Ask the Experts

Q: “Why Does My Son Melt Down When It’s Time to Study?”

“Incorporating study skills, like bringing in different modalities or experiences, helps students with ADHD learn how to study. The more active studying becomes, the more likely students will learn and retain the information.”

A teen with ADHD uses a laptop in her college dorm room
A teen with ADHD uses a laptop in her college dorm room

Q: “My son is fine finishing a Spanish vocabulary assignment or math sheet due the next day. However, if he needs to study for a test, he has a major meltdown and shuts down. He seems so burdened and overwhelmed. Why is he able to do his homework but not study? What can I say to make studying easier for him?” — StudyHelpMom

Dear StudyHelpMom:

This question resonates with me as I spend all day working with my student-coaching clients on study skills. That means not only teaching them HOW to study but also helping them understand what “studying” means and that they have (for the most part) complete choice and control over how to accomplish it.

Let me explain.

My students, especially those with ADHD and executive functioning challenges, often express frustration over the rigid rules around how and when a homework assignment needs to be completed. (Excluding those with IEPs or 504s who receive certain modifications or accommodations.) Mostly, they are given instructions to follow with little to no wiggle room to complete their assignments in a manner that works for them. And I empathize with them greatly on this point.

However, I take a very different point of view regarding studying. Studying is the art of teaching yourself information and/or skills. “Yourself” is the operative word. In my coaching practice, it means you have complete choice and control over how the learning gets done. Other than perhaps an assigned study guide, students are usually given agency to determine how, when, and what tools they can use for studying.

I firmly believe they just need permission to make those decisions.

When I explain to students that they have total control over their study tools, it’s a big win for them. (“You mean I don’t have to make flashcards?”) And when I gently suggest that they tap into their personal interests to create those tools, it’s an even bigger win! (“You mean I can make up a dance to learn the periodic table?!”)

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

I can see their creative juices flowing. Writing songs to learn foreign language vocabulary, drawing cartoon pictures or mini graphic novels to memorize ancient gods or empires, or creating a mock website to map out current events or ancient history are examples of how my students put their own personal spin on their study methods.

To your point, the act of studying can be very overwhelming. You asked why your son can activate on homework. It’s because homework is very task driven. Here’s an example: Let’s say your son’s math homework for the evening was problems 1 -5 on page 52 in his textbook. Pretty straightforward, right? There’s no room for interpretation, so his brain doesn’t need to work overtime figuring out what he needs to do. Say your son was told to “keep studying” for his science test on Thursday. These questions may flood his brain:

  • What tools do I use?
  • What do I have to study?
  • When do I study?
  • How long do I study?
  • How much do I study?
  • When am I done?

How to Study for a Test

In this scenario, everything is left up to interpretation. A child with ADHD and weak executive functioning skills may find these questions difficult to answer, become overwhelmed, or shut down, which I believe is how your son feels.

To help, I introduce students to a process I call “Your Four Core.” When studying for a test, I ask my students to choose a “See It, Say It, Hear It, and Do It” study tool. When we bring in different modalities or experiences, students are more likely to truly understand what they’re studying. And the more active studying becomes, the more likely students will learn and retain the information.

[Free Handout: Solve Your Child’s Homework Problems]

What does a Your Four Core look like? Here’s a recent example from one of my students.

  • See It: Creating a timeline and reviewing/redoing homework problems.
  • Say It: Study Group (Where they teach each other.)
  • Do It: Teacher Study Guide (required)
  • Hear It: YouTube videos

The process of picking one of each study tool category gives my students a roadmap to follow, eliminates some decision-making and overwhelm, and even invites a little fun in the studying process.

I invite you to check out our Study Skills Videos at, where we cover everything from effective note-taking to planning for and taking exams.

Good luck!

Study Skills for ADHD Brains: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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