to Find the Ideal Reading Environment for Your ADHD Child

by James M. Greenblatt, M.D.

Photo credit: Brad Wilson, The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are no right or wrong reading environments for an ADHD child. I have been amazed in 30 years of practicing psychiatry to hear an extremely varied and always creative list of successful reading environments for ADHD children. Remarkably, these ideas have almost always come from the children themselves. While one child may need complete silence, another may prefer having the TV on, listening to the radio, and singing — all at the same time!

How Does ADHD Impact Reading Time?
Focusing for reading time can be difficult for many children, but with symptoms of ADHD — including hyperactivity, inattentiveness, lack of motivation, and restlessness — reading time can feel impossible for both parents and kids alike.

Listen and Be Flexible to Their Needs
Finding your ADHD child’s ideal reading setup can take patience and flexibility, as every child is unique. The traditional image of a quiet reading corner with chairs neatly arranged may be the exact opposite of what an ADHD child needs for focusing on reading. Some children truly focus best sitting in a comfortable chair in an absolutely silent environment, while some focus best at a standing desk with their favorite music playing. The key to successfully finding your child’s best reading environment is to listen to what they tell you about how they work most comfortably.

When I meet with a child alone, the child is often able to articulate the exact information his parents might need to help get set up for successful reading. I might ask, “What do you need to help you study better?” And she might tell me that she studies best in the dining room, with loud music playing. But her parents might have already decided she’s best off studying in her bedroom without any “distractions.”

What you think is best for your ADHD child may not match what she has already figured out is best for her. In my experience, ADHD children have great strengths and talents — including the insight to help you understand how to best parent them.

Parents can practice an easy listening exercise I describe in my book, Finally Focused, to help uncover their child’s most comfortable reading environment. For the listening exercise, find the place where you think your child would be the most comfortable talking — the kitchen, the car, a coffee shop, the bedroom, the backyard. Anywhere. In fact, walking and talking might be better for your child than sitting and talking. Ask your child questions about his or her reading and study environment preferences. If you become defensive, projecting concerns about anything she is telling you, she will shut down.

The goal is to listen — to let your child guide you to the best possible understanding of how he interacts with the world around him and what he needs to function at his best. When you have started to narrow down your child’s preferences, the following are some tools that can help fulfill their different reading needs.

Ideas for Reading Environments for ADHD Children
For Children Who Prefer a Quiet Environment: Noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs can block out even the subtlest background noises to create a truly distraction-free environment.

For Children Who Prefer Some Sound: Familiar music that children have heard before (and enjoy!) is best for reading music. I also like noise machines with sounds like waves, white noise, etc. You can even download a noise machine app on your phone or iPad.

For Children Who Prefer to Be Seated: Beanbag chairs or other chairs with moveable surfaces may help kids who prefer to sit but still want to be able to move freely. I’ve even seen children who have success with indoor hammocks. Sitting on a cushion or pillow may also help kids who need a little more “give” than a hard chair surface.

For Children Who Prefer to Stand: Standing desks are a great option for some ADHD children. There are some creative DIY options that can be found with an online search, or more permanent solutions for purchase if you are ready to invest.

For Children Who Prefer to Create Movement and Sound: I encourage parents to let go of any preconceived notions they may have of what reading time should look like. Some ADHD children benefit from using their senses to help them focus and read better — this can involve clicking a pen, rolling or tapping their hands on the table, moving their body, chewing something, or making popping noises in their mouth. The list goes on. The sounds or movements might drive parents crazy, but I have seen that these sensory explorations can help children focus their attention better and enjoy reading more.

How to Measure Success
With each new environment or tactic you try, the most important thing to ask yourself is: “Is my child enjoying reading again?” And, “Does he finish and understand the books he is working on?”

With some patience, understanding, and flexibility, I have seen many families create reading environments that are tailored to their individual ADHD child’s needs. I encourage you to work as a team with your ADHD child to uncover their unique preferences to help them love to read.