5 Strategies for Students with ADHD
Sustaining attention long enough to complete a night’s worth of homework can be difficult and taxing for students with ADHD. It’s not unusual for middle- and high-school students to have multiple hours of homework and studying a night. Students who struggle with holding attention that long will need to adopt some key study skills in order to make it through the night’s work and perform well in school.
The following strategies can be used to help maximize attention and focus to complete homework assignments and study for tests. Some strategies will work well for some students but not necessarily others. Trial by error is the best way to determine which strategies are best for your student, but the following will give you a place to start.
1. Maximize medication time and dosage
Not all students take medication to mitigate their ADHD symptoms. However, for those who do, figuring out the best dosage and timing for taking them can prolong their attention span into the afterschool hours. Some medications offer a “slow release” dosage. Rather than feel intense immediate effects, students taking these medications will encounter a subtler control of attention and focus. It is important to note that not all students will respond positively to these types, so ask your family doctor which dosage and medication is most appropriate. It’s not uncommon for students to try different types of medication and doses until they find the best combination.
Another component to consider pertaining to medication is the student’s class schedule. Students with IEPs may benefit from grouping their core classes (i.e., math, science, English, etc.) together and taking them either at the beginning of the day or the end of the day. Often times a student’s medication only lasts for a few hours, so it is imperative to get the most bang for your buck. Grouping their classes is a great way to take advantage of that time and maximize attention in the core classes. This strategy does not necessarily help with afterschool hours, but it can help with the overall academic performance.
2. Use time during the day wisely
This strategy follows up on the first one. Students receiving accommodations or using an IEP often times have a study hall or mandatory supplemental instruction during the day. This can be a great time to get organized, prioritize assignments, and create a plan for the night. If students can use their time during the day efficiently, they will have less to do at night. I’ve had students meet with teachers before school and during lunch to review key concepts and get extra help. This strategy also coincides with the effects of any medication they take. It’s much better to meet with teachers when attention and focus is at its peak rather than try to figure it out alone at night. Nothing feels better than getting ahead and having less work to do afterschool.
3. Make a plan
Students diagnosed with ADHD more often than not struggle with organization. Not only are backpacks usually messy, but writing down assignments and prioritizing them is also difficult. These students also tend to work on their easiest subjects and procrastinate on the harder ones. Therefore it is extremely important that students make a plan before starting homework or studying for exams. I really like daily or nightly checklists. Before beginning the night’s homework, a student should write down everything that needs to be finished for the night and make a checklist for each piece. Once a particular assignment is complete, the student can then check it off the list. This strategy goes hand-in-hand with #4 below.
When talking about efficiency at home, parents can be instrumental in helping to develop the plan. Fortunately many schools use online resources to help students and parents keep track of due dates and upcoming exams. However, if your school is not using these resources or if teachers do not update them in a timely manner, a typical 504 plan involves teachers giving students and parents this information. Make sure you are proactive on asking for this information.
4. Take strategic breaks
It’s well known that students diagnosed with ADHD typically need frequent breaks when studying. I would go further and say that these students should use strategic breaks. Rather than take a break every 15 minutes (or some specified time interval) which does not necessarily mean the student has accomplished anything during that interval, I suggest taking a break after completing a set task. For instance, take a break once you’ve complete 10 algebra problems, regardless of how long it takes. This strategy rewards accomplishment and promotes goal setting. Adopting the checklist system in #3 above can help students and parents monitor the breaks. It may be difficult at first for students with ADHD to adopt this strategy, but over time it will become habitual.
So what exactly is a “break?” Students with ADHD often times benefit from a little exercise in between tasks to help with attention. Taking the dog for a walk or shooting a few baskets can actually help keep a student on task over the long haul. Students may also play a guitar, send a few text messages to friends, surf the internet, and in some circumstances play a quick video game (though video games are a last resort and should be avoided if possible). The important thing to remember is that breaks should be no more than 15 minutes. Any longer and students risk losing motivation all together.
5. Adjust the study environment
Just as important as when a student works is where a student works. Students with ADHD need an environment that has few distractions and allows for compartmentalizing academic thoughts and tasks. TVs, video game consoles, comic books, and any other distractions should be removed from the work environment. Computers, IPads, and phones should be used only when absolutely necessary (i.e., writing a paper). Students with ADHD must have clear, de-cluttered brain space to work efficiently, and all these distractions make that very difficult.
Parents must also consider the distraction of siblings and pets. I’ve worked with students who get distracted by both, so we simply close the door and keep them out. I also think that music, when played at appropriate levels, can have a positive impact on attention and focus. I have no problem with a student who likes listening to music when studying as long as it remains background noise.
Students diagnosed with ADHD must be thoughtful about their approach to studying and preparing for exams. Medication can help, but not all students need or take medication. In either case, working on academic strategies can help maximize attention and focus, all as a way to make homework and study time more efficient.