Ask Dr. Saline: How to Help Teens with ADHD Succeed in School and Overcome Executive Function Challenges

teens on floor doing homeworkDear Dr. Saline:

My 14 year old daughter just started high school and is having a hard time keeping up. She has ADHD and is (thankfully!) getting support in school for a number of academic challenges. She’s also getting some executive functioning (EF) coaching outside of school but it doesn’t seem to help her much. She struggles to hand in her assignments on time and is extremely disorganized with her materials and tasks. How can I help her better manage her EF challenges so has a better chance to do well in school?

Thank you,


From Dr. Saline

Dear Kelly-

Your question is one that many parents struggle with and I’m so glad you’ve brought it up. The transition to high school is tough enough as it is, and kids who struggle with ADHD and executive functioning skills have it that much harder. When your daughter was little, you probably were much more involved in her school work and making sure she completes her homework and projects. But in high school, the responsibility for academics and time management shifts more toward your teen and away from you, as it should. Fortunately, there are a few key ways to support your high schooler with ADHD and help her strengthen her EF competencies and succeed in school.

Make an action plan together

mom and teen daughter looking at laptopWork with your child to come up with some possible solutions to common problems. You’re more likely to get your teen’s buy-in if you work with them, and not just tell them what you want done. Ask for your child’s input on where they may need extra help and collaborate on ways to address the issue(s). Start with 1 or 2 most important challenges and work through those before taking on additional challenges. Keep in mind, what you think is a good solution may not work for them or happen right away. Be ready to make adjustments and try new things. If something isn’t working, it’s not a failure. Just like with most things in life, supporting your child is a process of trial and error. So keep at it, and you will find a solution which works.

Transition time management to your child (but slowly)

don't be late graphic with alarm clockBy high school, most kids are capable of managing their time reasonably well. For example, if you’ve served as your child’s alarm clock in middle school, it’s time to pull back and give them ownership of wake-up and bed times. You can always be their back-up, but they should have an alarm clock (or two) and learn the value of getting up on time and how to do it.

Similarly, your high schooler should have some control over when they begin their homework. But you can help your child instill good homework and study habits. Leaving homework until after dinner may not be the best option because it leads to frustration, overwhelm, and staying up late to finish. Work with your child on a reasonable after school schedule that’s age appropriate and takes into consideration their other activities and other family members’ needs. Once you have a working plan, support your child in keeping the agreed-upon schedule. Check in with them to see how it’s going and adjust as needed. Provide them with alarms, post-it reminders, daily task lists or whatever will help them manage their time independently.

Break down large tasks into manageable chunks

task letter blocksWhen kids with ADHD are tasked with a big school project, they may get so overwhelmed that they won’t know where to begin. Big tasks seem uncomfortable, scary, or even impossible at the start. Explain to your child that this is normal and that even adults go through similar feelings. Show your teen how to take a big project and start breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Completing one small chunk of work at a time will help your child feel they’re making progress. It will also help them move from a negative mindset (“I can’t do this!) to a positive one (“I finished the outline of my essay, so now I can make progress on the first paragraph”). Breaking things down is a huge confidence builder.

Use meaningful incentives

teen boy holding car keys thumbs upTo encourage your teen to manage their time, keep track of deadlines, and be more responsible for their obligations, figure out some good incentives–together. The best motivators are ones which work for your child. If she’s social, then being allowed to hang out with friends for earned extra time on the weekend is a great incentive for finishing her homework beforehand. If she’s looking forward to seeing a movie with you, use that to motivate her to hand in all her homework the day before. Meaningful incentives, chosen with collaboration, are most effective and rewarding. 

Celebrate successes

mother encouraging teen doing homeworkIt’s easy to get caught up in task lists and problem solving but do make time to take a break and celebrate your child’s successes, no matter how small. Kids with ADHD have a tendency to perceive themselves in a negative light – as not being good enough or lacking certain skills which seem to come easily to others. So when your child gets something right, tell them you’re proud, encourage them, and celebrate their accomplishments and gifts. This will build them self-esteem and in turn, their resilience. Noticing what is going well helps kids become more confident to succeed in and outside of school.