How to Help Your Child with ADHD Thrive in School

A mom helping her son make a puzzle on the floor.

Does your child have ADHD? Do they feel overwhelmed by their schoolwork?

We met with Sarah Abercrombie, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Coach at Achieving Kids, to discuss learning strategies that will help your child thrive.

Sarah has been an ADHD Coach for the past 19 years. After helping her own son through his ADHD journey, she quickly discovered a passion for helping other parents and their children overcome the same challenges.

While parents should create an individualized action plan for their child, here are some universal success strategies she shared with us.

Talk to Your Child about Their Diagnosis

First, it’s important to talk with your child about their ADHD diagnosis.

Not only does this help them define their path to academic success, but it also increases their sense of self-worth and identity. Sarah says, “Parents say to me, I don't want my son to feel like he's different. But they know they're different.” She says that explaining your child’s condition “helps separate the diagnosis from the human being.”

When your child experiences challenges, they can begin to doubt themselves and their intelligence. By helping your child understand that their brain functions in a unique way, it gives them the knowledge they need to push past roadblocks and achieve great things.

Help Them Regulate Their Emotions

When your child receives difficult assignments, they may get frustrated around planning and organization. During these moments, something called an “amygdala hijack” might occur – a term coined by Dr. Daniel Golman to describe the inability to regulate emotions in high stress situations. In this state, children can become stuck in fight or flight mode, and it’s important to teach them to question their thoughts.

One possible solution is to talk to your child about “wait time” or “think time.” Ask them to pause before they answer or react, and communicate the importance of building this “thinking time” into their routine.

Limiting screen time and adding exercise to their routine can also help them regulate their emotions.

Sarah says, “This is a brain that is [operating in an] interest based learning system, and they are addicted, if you will, to strong emotions.” If your child is having difficulty managing their emotions with school-related stress, Sarah suggests working with a therapist to build emotional regulation.

Connect with Your Child’s Teachers

Next, connect with your child’s teachers and school. If you haven’t already established an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), explore how to set one up.

This will help your child’s teacher understand their individual learning style and make accommodations for them in the classroom. Talk to their teachers about creating visual tracklists in the classroom, setting up preferential seating, and breaking up homework assignments into small chunks. You can also ask them to check in with your child to make sure they’ve captured all upcoming assignments in their agenda book.

Create a Daily Homework Plan and Break Large Projects into Small Chunks

All ADHD action plans need structure, and using an agenda book is crucial.

Sarah notes that children with ADHD live fully in the present, so it’s difficult for them to think about an upcoming test or a homework assignment that’s due a week from now. Keeping an agenda book helps them to “focus on the whole.”

When children with ADHD have large assignments due, Sarah states that they can “become totally overwhelmed and not start because they don't know where to start.”

Therefore, she suggests that they learn how to create small tasks and assign those tasks out for specific days of the week. For example, if they have a large essay due in a week, they could schedule the outline for Monday, the introduction and conclusion paragraphs for Tuesday, the body paragraphs for Wednesday, and Thursday will be for editing. This creates a more digestible – and less overwhelming – amount of work for larger assignments.

You will also want to create a homework schedule, and make sure to build set breaks into this plan. During these breaks, consider giving them stress toys, and recognize patterns that help you identify when it’s time to quit.

Sarah says that when you add more structure to the schedule, it helps your child become aware of how much time they actually spend on each subject. She also suggests asking your child to estimate how much time they’ll spend on each assignment, and after each task is complete, compare the projected time to the actual time spent. This will help them strengthen their time management skills.

Additionally, make sure that children study in a quiet, distraction-free area. Plan your homework schedule around those times when your student is most alert and focused – such as right after taking their medication. You should also consider private tutoring if you need some extra help.

Stay Consistent with Your Communication and Routine

Once you implement these strategies, you’ll want to create consistency around your child’s routine.

Communication is also key. Continue to check in with their teachers, schedule regular therapy and coaching sessions, and talk to your child about their experiences.

Sarah refers to ADHD as an “abundance” of attention, but with a structured plan, you can help them prioritize that attention to achieve academic success.

A mom helping her son make a puzzle on the floor.