How to Succeed in High School with ADHD: A Teen’s Guide
These academic and organizational tips are designed to help high school students with ADHD finish homework, execute long-term projects, manage their time, earn high grades, and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
With the simpler demands of middle school behind you, you’ll need better study skills, time-management tools, and organization strategies than ever. 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. Here’s how to succeed in high school with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).
Academics: What You Can Do
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.
Multitask — quietly. Do your homework or read in class, if it helps you to focus. (Consider sitting in the front, to avoid distractions.)
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 or cell phone 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 model of concepts.
When in doubt, seek help. If you don’t understand something, get answers from a classmate who is on top of the course. If you’re struggling with a paper, show your teacher what you’ve done so far.
What Parents Can Do
Keep a lower profile. During these pivotal four years of high school, 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 they need, 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 they need? Together, determine who will talk to teachers and school officials, and how and when to approach them. Make sure you both attend meetings to revisit IEP or 504 accommodations.
Quiz your student. They should know their learning style — visual, auditory, or kinesthetic — and have suitable study techniques to prepare for tests. They should also have a feel for which courses play to their strengths and which ones will be a problem.
Get outside help. If your child is confused by calculus or daunted by English composition, bring in a tutor. If they struggle to keep track of assignments or deadlines, consider hiring a coach. At this age, they’re more likely to accept help from others than from you.
Provide a challenge. Teens with ADHD sometimes fail because they’re not sufficiently engaged. Consider moving your child to an accelerated class, or enroll them in a summer course at a local college.
Offer rewards. Rewards are a great motivator, even at this age. Try verbal encouragement, extending privileges, increasing allowance, or a special trip. Frequent rewards, on a daily or weekly basis, work best.
In the classroom:
Use webs, cluster maps, and semantic maps to categorize or identify related information. A central concept is placed in the center of related subtopics, and further details extend from each of the subtopic areas.
Offer alternatives to a written book report. Give students choices — writing a letter to the main character, creating a book jacket or a board game based on the book.
Use different-colored highlighters to emphasize different types of information: one color for dates, another for names, and a third for definitions.
Try tech for quicker reads. A scanning pen scans text as it’s dragged along the page. The pen displays the words on an easy-to-read screen, speaks them aloud, and provides definitions.
In the classroom:
Use math computer programs for drill and practice. Many students with ADHD have illegible handwriting, or lose track when doing multiple-step problems.
Encourage students to keep a card file of specific math skills, concepts, rules, and algorithms, along with specific examples of each on the card for reference.
Practice, practice. Answer the sample questions in your textbook. Ask your teacher for more practice problems. Try to teach the problems to another student.
Solving problems. Label each step of your process, and leave plenty of white space between steps, so you can easily see where you went astray.
In the classroom:
Use a graphic organizer. This tool asks basic questions about the topic and organizes material visually to help with memory recall. Distribute pre-printed blank forms for students to fill in, so they can reserve their effort for writing the essay.
Use mind maps — a graphic way of representing ideas and their relationships. Draw circles, write ideas within each of them, then connect and prioritize thoughts.
Allow time for incubation. Set aside your writing and come back to it the next day. You will see potential improvements that can be made.
Organization: What You Can Do
Carve out a workspace. 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 place. 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.
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.
Hold on to notebooks. Write your name, phone number, e-mail address, and locker or mailbox number inside the cover or on the first page. If you lose it, the odds are good that it will be returned to you.
Keep a calendar at hand. Always carry an appointment book or electronic calendar — a planner or a smart phone works. Just as you assign a place for your physical possessions, you should designate a time for each of your commitments.
What Parents Can Do
Post a calendar in the kitchen. Include all family events and obligations, so that your teen 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 teen 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 teen can park what she needs for school — books, keys, wallet, and meds.