Learning Challenges

9 Clever Teaching Strategies for Common Learning Hurdles

Learn how executive dysfunctions impact reading comprehension, writing, and math academic skills — and solutions for each subject that benefit children with ADHD.

illustration of a teacher explaining class and children learning and playing together surrounded by books, and school supplies

Executive function (EF) deficits are commonly mistaken for — and exacerbated by — ADHD symptoms. The reverse is also true, making EF and ADHD inextricably linked yet also distinct.

To address a student’s challenges with reading comprehension and other academic skills, teachers and parents must first understand their origins. For example, disorganization may be a manifestation of core ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity and inattention. On the flip side, physical fidgeting may be a sign of overwhelm in a student struggling to break apart and solve a problem due to weak EF.

Whether executive dysfunction or ADHD or both exists at the core, educators and parents should follow these 3 steps to help a student build skills and confidence in middle and high school:

  1. Create learning environments that lessen the impact of deficits.
  2. Modify assignments to minimize the impact of weaknesses.
  3. Teach skills that relate to the specific assignment and minimize the impact of deficits.

Following are three common challenges faced by adolescents with ADHD, and example solutions to build each academic skill:

[Get This Free Download: The Teacher’s Guide to Common Learning Challenges]

Academic Skill: Reading Comprehension

The problem: The student reads a chapter of a history book but can’t stay focused on the content and can’t answer any of the comprehension questions at the end. In this case, ADHD inattention causes or worsens EF difficulties with memory and organization of thoughts.

Reading Comprehension: EF Solutions

  • Activate more senses and learning styles by using graphic novels, supplementary videos, or even historical action games to tell the story.
  • “Prime” the student to focus on what matters by reviewing the comprehension questions prior to reading. This helps with organizational or comprehension challenges.
  • Encourage the student to listen to the audio version of the literature assignment while reading along.
  • Have each student transform one chapter into a dramatic audio play so that other students may listen along while they read the full book.

Academic Skill: Writing Essays

The problem: A student turns in an accurate essay that’s fairly well written, but it rambles and misses the central theme. She thinks she’s covered the material and gets upset and frustrated when an evaluation suggests otherwise. Motivation decreases, resistance increases.

Writing Essays: EF Solutions

  • Provide “external scaffolding” by giving the student a bare outline with sections to flesh out — an essay structure on which they can hang their facts and ideas. From this more organized, sequential, and meaningful outline, the student can create a fuller narrative.
  • If the task of re-writing causes resistance, allow the student to “tell the story” by recording it, using the outline as a guide. This will help the student experience success while practicing effective organization skills that may be replicated on future assignments.

[Read: Writing Essays Like a Big Screen Pro]

Academic Skill: Math

The problem: The student “runs out of steam” after doing a few math problems, and then starts making careless errors, complaining, and getting disruptive — all signs of cognitive overload related to poor EF skills.

Math Burnout: EF Solutions

  • Ask the student to estimate the task difficulty on a scale of 1 (really easy) to 3 (way too hard). Then ask, “What can we do to move a task from level 3 to level 2?” (The answer might be: “Start with the one that looks easiest,” or “Just do one at a time.”)
  • “Seed” the assignment by including one problem that the student successfully completed last time, and start with that. Anchoring a child in an earlier success will help their move toward — not away from — the task.
  • When your child completes a math problem successfully, ask them, “How able are you to do this?” This triggers a success mindset where “This is not too hard” and “I’m pretty sure I can do it!” At home and at school, (indeed—in life!), success leads to increased motivation, better focus, and a brain that wants more success.

Building Reading Comprehension & Academic Skills: Next Steps

Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions

Access more resources from ADDitude’s Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions series exploring common learning challenges and strategies to sharpen core EFs at school.


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