Learning Challenges

Why Writing Is So Painful for Kids with ADHD

Math and reading are likely no walk in the park, either. And it all traces back to executive functioning — our brains’ ability to absorb, organize, and act on information.

Dsycalculia in adults: A college student with ADHD and symptoms of dyscalculia is frustrated while working on a math assignment.
A college student with ADHD is frustrated while working on a math assignment.

If ADHD is all about attention, why does my child have so much difficulty with reading, writing, and math?

The simple answer to this question is that ADHD is about much more than attention and focus, and it rarely travels alone. In fact, more than half of the children diagnosed with ADHD also have learning or behavioral problems.

Behavioral disorders often mask or complicate learning problems. If you’re getting calls from your child’s teacher already, I’d recommend seeking a proper Functional Behavior Assessment to figure out whether your child’s behavior or organization problems stem from an undiagnosed learning disorder. Once we figure out how to help a child with academics, behavior problems usually fade away.

Why is the overlap between ADHD and learning/behavioral problems so large?

It all traces back to a child’s executive functioning. Working memory problems can affect your child’s reading comprehension as he struggles to keep in his brain what he just read, and then incorporate the new information into what he already knows.

In math, your child has to use working memory to store equations, figures, and theories, all while interpreting the vocabulary of the word problem. And, of course, showing his work.

Written language involves a complex series of tasks, all which strain your child’s already-weak executive functioning skills. First, he has to understand the rubric and directions for the task. Next, he must gather resources and materials for writing. Then, he has to plan out what to say, and break down his thoughts into logical parts. Finally, there are those fine-motor skills to contend with.

Many children with ADHD have processing, fine-motor, and visual-motor integration challenges. This means your child may misinterpret, skip past, or generally not understand visual or verbal information. As a young child, he may have trouble writing letters, staying within the lines, and organizing on a page. He may have trouble understanding multiple directions. All of these skills are needed for academics as he grows.

How will I know if my child needs a learning-disability evaluation?

1. He thinks faster than he writes.

2. He can tell you the information, but can’t get it down on paper.

3. He just read two paragraphs out loud but cannot answer any questions about the content.

4. He could do the problem yesterday, and now has trouble remembering what to do.

I hear from many parents that their child is getting into trouble so much that instruction is being missed. She is in time out, sitting in the hall, suspended, or excluded. Or she’s having trouble getting along with his peers so her mind is preoccupied with social worries and frustrations, not academics. Many children who have ADHD are anxious, worried, perfectionists, and in other ways distracted from academics. Plus, some children are highly gifted, yet placed in low-level groups because of poor behavior or uneven performance. They quickly grow bored, and the bad-behavior cycle starts again.


1. Be sure your child has a comprehensive cognitive assessment to figure out how he processes information, and to guide academic interventions and accommodations.

2. Get an in-depth, curriculum-based reading, writing, and math assessment that looks at how your child is performing in all curriculum areas such as science and social studies.

3. Beware of accommodations such as “read aloud,” which may take the place of independent reading instruction.

4. Explore technology! It’s engaging, multisensory, and most devices now integrate dictation and typing support. Plus, it can help get rid of all that paper!

5. Resist the tendency to place your child in lower level groups just because he has trouble completing the work. Allow him to stay engaged with the most challenging academics.