Because of the nature of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), students with the disorder face special challenges at school.
For instance, most students lose focus easily. Some students with ADHD also have weaker working memories, according to Laurie Dietzel, Ph.D, a psychologist specializing in ADHD and developmental disabilities and co-author of Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning. She likens working memory to a brain scratch pad or storage area, which helps you briefly retain information in order to complete tasks.
Some students have difficulty completing boring or demanding tasks. They’re able to hyperfocus on tasks they find interesting, such as an avid reader whose attention never wanders with a book. But distractions are aplenty with tedious tasks. Procrastination also is pervasive among people with ADHD, and, not surprisingly, can sabotage school success.
The key to succeeding in school, whether it’s high school or college, is to determine your unique challenges and find specific solutions. “Everyone with ADHD is different, and finds different things that work for them,” Dietzel said. The best way to figure out what works is to experiment, she said. Here’s a list of strategies to get you started.
1. Have a planner. It doesn’t matter whether you use a paper planner, your cell phone or a calendar on your computer, every student needs to have a “central system” to record “what they’re supposed to be doing when,” Dietzel said.
2. Schedule everything in. Put everything in your planner, including your classes, library and study sessions and even breaks like exercise, relaxation and time with friends. This way you don’t even need to contemplate your next step (and possibly get distracted or interrupted).
For instance, every Tuesday and Thursday, you already know that you’re studying at the library for two hours. Eventually, your library sessions and other regular activities become as automatic as brushing your teeth. Dietzel also compared this to athletes on the field: When your teammate throws you the ball, you don’t need to think about catching it. You do it reflexively.
Dietzel also advises students to schedule in a lot of extra time, because tasks tend to take longer. Look at your track record, she said, and be honest with yourself about the time you spend writing a paper or studying for an exam.
3. Study in increments. Cramming the night before a test isn’t just stressful; it’s ineffective. “Our brains aren’t meant to absorb and retain information [that we] reviewed at the last minute,” Dietzel said. That’s because repetition is key to learning, and “last-minute stress can lead to anxiety that blocks our ability to readily understand and recall information.” Instead, Dietzel suggests starting a week ahead and studying in 15- to 20-minute increments.
4. Use whatever study tools work best. Consider what kinds of tools help you study effectively. Maybe you learn best by using flash cards, copying notes or talking with others about the material. Or maybe pacing helps you retain facts. In fact, some younger kids with ADHD prefer to move around while they’re doing their homework because it helps them focus. According to Dietzel, “Movement can stimulate some of the frontal lobe regions and attention control.”
Some students need to use a variety of techniques. They learn best with a multisensory approach, meaning they use techniques that involve more than one sense, Dietzel said.
5. Create a contingency plan. Setting up a system where you earn rewards for completing tasks may motivate some students. Here’s an example of how it might work: If you email your essay to the professor by next Wednesday, your reward is to attend a football game or do another activity you love. If you don’t, you stay home and work on your paper.
6. Have realistic expectations. Dietzel knows many bright and well-meaning students who load up their semester with challenging classes. Even though these students work incredibly hard and are highly motivated, they still struggle with paying attention and studying effectively.
Take the example of a high school student with ADHD, Dietzel said. A slow reader, she needs to re-read regularly, which doubles or triples her homework time. If she picks mostly heavy-reading courses, she’ll be stressed and won’t do as well. Instead of creating a needlessly tough situation, she can save one course for the summer.
Sometimes it can be hard to identify sensible expectations. Adolescents and young adults also might not admit they’re having trouble, Dietzel said. A consultation with a professional who specializes in ADHD can help. Dietzel regularly meets with parents and teens to help them create reasonable schedules and find solutions to common scholastic challenges.