Proven Ways To Help Kids With ADHD Succeed In School

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mother helping teenager daughter through her adhd

The school year is underway, and with it comes the juggling of homework, projects, exams, and activities. High schoolers, especially, have a lot on their plates, and teens who struggle with ADHD and executive functioning skills have it much harder.

When your child was little, you were probably much more involved in their school work to make sure they completed their assignments. Once in high school, the responsibility for academics and time management shifts more toward your teen and away from you, as it should. High schoolers love their independence, and with that comes personal responsibilities.

They’re learning essential life skills that will allow them to succeed in college and at work. So, what can a parent do to help their child overcome executive function challenges and succeed in school? Fortunately, there are a few key ways to support your high schooler with ADHD and help them strengthen their executive functioning competencies.

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Here are proven ways to help kids with ADHD succeed in school.

1. Make an action plan together

Work with your child to find some possible solutions to common problems. You’re more likely to get your teen’s buy-in if you work with them and not just tell them what you want done. Ask for your child’s input on where they may need extra help and collaborate on ways to address the issue(s). Start with 1 or 2 high-level challenges and work through those before taking on additional challenges. The most common issues are waking up on time, remembering to hand in assignments, and time management.

Remember, what you think is a good solution might not work or happen quickly. Be ready to make adjustments and try new things. If something isn’t working, it’s not a failure. Like most things in life, supporting your child is a process of trial and error. So keep at it, and you will find a solution.

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2. Slowly transition time management to your child

By high school, most kids can manage their time reasonably well. So, take a step back and let them handle it. Even if they fail at first, let them learn by giving them space to find a working solution.

For example, if you’ve served as your child’s alarm clock in middle school, it’s time to pull back and give them ownership of wake-up and bedtimes. You can always be their backup, but they should have an alarm clock (or two!) and learn how to get themselves up on time. The same applies to bedtime. Agree on a reasonable time so they are rested and alert the following day.

Similarly, your high schoolers should have some control over when they begin their homework. Leaving it until after dinner may not be the best option because it leads to frustration, overwhelm, and staying up late to finish. Discuss with your child about age-appropriate after-school schedules and consider all their activities and other family members’ needs. Once you have a working plan, support your child in keeping to the agreed-upon schedule. Check-in with them to see how it’s going and adjust as needed. Provide them with alarm clocks, post-it notes, daily task lists, or whatever will help them manage their time independently.

3. Break down large tasks into manageable chunks

When kids with ADHD are tasked with a big school project, they may get so overwhelmed that they won’t know where to begin. Big tasks seem scary or even impossible at the start. Explain to your child that this is normal and that even adults go through similar feelings. Show your teen how to take a big project and break it into smaller, more manageable components.

Completing one small chunk of work at a time will help your child feel they have progressed. It will also help them move from a negative mindset, “I can’t do this!” to a positive one, “I finished the outline of my essay, so now I can start working on the first paragraph.” Breaking things down is a huge confidence builder.

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4. Use meaningful incentives

To encourage your teen to manage their time, keep track of deadlines, and be more responsible for their obligations, find some good incentives–together. The best motivators are ones that work for your child. If they're social, being allowed to hang out with friends on the weekend is a great incentive for finishing all their homework beforehand. If they're looking forward to seeing a movie with you, use that to motivate them to complete all their chores first. Meaningful incentives, chosen with collaboration, are the most effective and rewarding.

5. Celebrate successes

It’s easy to get caught up in task lists and problem-solving, but make time for taking a break to celebrate your child’s successes, no matter how small. Kids with ADHD tend to perceive themselves negatively — as not being good enough or lacking skills that seem to come easy to others. So when your teen gets something right, tell them you’re proud, encourage them, and celebrate their accomplishments and gifts. This will build self-esteem and their resilience. Noticing what is going well helps kids become more confident to succeed in and outside of school.

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Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator. She has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, and mental health challenges and their impact on the school and family dynamics for more than 30 years.