High School

How to Establish Learning Habits That Pay Dividends Forever

Learning is a habit borne out of practice, persistence, and positivity. Students who approach school as a challenging puzzle will prevail — as long as they understand they are the solution. Here, learn how to help your child build skills that will serve them in school, college, and in their career; how to help your child determine next steps after high school; and the importance of a positive parent-child relationship above all else.

Vector of a growing up man walking on a book bridge to become a successful businessman
Vector of a growing up man walking on a book bridge to become a successful businessman

What’s the secret to raising successful kids? The answer is simple and complex: seeing and supporting them fully.

When a child feels secure in their caregivers’ love and encouragement, strong self-confidence and self-esteem naturally follow suit. When a child’s ADHD is fully recognized and understood, that is when their strengths get unlocked and futures become clear. How do you get from here to there? One step at a time.

Step One: Learn Everything About ADHD

ADHD is like an iceberg. The complexities beneath its surface (including its high co-occurrence with other conditions) are seldom recognized and often criticized unfairly, leading many children with ADHD to develop damaging self-beliefs. They are not lazy or unmotivated or slow; they have a unique neurological footprint. Understanding and communicating that is key.

ADHD and Executive Function Deficits

ADHD impairs executive function — the brain skills we use to succeed in school, work, and other realms of life. You and your child must understand that deficits in executive skills makes it difficult to…

  • …be on time
  • …get started on tasks
  • …juggle information in the mind
  • …initiate work independently
  • …set priorities
  • …be organized
  • …complete long-term projects
  • …submit work on time
  • …remain calm in stressful situations

ADHD and Delayed Maturity

Maturation of the ADHD brain lags about three to five years behind that of the non-ADHD brain.1 The delay affects the brain’s prefrontal regions, which control the aforementioned executive functions and other important cognitive processes. What does this mean? You need to adjust your expectations about your middle schooler or high schooler in comparison to their peers. Developmentally, your 14-year-old’s “executive age” may be closer to 11 or 12 years old, for example. As is the case for many people with ADHD, your child might experience a maturation spurt in their early 20s as the brain continues to develop.

[Get This Free Download: Explaining the ADHD Iceberg to Teachers]

Learning Challenges

As many as 45% of children with ADHD have a learning difference like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, or another condition that requires academic supports.2  It’s also common for students with ADHD to have learning challenges that affect written expression, memorization of facts, reading comprehension, complex multi-step math, and other areas. Be sure that your child understands how both their ADHD and learning differences show up in the classroom.

As you teach your child about ADHD, be sure to separate them from the condition. Depersonalize ADHD when you approach your child; educate and give your child a choice. Say something like “People with ADHD have trouble getting started, and I’ve noticed that sometimes that’s a challenge for you.”

Step Two: Establish Learning Habits for Ongoing Support

From disorganization to tardiness, the challenges that children and young teens face in middle and high school are essentially the same challenges that exist in college and at work. Identify your child’s unique learning and executive function challenges early on so that they can receive accommodations and practice using appropriate tools and compensatory strategies in school and beyond.

Bolster Executive Function Skills

For Help with Task Initiation

  • Use timers, alerts, or verbal reminders to indicate that it’s time to start. Present these tools as choices to your child to increase compliance. Say, “Do you want to set a timer to start your homework or do you want me to remind you to get started?” Perhaps you may even have to sit with your child to help them get started.
  • Review the instructions together. Have your child contact a classmate if the assignment is unclear.
  • Start with physical activity. Some children focus better while moving, so let your child walk around and read if it helps with task initiation.
  • Work in 10-20 minute chunks with breaks in between so that your child can reenergize their brain. This helps make the task feel less overwhelming.

[Read: Where Do I Start?!? How to Organize and Initiate a Big Project]

For Help with Time Awareness

  • Externalize time. Use devices and tools like smartwatches, wrist devices, analog clocks, visual timers, smartphones, paper calendars, and white boards as appropriate to make time (an abstract concept) and important events (due dates, extracurriculars, etc.) stand out visually.
  • Practice time estimation. Ask your child how long they think a task like homework will take them. Record their answer and compare it to the actual time to gauge and enhance their time awareness. Typically, students are surprised that the work takes less time than they predicted. Similarly, ask your child how long they think it takes to get to their first class of the day on time. Make sure your child accounts for things like getting ready, traffic, parking the car, walking to the building, going to their locker, saying hello to friends, and “oops” time.
  • Schedule backwards. Make it a habit to start with the end in mind as a best planning practice. Scheduling backwards for a long-term school project, for example, will help your child see how far in advance they must start working.
  • Ask others for help staying on task. Teachers, for example, can gently redirect your child if they get distracted. You can also ask a classmate to help keep your child on task with a signal.

To Enhance Working Memory and Help Your Child Remember

  • Link new with old. Tie in new material to your child’s prior knowledge to reinforce learning.
  • Information in multiple formats — posters, photos, video, hands-on projects, texts, graphic organizers, maps, and other mediums and tools — help to convey information.
  • “Read to the clip.” Place a paper clip after every 8 to 10 pages of a long reading assignment, and have your child read until they get to the clip. This will segment the text and give your child time to digest information. Also, consider having your child write key text points on sticky notes as they read.
  • Talk about it. The more your child talks about what they learned, the more likely they are to remember it.
  • Use mnemonics. Set new information to the tune of your child’s favorite song, a rhyme, or an acronym. Humor helps jog memory, too.
  • Short water and snack breaks give your child’s brain time to reenergize and reengage with information.
  • Allow fidgeting or some movement to enhance concentration. The more difficult the task, the more movement required.

To Stay Organized

  • A planner or organizer, whether digital or paper, is a must for all students.
  • Color-code and use different folders for each class.
  • Do a weekly bookbag cleanup together. Sort through papers and don’t throw out any documents until the end of the year, just in case they are needed.
  • Keep a launch pad — a single place for your child’s bookbag, school supplies, and other must-haves — by the door. Place completed work and book bags on the launch pad the night before.
  • Establish a homework routine. Agree on a start time and location. (Present them as choices to your child.) Double check assignments wherever they are posted (on paper, text, apps, the school’s online portal, etc.)
  • Divide long-term projects into small segments to keep your child engaged. If possible, have the teacher assign due dates to the smaller segments and grade them.
  • Monitor your child’s progress on homework and long-term projects for additional support.
  • Ask the teacher for a sample of a completed long-term assignment for your child’s reference.

For Effective Studying

  • Practice exams are great for previewing questions and concepts.
  • Distributed study sessions will always be better than cramming. Your child should spend about 15 minutes reviewing for a test the night prior.
  • Moderate exercise prior to studying can prime your child’s brain for maximum focus and retention.
  • Slowly sipping a sugary drink can boost alertness as your child’s studies.

Step Three: Explore a Variety of Careers and Interests

Expose your child to as many careers as you can while they are in middle school and high school.

  • Follow your child’s interests and skills. Seek lessons in music, acting, art, sports, robotics, gaming, and other activities they enjoy. You want your child to gravitate to a career that aligns with their best self.
  • Match your teen to a summer job or a volunteer (shadow) position that aligns with their interests.
  • Investigate the school’s career and college resources like career interest inventories/aptitude tests, career days, counseling services, transition plans, etc.

What to Do After High School? Don’t Fear the Gap Year

Many students with ADHD and learning differences rush into college without a clear path. As a result of this premature launch, they flounder and may ultimately drop out. A gap year can help your child plan out their future, increase their confidence, and seamlessly transition to a new, challenging environment. Most teens and young adults go to college within a year of the gap year experience, and colleges are eager to admit students with such experience.

If a gap year is the best option for your child, work together to create a structured gap year plan. Your child’s gap year may involve taking one community college or technical class, and working part-time or volunteering in a field of interest, for example. Ultimately, the goal is to help your child identify a career path.

Step Four: Prioritize a Positive Parent-Child Relationship

Experiencing success in school does wonders for a child, but grades don’t necessarily predict success in life. More often, happiness and wellbeing flow from a positive parent-child relationship.

  • Protect and treasure your relationship with your child. Focus on the good and elevate your child’s strengths. Give yourself an attitude check-up if you are fixating on negatives.
  • Manage your expectations. You will have to support your child longer than other caregivers, but it’s what your child needs. Give yourself permission to be involved and to do whatever it takes to help your child succeed. Be patient as you give your child the gift of time to help them become more and reach their full potential. By working together, you will get there.

What to Do After High School: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Getting Ready to Launch: Setting Up Middle and High School Students for Success and Independence” [Video Replay & Podcast #425],” with Chris Dendy, M.S., which was broadcast on October 13, 2022.

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View Article Sources

1 Shaw, P., Eckstrand, K., Sharp, W., Blumenthal, J., Lerch, J. P., Greenstein, D., Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J., & Rapoport, J. L. (2007). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(49), 19649–19654. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0707741104

2 DuPaul, G. J., Gormley, M. J., & Laracy, S. D. (2013). Comorbidity of LD and ADHD: implications of DSM-5 for assessment and treatment. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 46(1), 43–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219412464351