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.
7. Identify your best study environment. Where do you do your best work? For many students with ADHD an ideal space is quiet and distraction-free, Dietzel said. (A library, for instance.) For others, some background noise or music works better. When cutting down on distractions, get creative. If you need to work on the computer, use a program that blocks the Internet for a certain amount of time.
Dietzel also finds that “some high school students do better with working in a common area,” such as the kitchen when mom and dad are preparing dinner. This might have to do with being “within proximity of people who are task-oriented.”
8. Consider your style when setting a schedule. Some people like having a fairly full schedule of activities because it keeps them organized. For others, this is stressful, and they need to cut out tasks instead. Consider what you prefer. But remember that your schedule should give you enough time to get adequate sleep (vital to school and life success!), be active and socialize with friends.
9. Take mini-breaks. People with ADHD have difficulty sustaining their attention for long periods of time, so taking short breaks is important. When you sense yourself losing focus (like if you have no idea what you’ve been reading for the last minute), take a five-minute break.
10. Exercise. Many studies suggest that physical activity is beneficial for boosting brain function. Research also has shown that engaging in physical activity before a study session is helpful for ADHD. For instance, you might take a 15-minute walk before researching your paper, Dietzel said. Another idea is to make your mini-breaks active.
11. Improve a weak working memory with special techniques. One of the best (and easiest) ways to improve your memory is to write everything down, Dietzel said. To truly grasp and retain information, you also might need to highlight passages, have sticky notes in book margins, make notes as you’re reading or reread information. Some students need to read one paragraph at a time, and summarize the facts on sticky notes.
Anther method is memory tricks or mnemonics, a valuable technique to memorize random facts. (Think of the mnemonic HOMES, which has helped many students ace their geography tests.) Thinking of information visually also helps strengthen memory. Dietzel gave the example of students keeping track of characters in a large family by picturing each one in their head, “almost like a movie.”
12. Don’t ignore other symptoms. People with ADHD are at greater risk for anxiety and depression. Stress can trigger these symptoms, which may be at an all-time high in high school and college. Not surprisingly, anyone with “elevated anxiety can’t study well or recall what they know no matter how well they study,” Dietzel said. So it’s important to get these symptoms treated.
13. Use timers and alarms. Some people with ADHD “don’t have a good sense for the passage of time.” When it comes to scheduling a study session, they may have no clue how much time to block out. To keep track, use a timer and ask a friend to call you. Also, use alarms to remind you of upcoming activities.
14. Have a place for items. Are you frequently losing your syllabus, keys or backpack? Have a designated place for these items. For instance, Dietzel said, if you lose your syllabi every semester, make it a habit to put them in the same notebook. It’s one less thing to think about — and possibly misplace.
15. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. As Dietzel said, “Don’t put your head in the sand, and hope it’ll be OK.” Every student has strengths and weaknesses, and getting help in challenging areas is a smart way to succeed in school. This might mean talking to your parents, getting a tutor or seeing a psychologist or coach who specializes in ADHD. (Seeing a psychologist is important for treating ADHD in general.) Most schools also have writing labs, tutorials and other tools and services to help students.
Remember that the goal is to find tools and techniques that work best for you. Try these out, and stick with the most effective strategies.