Teens with ADHD

Learn to Scaffold: Build Your Teen’s Executive Functions All Year Long

Your teen is forging his own identity and fighting to stand on his own two feet. But he’s not quite there… yet. Negotiate a balance of support and independence by working with your teen to put in place structures for success.

A mother creates instructional scaffolding to help her teen daughter with homework.

Scaffolding is not about making excuses. Or protecting your child from every one of life’s harsh lessons. It’s about facilitating learning and making adjustments for executive functioning weaknesses. It is about demonstrating, teaching, and slowly abdicating control.

The aim is to reach goals that may overwhelm your teen at first, and to do so in a measured, meaningful way. If the bar is too high or the timeline too fast, your teen may fail — and lost the motivation to try again. Building in small successes along the road to independence, however, will trigger his reward system and give him a blast of dopamine and positivity that will help him to keep pushing forward. Here is how to set up that system:

1. Set aside 30-45 minutes to talk.

Make time for a calm, planned conversation about the school year at a neutral time, like after a meal or on a weekend. You may need two meetings to cover everything.

2. Ask your child to answer these questions:

  • What worked well last year?
  • What were your challenges?
  • What would you like to continue?
  • What would you like to see changed?

Share your observations and write everything down.

[Free Download: Boost Your Teen’s Executive Functions]

3. Pick one thing to maintain, and one thing to work on that you both named.

Remember, people can only change one thing at a time. Maybe it’s baseline grades, or turning in homework, or going to after-school help weekly. You are the parent, so you get the final say, but your teen’s buy-in is important.

For example, say you choose grades, and your teen agrees that keeping all subjects at 80 or above is a reasonable goal. Let your child make some suggestions first, and encourage her to follow her own ideas and pursue the things that matter to her. Then offer your input, and forge a solid path forward together.

4. Set up a weekly check-in plan.

Each week, meet to assess how things are going. Expect pushback, and be prepared to ignore it. It’s a normal part of being a teen. Put on your Teflon suit and let the insults and rejection bounce off. Keep your sense of humor. Teens are interested in the process of problem solving, not just the solution.

5. Create a homework plan.

Collaborate to decide:

  • Where is homework going to be done?
  • When will you start?
  • How long can you work before you start to lose steam?
  • In what order should you work on things? Start with something easy, or the reverse? For kids on medication, starting with hard tasks before it wears off is ideal.

Plan specific breaks and times for study. Ask your child, “How long do you think you can work before you need a break?” That period becomes the timed work period before a break.

[Want the Secret to Motivating Teens? Start with These Three Questions]


  • How long the break will be
  • How you will notify your child when the break is over
  • What your child is allowed to do during the break

The break should be incentive-based – something your child likes to do (read: not washing the dishes). It can be a time to check her phone, get a snack, go to the bathroom, or do some jumping jacks. It should not involve things that kids can’t stop to return to work, like video games. If your child can’t transition back to homework afterward, it’s not a good incentive. The break should be rejuvenating, not another argument waiting to happen.

Identify the things your child likes, and make a list. Write it down so you can refer back to it. These are your incentives/rewards so when the “have to” is finished, she can turn to the “can do.” Then after the break is over, reset the work period.

Identify things that don’t work. Say, “We have Snapchat on our list of incentives, but I have noticed that you’re arguing with me about that, so it’s not a good incentive anymore.” Own it, and name what is happening — namely, that your teen is not following the plan you agreed upon because she isn’t returning to work. This helps her to develop accountability.

Often “family work time” helps kids get started. Your child is at the kitchen table doing work, and you are at the kitchen table doing work at the same time. You can guide her when she gets off track without intruding because you are all already in the same room. Also, in a family workspace your child can’t say, “I need to text because I don’t understand this.” They can ask you.

If you see her veering off track, or slowing down and spacing out, you can say, “It seems like you could use a five-minute break to re-focus. If you need help, I’m here.”

6. Overcome your teen’s resistance.

If your child refuses to engage in your plan, you may have to remind him of the privileges you have given him. Usually this means computer, phone, or gaming. Teens often come to see these privileges as their rights.

Remind your teen that if he wants to continue to have his gaming hour every day, then he has to sit down and talk with you. That’s just how it works. That’s the trade-off. It can be as simple as, “If you want computer time, we meet once a week for 20 minutes to talk about school.” Collaborating is non-negotiable.

Frame it as, “Your record at school shows me you need support. I understand that you don’t want me breathing down your neck, but my job is to help you develop and become the most independent adult you can be. So I am going to step in, and it is best if we can agree on the way.”

“If you choose not to talk to me today, there won’t be game time today. Tomorrow you can do the same thing, or you can choose to do it differently.” Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m your parent and I love you. This is my job. We’re going to connect.”

7. Improve your teen’s follow through.

Use the rule of three. When you give an instruction to your teen, you need to:

  1. Make eye contact
  2. Say the instruction
  3. Ask them to repeat it back to you

Your teen will probably roll her eyes at you or say, “Whatever.” It doesn’t matter. Make sure she repeats it back because this is how you’re going to build this skill. Repeating it back is more likely to encode the instruction in her working memory.

Ignore the negativity. Refer back to your mutually agreed upon plan for success, and meet every week to reassess and review how things are going. Change things if necessary.

8. Don’t forget the pat on the back.

Remember to praise your child for the little things. He is working hard to do this for you. He spends all day at school trying to hold it together, and now he’s home and trying to pay attention more.

His brain is tired and his energy is waning, so it helps to nudge him along with positivity. Offer a small incentive each time your child completes a step. This could be points toward a pair of sneakers. “Each time you get to school on time, you get 25 points.” Taking away all technology doesn’t tend to work.

Work together. Your teen will develop the motivation, organization, and persistence you both want to see. Your teen will feel more capable, and you will see the development of the resiliency and independence that you want to nurture.

[Why Teens Stop Trying — and Achieving — at School]

This advice came from “Organized and Motivated: A Parent’s Guide to Executive Function Fixes for Teens with ADHD,” an ADDitude webinar lead by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. in September 2018 that is now available for free replay.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

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