Ask the Experts

Q: My Teen with ADHD Only Works When I’m Standing Over Him!

High school academic problems multiply when your teen with ADHD is suddenly learning at home — and you can’t possibly monitor his every minute during the day. Here, learn why independent work is so, so difficult and how to get an unmotivated student to complete assignments.

Q: “The only thing keeping my teen at school is his rich social life. Learning at school is like a byproduct of attendance. Learning at home has exposed me to just how far between the cracks he has fallen. I am learning how frustrated he feels with his difficulty in achieving completed work… Any use of the computer involves him ‘rewarding’ himself for ‘work done’ every 5 minutes with a 10-minute game. No learning is being done, no work completed, unless he is fully supervised for the entire time by a parent who is also supposed to be working from home… He sees no point in doing any of the work; he considers it irrelevant.”

I’ve been helping so many patients and families deal with this exact issue with school during the pandemic. The issues you just described happen even during good times, but they’re worse during a crisis. Please know that your son’s behavior and your frustration are completely normal — this isn’t just homeschooling, it’s “crisis schooling.” There are a lot of factors influencing this situation and remote learning loss can feel inevitable. I’m going to break it down and address each factor separately.

1) Most teens go to high school to see friends.

For the most part, their social life happens at school. Research shows that teens who have a strong social network at school tend to do better academically. So, the motivation to go to school and do well is often linked to having friends there. It’s great that your son had something motivating him to go to school. At least this got him in the building.

2) Learning as a byproduct happens to everyone.

We usually learn best when we’re faced with situations or material that we think is interesting and important. The average teen has an attention span of 10 to 15 minutes — and that’s assuming they don’t have any executive function issues like ADHD.

[Does Your Child Have ADHD? Take This Test To Find Out]

In addition, it’s common for kids’ and teens’ interest to rise and fall during that chunk of time because of their mood, their energy, and their interest in the material presented. Even in the best-case scenario, students aren’t taking in every detail they read or hear in class. Students tend to cram for exams so they can get a good grade but then quickly forget the material. If your son was able to learn something that interested him and still remembers it, then he is doing better than most.

3) It’s common for parents to recognize significant learning and knowledge gaps once a student is learning at home.

Public schools are required to provide your child with the opportunity to receive a free and appropriate education. If your son was in the building and attended his classes, the school met that requirement. If your son wasn’t failing for a long time, a danger to himself or others, and/or constantly in crisis, he wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. If your son attends a private school, teachers may have given him a lot of accommodations. As a result, he could have done and learned very little — and still passed.

Unfortunately, too many students with learning disabilities and other academic issues fall through the cracks. Now that your son is home, you can see where and how he struggles. You can then consult with therapists or coaches who specialize in working with teens and families impacted by ADHD.

4) Of all high school problems, the motivation issue is tricky.

We see low motivation in teens in general. It’s harder still for teens with ADHD because the ADHD brain turns on in response to New, Interesting, Urgent, and Different. If the schoolwork he has to complete doesn’t fit in any of these boxes, he won’t want to or be able to focus on it.

[Click to Read: “Can I Save My Teen from Failure?”]

It’s important that he understand the consequences of not doing and submitting the work. For example, let him know that this is how the school will give him credit for this academic year. Not doing the work could result in summer school or being held back. If he plays sports or participates in extracurriculars, he may have to maintain a certain GPA to participate. He could lose out on good opportunities by ignoring this work. In addition, because he’s in high school, these bad grades will be on the records he sends to colleges. The only way to engage him is to find something that matters to him and lead with that.

5) Having to educate a child while working full time is extremely difficult because parents have to balance lots of priorities at once.

When the child or teen needs extra support, it’s even harder because parents have to work harder to balance work with teaching. The easiest way to do this is to schedule school time into your day. Perhaps you can start by setting aside an hour a day. During this hour, you help your son with schoolwork and set aside work. Break the hour up into 3, 15-minute work chunks. During these work chunks, he can’t play games. He can play games for a set amount of time as a reward after he does his work, but only if he can stick to the plan you both agreed upon. Then, he can spend some time on an activity that revolves around something interesting to him that doesn’t involve a video game.

6) Please remember that he is still considered a student within the district.

This means that his school is responsible for providing him with curriculum and support. Everyone is emotionally impacted by this situation. Everyone’s stress is through the roof. This is especially true for kids and teens with extra challenges. They often need more information and support to get through tough times. During a crisis, these kids often have trouble with their health, academics, and relationships.

It’s important to get school involved. Let them know about the gaps and behaviors you’re seeing and how it’s impacting his ability to get work done. Ask for help with holding him accountable. Also ask for help regarding the work that is required. Ask about the minimum amount of work he has to turn in to pass every class. It’s okay if he doesn’t complete every lesson and assignment. Also ask if he can do other assignments in order to learn the topic. For example, can he take an online class instead of writing a paper?

Your situation is the norm for parents with teens struggling with ADHD and executive function disorders. Please don’t try to figure this out on your own.

[Read This Next: A Quarantine Well Spent: How to Foster Teen Independence During This Time at Home]

Dr. Ronit Levy is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with high achieving teens and adults struggling with anxiety due to anxiety, OCD, ADHD, chronic illness, and life events. She has recently published a guide for parents titled “How to Educate Your Child During a Crisis.”

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