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ADHD and Homework Struggles

ADHD and Homework Struggles

Posted November 10, 2023

All kids struggle with completing homework at some time or another. Kids with ADHD have an especially difficult time getting organized, getting started, and staying focused until the end. ADHD is essentially a deficit in executive functioning. Executive functions are the skills needed to succeed in school and life, like organization, emotional regulation, task initiation, goal setting, and time management.

An interesting fact about executive functioning skills is that no one is born with them. Everyone must be taught these skills. So when your son is struggling, remind yourself that your son has not developed those skills yet, and there is still hope. Below are four questions you may have asked while helping your son with homework, followed by ideas on how you can help your son develop the skills needed to be successful in school and life. 

ADHD and homework
  1. Where is it?

    Is your son having trouble keeping track of his supplies? Are you afraid to open his backpack for fear of the mess you will find? Is he hurting his average because he doesn’t turn in assignments – even if they are completed?

    The key is to treat organization like a subject. Before starting homework, take a few minutes to get organized. Start by going through your son’s backpack to unpack the items he will need and put papers in the correct section of his binder. If he struggles to file papers in a 3-ring binder, try an accordion folder instead and teach him how to use it properly. Taking time to make things neat can go a long way. 

    Develop routines. Have a designated place for his backpack. You may need to keep a box near the front door where he places the things he needs to remember to take to school the next day. This isn’t storage; it holds what is necessary for tomorrow (e.g., bookbag, sports equipment, etc.).

    Pro-tip: Plug in a computer charger that will reach the box so computers stay with his bag.

    organized backpack
  2. Have you even started your homework?

    One of the executive functions that kids with ADHD struggle with is task initiation. As parents, we become frustrated that it takes our children so long to begin working. We attribute it to procrastination, laziness, or even defiance. These are character judgments that don’t help anyone. Boys with ADHD feel overwhelmed easily. They have trouble with the concept of time and perceive tasks larger than they are. They often want to do the task but don’t see how to start.

    To help children who procrastinate, change the approach. Make starting homework easier by using one of these two strategies:

    • By task: Pick one small task that your child can do to get started. If assigned an essay, have him begin by writing the title page. If given a math worksheet with 20 problems, get him to complete the first two — then follow up with a short break.
    • By time: Some children work better using a timer. Help him set a 3-7 minute goal to focus on his work. Once time is up, require him to take a break – walk a lap around the living room or do a quick stretch.

      Pro tip: Never ask for more than 10 minutes. It is better to have shorter periods of focus time so he is successful. Finishing homework is like eating an elephant. It is done one small bite at a time.
  3. Why are we having another meltdown over homework?

    One of the things kids with ADHD experience that others often don’t is emotional hyperarousal. This comes across as intense passion or an overreaction to seemingly small things. You may see this when your son cries or lashes out during homework time. When this happens, his amygdala (the brain's emotional center) is on fire, overriding his prefrontal cortex, making him less able to focus on homework or reason his way through problems. His brain is in a fight-or-flight response. To help him, you need to deal with his brain being flooded with cortisol (the stress hormone). 

    Yelling at him to ‘buckle down’ isn’t going to work. Trying to reason with your son when he is in this state isn’t going to work either. The best strategy is to disengage. For boys, one of the best ways to help regain their senses is to remove them from the stressor and involve physical movement. Take a short break. Going to wash his hands or brush his teeth is usually enough time and space to calm down. Only when he is calm can he think rationally. To teach him the executive skill of emotional regulation, find a time later to discuss how his body felt leading up to and during the meltdown. Have him come up with words to identify the feelings and words to express his need for a break BEFORE this happens in the future. Boys often need help learning the language to describe feelings.

    emotional regulation
  4. Are you trying to make me crazy?

    Lastly, if your household’s happiness is suffering due to regular fights over homework, evaluate how to keep schoolwork separate from the home. Use Homework Club after school or find an affordable tutor to assist your son. Contact Dr. Atkerson for suggestions and to see if academic accommodations would be appropriate.

In moments of overwhelm, take a gentle pause. Childhood is fleeting, and our children grow up swiftly. Soon enough, they’ll venture beyond our homes, returning only for occasional visits.

For more information, please reach out to Patrick Atkerson at San Antonio Academy.

About the Author

Patrick Atkerson, PhD, is SAA's Director of Curriculum and Student Support. He has worked as a certified teacher for more than two decades in both public and private schools teaching students in grades 3rd through 8th. Patrick has received many awards and certificates through his teaching career and brings with him a wealth of knowledge in understanding schools, children, families, and how they interrelate. Patrick holds a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, a Master of Arts in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum Design, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Education. 

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