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Meeting New Academic Challenges

It is easy to understand how a teenager with difficulties associated with ADHD could quickly become overwhelmed by the increasing academic demands of middle school and high school. While some students with ADHD—particularly those with milder symptoms, good parental support, and strong abilities/verbal skills—may manage the shorter assignments and the less complex concepts of elementary school, many will have more academic difficulties in the upper grades in terms of quantity (longer assignments, more homework) and quality of work (increasingly abstract language and manipulating more complex ideas in their minds), as well as dealing with greater expectations to become more independent in their studies.

Adolescents with ADHD frequently procrastinate, heeding Mark Twain’s advice to “never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” They may also do poorly on tests, be careless when doing their schoolwork, and have trouble tracking and turning in their assignments on time. Because they have more teachers in middle school and high school, there is a greater need for organizational skills. Proper medication treatment can go a long way in supporting your child’s academic efforts.

A treatment plan with specially targeted academic support at home and in the classroom is essential. It is also important to understand, however, that certain higher-level academic tasks, especially those requiring doing 2 or more things at the same time, may develop more slowly in your teenager with ADHD. This is not to say that your child can never do as well academically as his peers—only that he will probably have to work harder with structured individualized systems, strategies, and supports. Because there is no routine one-size-fits-all formula for these aids, your child may also need to rely on professional advice in designing the best routines and your own support, patience, and commitment.

As students mature, they are expected to be able to carry out more complex learning tasks—tasks that may prove especially challenging to your child with ADHD. These include

  • More consistent and sustained attention to classroom lectures and deskwork
  • More efficient processing of information encountered through reading or classroom lectures
  • Mature visual-spatial skills that help interpret and reason
  • Complex thinking that allows for advanced problem-solving and the ability to handle
    abstract concepts
  • Higher-level language abilities required for a greater emphasis on abstract language and fluency in written language, as well as for studying a second language in school
  • Fine motor skills needed for efficient note-taking, keyboard use, and speed writing
  • Better self-organization needed to complete schoolwork each day and turn it in on time
  • Improved sequencing skills to schedule enough time for schoolwork every day, plan the steps necessary to complete long-term assignments, prioritize work assignments, and keep up with school demands

This is a heavy menu of new demands for any student—especially those with ADHD and related problems. Delayed development of any of these skills can lead to poorer academic functioning. As your child moves toward adolescence, pay special attention to how well he is managing these types of challenges and plan to focus on them and put support systems into place as he continues to develop.

Reviewing Your Teenager’s Education Program

Overseeing your child’s academic career during adolescence is easier in some ways and more difficult in others. As your child matures, he is better able to communicate his school-related problems to you—though, as a teenager, he may be reluctant to do so. The fact that he attends multiple classes with a number of different teachers allows you to compare his performance among classes and therefore more accurately identify problems and needs. Teachers who now see him for just one period a day are less likely, however, to know your child well, and to be able to provide insight into his situation. Finally, while the chances are greater that by now you have been able to create structures and strategies that have worked for him over time, some problems may have been compounded by earlier failures, a decrease in self-esteem, the development of behavioral or emotional disorders, or an academic or social “reputation” that may be difficult to overcome.

As always, it is better to initially focus on your child’s strengths, and only then to begin to tackle the weaknesses. If your teenager is having significant school problems and you have not already worked with school personnel to create an education program that meets his needs or considered seeking additional help for him under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504, look for information on how to implement these sometimes vital forms of support. Particularly if your child is changing to a new school or you have not previously established contact with his principal or special education coordinator, meet with one of them now to discuss your teenager’s diagnosis and any classroom accommodations that might be available if needed. If you feel that you need more support in this, ask your child’s pediatrician to contact his school directly.

Request a meeting with your child’s educational team to help you prepare for the coming academic year. At this meeting (or, if no meeting is scheduled, during early conversations with as many of his teachers as possible once the school year has begun), find out when regular parent-teacher conferences are scheduled, arrange for additional regular meetings or phone conversations if you and the teacher agree that these would be helpful, and decide how to communicate about any issues that arise. Discuss how any special educational services or accommodations will be implemented. Arrange for the completion of a weekly report card if you have decided to use one. It is also a good idea to understand each teacher’s philosophy concerning ADHD, and to tactfully correct any broad misconceptions. Emphasize from the start that you are there to support the teachers’ efforts to help your teenager—not to second-guess the teachers or “tell them what to do.”

After 2 or 3 months have passed, you, your child, and his teachers will have accumulated enough information about his performance to review a list of academic goals and, if necessary, revise his education program. Pay attention to the special skills he needs to develop to handle his increased workload, including

  • Completing homework and turning it in on time
  • Breaking down long-term assignments into manageable chunks and prioritizing daily assignments
  • Comprehending and recalling what he reads
  • Listening in class and taking adequate notes
  • Memorizing facts
  • Managing his time
  • Organizing his study area, backpack, and class folders
  • Writing legibly and quickly, and typing efficiently on a computer keyboard

Behavioral issues in the classroom should also be addressed at this time because they can strongly affect your teenager’s ability to learn and the classroom environment in general. Teenagers with inattentive-type ADHD may especially need help in participating in class discussions or seeking extra help when they need it. Those with hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD or a behavioral disorder are more likely to have problems with disrupting the class, arguing with teachers, getting into fights with classmates, or skipping class. Once you have identified the major functioning difficulties experienced by your child, and have prioritized them in order of importance, try to pinpoint exact targets for improvement. Does he have trouble memorizing facts because he tries to memorize too many in a single session? Does his disruptive behavior occur when quiet deskwork has gone on for longer than his patience allows, when school pressures (such as test taking) make him anxious, or when he has forgotten to take his medication?

Comparing your child’s functioning from one classroom to another may add insight into precisely where a problem lies. If he is making As in math and Ds in history, for example, is it because his math teacher has a knack for keeping his attention or limiting his disruptive behavior? (If so, perhaps the math teacher would be willing to share his thoughts with others who teach your child.) Is it because special accommodations, such as untimed tests or shorter homework assignments, are provided in math class but not in history? Might he have an undiagnosed reading-related learning disability that is affecting his performance in history? Or is he simply passionate about math and less confident about history? (If so, his passion should be encouraged and his insecurity in other classes specifically addressed.) Does his schoolwork worsen in the late afternoon, and does this have anything to do with his medication beginning to wear off? Remember that adolescents with more intense needs may continue to qualify for Individualized Education Programs under IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Creating an Academic Contract

As adolescence progresses, it becomes increasingly important to assign your child more responsibility for implementing his own education program if he is to remain sufficiently motivated to follow it. One way to encourage your teenager’s active participation is to create a “contract” to be signed by you, your child, and his teachers. Define the areas you have agreed to address, state how they will be addressed and who will be responsible for which actions, and specify the consequences (use of the family car, a later curfew on weekends) that your child will receive for successfully fulfilling the contract.

A signed contract communicates to your teenager his “adult” role in managing his own academic progress and spells out precisely how he can take control of his success. Teenagers who do not see the connection between their own actions and their academic successes or failures are more likely to experience school failure. By literally outlining the steps your child can take to change his own situation, and mapping out how you and his teachers will support him in getting where he wants to go, you can foster his chances of succeeding and his need for independence at the same time.

Contracts can be created for specific academic goals. If your teenager has difficulty studying for tests, for example, his contract might read

  • Your teacher will go over material that will be on an upcoming test, clearly state the date of the test at least a week in advance, and write the date on the chalkboard.
  • You will
  1. Study for the test for 30 minutes each weekday for 1 week using the study techniques you have been taught.
  2. Spend 10 minutes each day with your academic coach or tutor reviewing the material you have studied that day.
  3. Communicate with your teacher before the test if you feel the need to take the test untimed.
  4. After the test, review these strategies with me or your coach to judge which ones worked and which ones did not.
  5. Revise the study plan for the next test on the basis of the review.
  • If the 5 steps are completed, you will be able to stay out an extra hour on weekend nights for the following month (a prenegotiated privilege).

Keep in mind that this contract only specifies the processes that he will follow, not the grades that he receives.

Last Updated
ADHD: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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