9 Ways I Hacked My ADHD Brain to Cipher School
I was a smart, creative, tenacious girl who happened to have undiagnosed ADHD. In Catholic school, I had to invent crafty workarounds and peculiar strategies that engaged my ADHD brain in just the right way. Then, these methods were unconventional; today, they would make for great accommodations in an IEP or 504 Plan.
I was a smart girl. I sat in the back of the room, reading novels under my desk or staring out the window or drawing quietly when I should have been taking notes — and earning good marks nonetheless.
That’s not to say school was easy. Far from it. Thanks to my lackluster focus and attention, I made “careless mistakes” that dropped my As down to A-s time and time again. I forgot homework almost daily. Once, my math teacher swore I’d spent the class period making my fancy erasers talk to each other, but really, I’d just arranged them in interesting patterns over and over. I had (and have) primarily inattentive ADHD, but no one knew it, so I was on my own to make sense of peculiar brain and devise workarounds to survive in school.
As I grew up and moved into Catholic middle and high school, several strategies emerged that helped me manage my neurodiversity. Some came from my teachers. Some I developed on my own. The best ones saved my life, and got me into the college I wanted. Thanks to these strategies, I went from the kid who couldn’t remember a permission slip to the girl who always had her homework (or made a conscious decision not to complete it).
Teachers wrote homework on the board. I wrote my homework in a dedicated homework book, which they checked at the end of the day.
With one glance at the board, I knew instantly whether homework was being assigned in a given class. And when I had homework, I had to write it down in a very specific, fiddly way: date at the top, underline in red pen, write the subject name, underline that in red pen, then write down the assignment. If there was no homework, I still had to write the subject name and note “none.” The formulaic formality seemed key.
At the end of the day, a homeroom teacher checked that every student had written down their homework correctly. Not practical for a whole class today — but a practical accommodation. With all the information in one place, I minimized the forgotten textbook syndrome that plagued me in elementary school. When I had finished the homework at the end of the day, I folded the page neatly.
All desks — ideally, just flat surfaces with no inside cubbies — faced the board.
Desks in Catholic school generally did not cluster. They did not face the wall. They faced front. If I wanted to look out the window (and I did), I had to turn around (and I did). And when I turned all the way around, the teacher could call me back (though she could have been a lot nicer about it). I focused much more easily with front-facing desks, and especially in high school, when desks not only faced the front, but had no insides — just a flat surface that minimized rummaging and messiness. My stuff stayed in my backpack, which also lessened distractions.
Some teachers made us stop working through a test, flip back to the beginning, and begin checking our work — then made sure we did it.
These people are saints walking among us. They actually built time into their testing for double checking. If we didn’t seem to be actively checking our work, we were called out for it. This ritual of going back and reviewing my answers didn’t catch all of my errors, but it helped a lot. Again, this may not be reasonable for a whole class, but it may be a helpful accommodation for your child.
I used colored markers instead of pens.
This one was so simple, and so so powerful. I took class notes using markers — a different color assigned to each theme or section or component of my notes. Perhaps important dates were always in purple and famous names got red, for example. The challenge of mastering the color-coding game kept me focused and listening. I used this often in a class that required filling in outlines. Intently listening, I wanted to see when I could use my next colored marker. I paid lots of attention in that class.
I went for walks.
In ninth grade, my need to move my body — particularly right before and after lunch — became so desperate that I took a bathroom break every single day during fifth and seventh periods. God bless those teachers for always giving me that critical physical (and cognitive) break.
I used those times to walk very, very slowly to the bathroom (the long way) and very, very slowly back. These walks kept me from bouncing up and down in my seat (literally).
Two words: assigned seats.
I liked to, as teachers say, “talk to my neighbors.” Thankfully, most of my teachers noticed this tendency, cared about my learning, and moved my seat. This always made me mad — every kid wants to sit with her friends — but when I wasn’t passing Trish a note every three minutes, I paid better attention. In ninth grade, my science teacher once moved me twice during the same period. I hated him for it. It worked.
I got to pick my own project groups.
A lot of the kids in high school thought I was, in my friend’s dad’s words, a “space cadet.” My friends understood that I might talk out of turn, drum my pencil, use weird markers, or gin up off-the-wall ideas. But they didn’t care. Other kids would more often ignore me, brush me off, or worse, foist all the work onto me, once they realized I knew what I was doing — and I’d do it because I wanted to be liked. If I could avoid getting stuck with other students who would make my life miserable, the assignments went much better.
I used only erasable pen.
The teachers in high school demanded we write our tests in pen. I always made “careless mistakes” caught during final review, if I was lucky. I needed to make my papers look neat — they were always sort of messy anyway, with lots of arrows of inserted lines, and words squeezed in small spaces. So I used erasable pens to fix those mistakes I made when my brain ran faster than my fingers. They saved me frustration and embarrassment regularly. Golden.
I learned to read it out loud.
A teacher once demanded I read my essay aloud at home. I took his advice — and all those careless mistakes suddenly jumped out at me. I still do this today when I have time. The things that spellcheck and grammarcheck miss? Your mouth won’t miss them. Trust me.
Before my ADHD diagnosis, I had no choice but to get creative — and hope the teacher didn’t raise a stink. Today, many of my old workarounds would make for wholly reasonable accommodations. Using colored markers; taking walks; inventing very rigid, formulaic ways to write down homework (or even take notes) — these strategies all helped me. And when you’re an ADHD mama, like I am today, sometimes, you have no choice but to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Give it a try: send your kid to school with a pack of Crayola markers this year. You might be surprised how much it helps.