School Advocacy

Your Teen’s Learning Goals Need Reassessment and Refinement Now

Learning goals for teens with ADHD should — and will — shift after the pandemic. Adjust expectations and blueprints with this three-step learning plan for high school students re-entering in-person learning.

Young people group reading books. Study, learning knowledge and education vector concept
Young people group reading books. Study, learning knowledge and education vector concept

Learning Goals and Benchmarks Shifted By the Pandemic

Despite the efforts of many educators — my wife among them — most students have lost three semesters of quality education. I recently asked college students with ADHD, some attending highly selective schools, what they’d learned since the pandemic began. Answers ranged from “not much” to “probably less than I would have if not for the pandemic.” They described boring lectures, posting on chat boards, and “pretending” to do labs instead of actually doing them.

All agreed that successfully meeting their learning goals depended on personal commitment and effort, which is not typically the strong suit of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). As several put it, “You have to teach yourself. Thank God for YouTube.” Facing this, many would-be students just skated by for a year, quit school altogether, or gave it a try and bombed out. Bad outcomes were most common among students who lived at home and attended college online. As fiscally and epidemiologically unwise as it seemed to live in a dorm and watch classes on your computer, living in a college community proved better than telecommuting from your home.

For high school students, online classes were inadequate at best. Hybrid learning, the compromise between social distancing and academic engagement, was judged a flop by students and teachers. We saw kids fail calculus in the fall because they hadn’t taken pre-calc in the spring. Because sympathetic schools often froze grades at the beginning of the pandemic, many transcripts show a math credit, even though the student didn’t finish the material. Many didn’t bother to show up for classes after spring break, seeing no point. A lack of core curriculum, particularly in STEM classes, will handicap future matriculation in ways we have yet to know, and it could be months before we know what teens and young adults didn’t learn during this time. Few are taking achievement tests now, and those who take them will do so under modified protocols, making it hard to compare results to earlier results.

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For children with IEPs, I have apocalyptic news. I have been a zealous advocate of IEPs for qualified ADHD children, but I’ve learned that federal education and disability law is worth exactly as much as a parent is willing to spend to enforce it, if you can find someone willing to take your case. In the future, there will be lots of lawsuits over inadequate services for children, and little satisfaction because schools are barely hanging in there.

What Are Appropriate Learning Goals for Teens with ADHD Now?

The best piece of advice I have for families right now, is “Stop, start over, and rethink everything.” This pandemic will eventually end, but it’s going to take some out-of-the-box thinking for teens to recover from what it has done to education, particularly to those with ADHD. To keep this big task manageable, focus your efforts on three areas:

  • assessing what’s been lost
  • revising educational timelines
  • and embracing remedial education.

To wrap your head around this, I suggest what Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapists call “creative hopelessness.” Reassess core goals and values by coming face-to-face with realities, instead of spinning fantasies about what might have been or imagining what might be again. As parents, we’ll make our own luck in this recovery process, and we owe it to our children to take a deep breath and try some bold solutions.

Meet New Learning Goals in 3 Steps

1. ADHD Assessments

Have your teen assessed to determine what’s gone missing from his education and how those omissions interact with his ADHD. Getting that evaluation will depend on where the young person goes to school. Public schools should offer this kind of testing once classes resume, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Students for whom ADHD is at least moderately impairing will need a full battery of tests. Now would be a good time to get that done. Find a private educational psychologist, or call a university with a graduate program in psychology, for free or low-cost achievement and ability testing.

[Download This Free Resource: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

For teens who are near the end of high school, the ACT and SAT might give a hint as to where they stand. I prefer community college placement exams that are designed to put kids in the right courses at the right level of study. Those tests will give an indicator of your child’s proficiency in English, writing, and math. And they will do so with greater specificity than college entrance exams.

2. Adjust the Learning Timeline

Unless your teen had some amazing online learning, and is also very motivated, your pre-pandemic timetable for high school or college graduation is probably obsolete. The watchword here is “slow down.” The academic race will not go to the swift, but to the wise and persistent. In normal times, you could assume children with ADHD to be about two years behind their peers in academic, social, and emotional maturity. In this new era, you could multiply that by two. To press on and hope for the best will do more harm than good, particularly if essentials have been missed or under-learned.

If your college student experienced an academic crash with online classes, consider petitioning for a medical withdrawal or request “academic bankruptcy.” Wait until school is back in full session, and then return. You may or may not get a refund, but your child will get the chance to start things over when things are better. You may have to press the issue with your school.

3. Try Remedial Learning

Long the last hope of kids who blew off school, remedial classes will provide a lifeline for getting back on track in the Fall — and beyond. Public schools offer various forms of “credit recovery,” which could get high school students out with a GED or a diploma. Depending on your child’s post-high school plan, that should be enough to enter trade school or the job market. The college-bound may need to take zero-level classes at a community college to pick up what they missed. This could be expensive and time-consuming, and those courses won’t count for college credit, but trying to advance without adequate preparation is far more costly.

I expect the demand for community college over the next two years will be off the charts, so plan ahead. If you happen to be running a community college, start recruiting teaching staff now, and maybe rent space in a vacant mall. Chances are good that you will need it. To make it through to graduation, current college students may have to bite the bullet and retake critical courses that they already took online, if those courses are the foundation for further study.

New Learning Goals for Teens with ADHD: Next Steps


Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., is the author of I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD (#CommissionsEarned) and coauthor of the recently released ADD and Zombies: Fearless Medication Management for ADD and ADHD (#CommissionsEarned). Both books are available from Amazon in paper and electronic formats. They are also available as audiobooks from Audible.com.

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Updated on April 29, 2021

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