Succeeding in High School with ADHD

Help your ADHD teen survive and thrive during high school.

High school can be both exciting and emotional for any teen. But for teens who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the high school years can be especially trying as they face unique and complex academic and emotional challenges not faced by other teens.

Combine the big jump in academic demands and social pressures with hormonal changes, evolving sexuality, and the quest for greater individual identity and independence and high school can become a virtual minefield for a teen struggling with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Not surprisingly, academic failure and dropout rates are higher among teens who have ADHD compared with teens who don't.

On the social front, having shaky social skills mixed with being more emotionally sensitive and impulsive can make day-to-day interactions with peers seem impossible. This puts teens with ADHD at great risk of feeling like they don't fit in at a time when peer acceptance, friendships, and dating are at the center of the teen's universe. Altogether, this can do a number on their self-esteem.

Teens with ADHD are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse and unprotected sex, while rates of depression, anxiety, and related learning and behavior issues are likewise higher in teens with ADHD than in teens without the condition. These factors all stand in the way of academic and social success.

But these outcomes are by no means inevitable. Many teens with ADHD can and do succeed in high school and even go on to complete college. Establishing structured systems of support -- both at home and at school -- and following doctor-recommended medication and behavioral therapy may help your teen sidestep these negative outcomes. In fact, with the right tools, teens with ADHD may learn not only to better cope with the demands of high school but also to thrive during this very tumultuous transition from child to adult.

While there are few proven or research-backed methods for helping teens with ADHD succeed, there are strategies and interventions that many teens and their families have used and found helpful. If you have a teen with ADHD who is in or is about to enter high school, consider giving one or more of the following strategies a try:

How to Help Your Teen Overcome Academic Hurdles

  • Establish a consistent schedule for accomplishing homework. Set aside a time and distraction-free space each night to help your teen organize, prioritize, and complete homework assignments. Help her stay on track by establishing a weekly and daily checklist or timeline of assignments and the steps that must be completed daily for each one. Break up long-term projects into smaller steps.
  • Balance supervision with self-reliance. While you'll want to closely monitor progress and establish rewards for homework completion, keep in mind that your independence-seeking teen may resist overly close supervision. Rewarding him whenever he completes assignments on his own may be a good step in the right direction.
  • Team up with your teen's teachers. Chat or e-mail regularly with your teen's teachers to stay on top of any ongoing behavioral problems, difficulties understanding or completing homework assignments, faltering test scores or grades, or other problems she may be having in the classroom. Don't hesitate to ask teachers to make special accommodations, such as simplifying and repeating instructions, breaking class and homework tasks down into smaller steps, providing written instructions for homework assignments, or allowing her to record daily lectures.
  • Take advantage of educational laws. You may already know about some of the laws that have been enacted to provide specialized academic support and services for kids and teens with ADHD and other learning disabilities. Two of those laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), entitle your child to an academic evaluation that determines whether he or she qualifies for special support or even an "individualized education program" (IEP) tailored especially for learning-disabled students. Ask the teachers or guidance counselor about these services.
  • Foster better study skills and note taking. Consider hiring a tutor, or ask the school whether there are special classes available to help develop effective study habits. Check into local ADHD support and advocacy groups to see if study-skills training for students with learning disabilities may be available through their organization or even online.
  • Keep the communication flowing. Talk to your teen honestly about her need for additional supervision and support during high school. Like her peers, the yearning for greater independence may cause her to resist the extra monitoring. Let your teen know that the support is temporary but necessary, and that the ultimate goal is to help empower her and help her achieve greater self-reliance.

In addition to the academic support strategies listed above, you might want to try other, more formal interventions that have been found to help high school students with ADHD, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, prescription medication, and a professionally-trained ADHD organizational coach.

Tips for Fostering Social Success

  • Build better social skills. Because many teens with ADHD often have a hard time sustaining attention, they may also have a hard time listening. Greater impulsivity may also lead them to interrupt others more often. And heightened sensitivity increases the tendency for emotional outbursts. Your teen may also have a harder time accurately recognizing (and not misreading) social cues, and clearly communicating her thoughts and intentions to peers and friends. Offer compassionate and constructive feedback about these and other behaviors that need work, and consider talking with your family therapist or the school counselor about resources your teen can use to develop better listening skills, impulse control, anger management, and conflict-resolution skills.
  • Skip the popularity contest. Being the most popular kid in school may be too far a reach for many teens with ADHD and can just lead to further frustration and blows to self-esteem. But research suggests that having even one close friend may lessen the negative impact brought on by a broader lack of peer acceptance. Suggesting that your teen invite friends to your home and on family outings will help her foster close-knit friendships. You can also remind her to return phone calls, to show up for social gatherings on time, and to keep prearranged plans.
  • Suggest organized social groups and after-school clubs. Encourage your teen to explore extracurricular activities and groups that come with built-in social opportunities. Such group-oriented activities may build social-interaction skills and foster greater self-confidence. Ask your teen what activities she feels the most passionate about -- and therefore will more likely excel at -- such as sports, dance, music, art, drama, or volunteer organizations.
  • Monitor moods. If your teen seems excessively withdrawn, sad, or angry, talk with her about what's going on and take every opportunity to express your unconditional love and acceptance.
  • Help your teen avoid risky behaviors. A combination of increased peer pressure and impulsivity can make teens with ADHD more likely than other teens to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, unsafe sex, and hazardous driving behaviors. Establish consistent rules, and communicate frequently about the need to develop better impulse control.

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