High School

Busy Days Ahead

With more choices and greater challenges, high school requires all the skills you can muster.

Teen girl with ADHD reading notebook at high school
Teen girl with ADHD reading notebook at high school

Exhilarating and unnerving, demanding and rewarding. High school is a time of exploring new interests, trying new activities, meeting new people. Each year, teachers will push you farther. You’ll be handed bigger challenges and more responsibility for meeting them.

With the simpler demands of middle school behind you, you’ll need study skills, time-management tools, and organization strategies more than ever.

During these years, you’ll begin to think more abstractly, try on new identities, and question what your place in the world should be. At the same time, making friends and fitting in are top priorities; you’ll need to recognize social nuance and cope with peer pressure. This is a time to truly understand the challenges of ADHD — where it can trip you up, and how you can compensate.

This is also the time to become your own advocate. With your parents’ support, you can be an active participant in getting the help you need. Start by meeting with each of your teachers to explain how you learn best and how they can help you stay focused and organized. When you’re ready, take an active role in your special-ed team meetings to get the accommodations that will allow you to succeed. By the time you leave high school, you should be able to determine when and where you need help, and how to get it.

Academics: Keeping Up, Pulling Ahead

Many high school teachers begin the school year with a lesson on responsibilities — keeping up with classwork, handing in assignments on time, asking for help when needed. The message for students with ADHD or learning disabilities? It’s up to you to engage the strategies that help you learn, focus, and manage your time.

Some of these require the teacher’s approval — sitting up front, away from distractions, for instance. Others involve accommodations outlined in your IEP. For the most part, though, you’re in charge.

  • Bring order (and color!) to your notes. Take class notes in outline fashion, using graph paper and colored pens or highlighters to help the main points jump off the page. Use the same technique for reading assignments, so you won’t have to read material twice.
  • Review early and often. Immediately after a difficult class, review your notes. Then read them again in the evening. Reviewing notes on the day you take them can double the amount of information you retain. Multi-task (quietly). Do your homework or read in class, if it helps you to focus. (Consider sitting in the back, so as not to distract others.)
  • Break down complex assignments. Complicated, long-term projects can be your undoing unless you break them into manageable chunks. In the research stage, use color-coded sticky notes in books and articles to designate each subtopic; cut and paste online materials into a word-processing document. Decide on a deadline for each section, and set alarms in your electronic timer to remind you when it’s due. Some students promise to show sections to their teachers along the way to keep themselves accountable.
  • Follow your interests. Look for ways to weave your passions into papers and projects – you’ll be much more likely to focus. If you’re a runner and you have to write about ancient Greece, for example, research the history of the marathon.
  • Master test-taking. Check with your teacher about what material will be covered and the format of the test – you’ll study differently for an essay test than for a multiple choice. Break the material down and review it over several days. Tutor other students, or have a study buddy quiz you. Find a memorization strategy that works for you. You might create new lyrics to a popular song, or use flashcards or mnemonics. Students who learn visually may benefit from drawing or building a physical representation of concepts.
  • When in doubt, seek help. In high school, as in earlier grades, teachers are your allies. But now they want to see what you’re doing to help yourself. If you don’t understand something, bring in notes or an outline to show which parts you get and which you don’t. If you’re struggling with a paper, show what you’ve done so far.

What Parents Can Do

During these pivotal four years, expect your teen to be less receptive to your involvement in his schoolwork. This is normal, and you’ll avoid many struggles by accepting it. Right now, it’s more important to keep your relationship strong and the lines of communication open — even if the math make-up doesn’t get handed in. Consider yourself less of a coach and more of a partner, working with your child to achieve school success.

Each year, pull back a bit more. By senior year, your child should be taking the reins — figuring out what she needs, setting priorities, and arranging for the right kind of help.

  • Start each year with a plan. Sit down with your child to discuss the upcoming school year. What challenges are in store, and what kinds of support might she need? Together, determine who will talk to teachers and school officials, and how and when to approach them. Make sure you both attend team meetings to revisit IEP and 504 accommodations.
  • Get outside help. If your child is confused by calculus or daunted by English composition, bring in a tutor. If he struggles to keep track of assignments or deadlines, consider hiring a coach. At this age, he’s more likely to accept help from others than from you.
  • Plug in. If possible, provide a computer with high-speed Internet access at home to be used for research or for accessing assignments online. Consider an electronic calendar to help your child structure her study time.
  • Provide a challenge. Kids with ADHD sometimes fail when they’re not sufficiently engaged. Consider moving your child into an accelerated class, or enroll her in a summer course at a local college. Many kids thrive in tough environments when doing something they love.
  • Offer rewards. Even at this age, rewards are a great motivator. Try verbal encouragement, greater privileges, an increase in allowance, or a special trip. Frequent rewards – on a daily or weekly basis – usually work best.

The Social Scene: Making Friends & Fitting In

Most people who have gone through high school report that getting their social bearings was the hardest part. Entering the fray with ADHD adds to the stress. Even if making friends comes easily, being impulsive, misreading cues, and crossing invisible boundaries can jeopardize your social standing. It’s easy to lose friends or be ostracized if you don’t master the rules of the road.

  • Take the long view. With ADHD comes a lack of impulse control and inhibition — a sure recipe for trouble. People with ADHD also have a hard time anticipating outcomes. If you’re feeling pressure to fit in and are considering an action you know is wrong, ask yourself about possible consequences. If your friends frequently get into trouble, consider whether they’re the kind of people you want to be with. Remember that a small mistake now can lead to a big problem later.
  • Learn the unwritten rules. People with ADHD often have a hard time understanding limits and following guidelines. When the rules are unstated, it’s almost impossible. But in the social world of high school, it can be important to know who sits at which cafeteria table, or what clothes are within the limits of cool. Ask an older sibling or friend how things work.
  • Heed body language. Unspoken language accounts for up to 90 percent of communication. But people with ADHD miss most of it — they’re looking everywhere but at the person who’s talking. In doing so, they’re also sending a message of disinterest, even though looking around may help keep them focused on what’s being said. Try to become aware of what the speaker’s body is “broadcasting.” Ask someone close to you about the unspoken messages you’re sending, and what cues you might be missing. Read up on body language… and keep your eyes on your friends.
  • Mind your boundaries. Do you impulsively say things you shouldn’t, and interrupt when others are speaking? Make an effort to ask yourself silently what you’re about to say, and how others might react. And give your friends a chance to talk… they’ll appreciate your interest.
  • Tell your friends about ADHD. Have classmates ever asked about your accommodations? Perhaps you’re a bit quirky and others have wondered why. Plan in advance how you’ll explain it. Share with them the challenges and the strengths of people with ADHD — creativity, quick thinking, and intuition are just a few. When friends understand what you’re dealing with, they’ll become allies in any struggles you have.

What Parents Can Do

Teens have reached an age when they can get into real trouble — yet they’re less likely than ever to heed our advice. We can try to point them in the right direction, but it’s not always easy, particularly if they’re not ready to face some of their ADHD challenges. Let your child know you’re in her corner and always available to talk.

  • Let your child shine. Give your child opportunities to find something he excels at — let him take that rock-climbing class or use your garage as his band’s practice studio. The self-esteem that comes with success will carry over into his social circle and beyond.
  • Be aware of warning signs. If a child’s behavior or habits change radically — she’s not eating, he’s become sullen or withdrawn — consult a mental-health professional. Teens with ADHD are likely to exaggerate social failures, leading to depression or even suicidal thoughts.

Organization: Creating Harmony, Inside and Out

Attention-deficit disorder affects the brain’s executive functions — time management, short-term memory, and organization. In high school, these are the skills you need most to keep up with increasingly complex classes, extracurricular activities, an after-school job, and, if you’re lucky, a thriving social life. To juggle these demands, you must find ways to organize your home and school environments, and prioritize your life.

The following strategies can help you think clearly, become more efficient, and get things done. If you need guidance, consult a coach, mentor, or a professional organizer. As with putting performance tires on your car, you’ll go farther if you start off right.

  • Carve out a work space. Use the “suitcase rule” to de-clutter your room. What would you pack if you were going away for a week? Put everything else away in a closet or another room. Still can’t see your desktop? Stash anything you don’t use every day in a box near your desk.
  • Assign everything a home. Get file holders, trays, desk caddies, shelves — whatever you need to organize your work space. Label each container with colored index cards, stickers, or pens. Do the same with your car and school locker. To keep your locker organized, bring everything home at the end of each week and before every school break. Return only the things you really need — lightening your load will cut your transit time between classes.
  • Be bag-specific. Keep a separate bag for books and schoolwork, sports equipment, band paraphernalia, after-school clothes. Assign pockets in each bag for specific items — you don’t have time to go digging.
  • Keep a calendar at hand. Always carry an appointment book or electronic calendar, such as a PDA, cellphone with organizer, or one of the dozens of other electronic devices that have a sophisticated calendar function. (See “Guidance and Gizmos”). Just as you’ve assigned a place for your physical possessions, you’ll need to designate a time for each of your commitments and deadlines.
  • Prioritize and schedule. Use a small chart or spreadsheet to visualize everything you need to do. Color-code each listing: Is it a high priority (homework due tomorrow) or a medium one (a report that can be started tomorrow)? Plan to do the most important work first, and do it at the time of day when you’re freshest.

What Parents Can Do

Your child will probably need help in bringing order to his life. Without criticizing, work with him to set up routines and de-clutter his space, or get him professional help. Keeping the rest of your home in order will set a good example.

  • Post a family calendar in the kitchen. Include all family events and obligations so your child can add them to his personal schedule. If you both work from electronic calendars, set aside time each evening to update and synchronize.
  • Keep a to-do chart. Does your child have responsibility for housekeeping chores? Post a checklist as a nag-free reminder.
  • Establish a ready-to-go place. Reserve a shelf or cabinet by the front door, where your child can park what she needs for school. Label it with colored stickers, so that keys, wallets, and meds can be easily found. Hang a hook underneath for a backpack or sports bag.
  • Structure your weekends. Many teens with ADHD panic on Sunday evening because they didn’t accomplish everything they should have. Creating a weekend routine with scheduled free time and study time helps prevent a meltdown.