If you have a child with ADHD, especially if you have a teenager, you have likely heard from them, “I didn’t know we had homework”, or “I did not know we had a test that day, so I wasn’t prepared.” Many parents without ADHD feel this level of forgetfulness is so unbelievable that it makes more sense to assume the child is lying to get out of trouble for not studying or completing their work.
But often, they are not lying; they truly had no idea! But how can it be possible to not be able to keep track of such obvious and important things? It is simpler (and more common) than you think. Most schools ask students to stay focused for five to eight 45-minute increments each day. Typically, students are given 2-3 minutes between those 45-minute blocks. This is just not an ideal setup for an ADHD student’s brain. We are asking ADHD students to call on their executive functioning skills, specifically their sustained attention, working memory, and a handful of others around eight separate times throughout the day, for relatively long periods of time, with truly little break from that mental and emotional workload.
This is a huge lift for an ADHD teen, especially when you consider how that 45-minute block is typically structured: Teachers often use the first five minutes of a class to review past homework, return quizzes or tests, and briefly review what was covered during the last session. If sustained attention is a gas tank, that tank is full in the first five minutes of class. This is when an ADHD student is likely to be most attentive – they are experiencing something new and interesting for their brain (a different class), they have just had a short break between classes, and their sustained attention has not yet been overtaxed.
Unfortunately, that first five minutes is not where all the most important information and to-dos are passed to students. More often, it is the last five minutes when homework, tests, and quizzes are assigned, or students are notified or reminded. This is the most difficult part of the class for ADHD students, and the block of time they are most likely to struggle to maintain their sustained attention. They have already used up their finite amount of attention trying to be present and learning the material. Now, it is the last five minutes, and an ADHD student is essentially out of gas – they have run out of sustained attention and are unable to keep track of all that important information coming their way.
The good news is there are some simple accommodations that ADHD students and their parents can ask for to prevent this from happening in the future. Working with teachers to give your student the assignment at the beginning of class (for example, leaving a post-it on the student’s desk with the assignment information or upcoming test date) can dramatically mitigate the number of times our children miss important information because their sustained attention tank is running on empty.
Another helpful accommodation is that teachers can reserve a seat for your child in the front row of the class and use non-verbal cues to keep the student engaged just before important announcements. This can be done simply by tapping the desk or the shoulder of the student as the teacher passes by during a lesson. These are small gestures unlikely to be noticed by the student’s peers, but they can make a significant difference in drawing the student back to attention for the last few minutes of class.
Students can also ask to be allowed to use their computer/phone/wearable device during class. This allows them to create an alarm or alert system to draw their attention back to the class during those last few minutes when important information is being disseminated.
By communicating with teachers about your child’s sustained attention, you can help set your child up for success when it comes to being prepared for those important assignments. Your student will feel more prepared and confident about completing their work, and their attitude – and their grades – will greatly improve!
ADHD & Executive Functions Coach