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“Are Your High-Achieving Students Burning Out? Why It’s Critical to Know.”

“Like the proverbial swan, neurodivergent learners appear calm and composed on the surface, but they are frantically kicking beneath the water.”

As far as her classmates and professors know, Katie is the perfect college student. She is an exemplary model of organization and order, and a straight-A student to boot.

But Katie works hard to maintain this façade – and she’s slowly falling apart. Often exhausted after classes, she falls into a deep sleep in the afternoon hours, and wakes up in the evening to work until the morning, with the help of her stimulant medication and caffeine.

Katie has ADHD, and she is not alone.

This scenario is far too common for students who have to exert untold effort just to earn average college grades due to learning differences like ADHD. Like the proverbial swan, neurodivergent learners appear calm and composed on the surface, but they are frantically kicking beneath the water. Sadly, these students can spend their entire academic careers kicking frantically and wondering why they’re not getting anywhere.

The Experiences of Students with Learning Differences

In my teaching career, many ‘Katies’ have come to me in varying states of desperation. They are highly intelligent, but their efforts to be ‘perfect,’ ‘high-achieving,’ or even just ‘neurotypical’ too often take a damaging toll on their physical and mental health.

For students with learning differences, working memory deficits, disorganization, inattention, and chronic procrastination can turn a task like writing an essay into something akin to climbing Mount Everest (with an elephant on your back).

[Free Download: What Learning Disabilities Look Like]

As teachers, we care deeply about our students’ wellbeing, but it’s easy to miss the warning signs. If we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of seeing certain learners through rose-tinted lenses, not noticing how hard they’re struggling just to stay afloat.

Sometimes, the daily pressures of modern-day teaching dissuade us from looking any further. If we did, we wouldn’t be able to look away from the obvious signs of strain – the dark circles around our students’ eyes, their feet furiously tapping during lecture, the haunted look on their faces when they think the professor isn’t looking.

For students like Katie, masking the traits of their neurodivergent brains is a habit they’ve unconsciously honed over years to survive in a world designed for neurotypicals. Masking most likely got them through their school years quite well, until they reached college. The effort required to keep up and excel mounts quickly in college, and the mask typically starts to slip.

Add to this the fact that many students are living independently for the first time, away from secure surroundings and family. The support network that has protected them for most of their lives is suddenly removed, leaving them to fend for themselves. The shock of this new transition causes executive functions to flatline. Everyday life suddenly becomes incredibly overwhelming and stressful.

[Read: The College Survival Guide for Students with ADHD]

Ironically, the act of masking neurological traits often prevents a student from receiving an official diagnosis and the support that would allow them to manage their learning differences and thrive.

How Teachers Can Help Students with Learning Differences

1. Build in time every day for mindful reflection of your teaching practices. Closely examine how you view your students. Are you taking too much of a binary approach? Do you subconsciously categorize the ‘Katies’ in your class as ‘the good’ students and others as average-poor?

2. Know that gifted learners need just as much of your attention. Traditional training teaches us how to deal with ‘problem’ students, but we are subconsciously programmed to ignore the high-flyers in the class, content that they are smoothly sailing through every semester. After all, an A student is an excellent measure of how well we’ve done our job, right? Not necessarily.

3. Talk to your students about their lives outside of class. It’s a great way to cue in to factors that could be impacting their academic performance – or how academics get in the way. As I often point out during teacher-training sessions, a student who regularly attains high grades but exhibits inconsistent behavior is likely hiding a learning difference. Pertinent questions to ask include:

  • What are your sleeping habits like?
  • Do you make time to relax and engage in social activities?
  • Do you have any friends? (It is quite common for students with a learning difference to devote so much time and energy to their studies that their social life almost fades into obscurity.)

I often ask my students to fill in a weekly schedule, and I ask them to note what they do for each hour of a typical day. It can be quite illuminating when you reach the evening hours, as many students will describe how they study late into the night, perhaps only getting a few hours of sleep before class.

If this is the case for some of your students, follow this up with more targeted questions. The goal is to understand why they feel they must study in this manner. Try to find out how their quality of life is affected as well. Ask questions such as:

  • How long does it usually take you to plan an essay?
  • What strategies do you use to organize your time?
  • How do you feel when you have to start an assignment?
  • How many times a week do you feel anxious?
  • What kinds of tasks make you feel overwhelmed?

You may also find that some of your students with ADHD are perfectionists. These students become so anxious about the end result that they get trapped in every single detail of an assignment and consequently freeze. You can multiply this effect by 10 if the student is a high achiever. Ultimately, your students need to know that it is possible to achieve high grades without burning out. They just have to be taught alternative ways of studying.

These kinds of investigations can lead to useful discussions with your students about their strengths and challenges, and about how they can effectively handle stress, manage their time, and motivate themselves.

Teachers must be vigilant to these warning signs and pay equal attention to their high-achieving and compliant learners. With the right help and support, many students with ADHD and other learning differences can adopt healthy, long-term strategies to achieve educational success. They can finally release feelings of shame, and learn to thrive and embrace their unique and amazing brain.

High-Achieving Students with ADHD: Next Steps


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Updated on July 22, 2021

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