How to Help Kids with ADHD Stay on Track in School (And Improve Their Academic Performance!)

Posted January 2, 2009 by

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If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, you’re probably all too familiar with the numerous organizational difficulties they face. This may include not bringing the right books home and sometimes forgetting to complete homework, while at other times working hard on a school assignment and then forgetting to turn it in. They also have a tendency to work too quickly on projects, which leads to simple mistakes that bring down grades. And older students often have difficulty with time management, such as knowing how to break down a long assignment into smaller steps, or how to approach studying for a test that covers multiple units of instruction.

These difficulties are the result of impairment in what psychologists call “executive functioning. Children with age appropriate skills will be able to master these organization tasks with little or no help from adults. However, these do not come naturally to kids with ADHD. The good news is that they can learn these skills, and with an appropriate reinforcement program, can learn to implement the skills to the point where they become a new habit.

In fact, a recent study found that children who participated in an 8 week program to improve their organization skills were able to improve their academic skill and their GPA. (The study was reported in the School Psychology Quarterly and was conducted by a team at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.)

Parents can help by working closely with their child and his or her teachers. Work out a system for getting feedback from the teacher on assignments that are due and assignments that have been turned in. A simple form that is completed weekly or an exchange of weekly emails may be just fine. The parent can also work with their child in learning how to accurately record their assignments in a student planner.Take a look at the planners at and select the one that works best for you and download it for free.

The next major project for parent and child to work on is to put together an effective homework binder. The study put forth the following criteria for binder organization: (a) a section for each class; (b) a folder in the front for homework to complete and one in the back for homework to turn in; (c) all folders and papers are punched for a three ring binder (no loose papers allowed).

Children will also need help organizing their book bag, which should limit extraneous objects and perhaps include a check sheet to make sure all of the necessary books are in place before leaving campus. If your child has a locker, you may want to go to campus and help him or her learn how to organize it to make it easy to find needed supplies. For more practical help on this topic I suggest getting a copy of the book,  The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond.

Remember that teaching skills is important. Most kids with ADHD also benefit from a simple reward program to help them consistently employ the skills they’ve learned. This can be as simple as earning privileges, such as TV or video game time, each day they complete and turn in all of their assignments. It could also be a special outing on the weekend for a week of improvement. In some cases, you may start out with a requirement lower than 100% of their completed assignments. Even 50% may be much better than 10% or less. As your child shows improvement you can raise the bar. Shaping of behavior often works more effectively with children, especially those with ADHD. When the skills are well established you may throw a celebration and then discontinue the reward system. Remember that continued monitoring and praise for exceptional accomplishment should be ongoing.

Also, in addition to learning skills and improving behavior, children with ADHD benefit greatly from improving how they see themselves and others. This along with help on improving cognitive skills are provided as part of a number of components in Total Focus which I developed as a comprehensive approach to be used by parents and kids working together as a team to achieve success not only at school but in life.


Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program. Dr Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

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  1. Tracie Report

    I want to let you know. That we struggled every year with our son up till the 5th grade. He is in an intervetion class through the school and he has gone from “D’s” & “F’s” to an “A” & “B” student and has been on Honor Roll for each quarter. He is also on medication as well. Without all of this I don’t think we would be at this stage of the game. For those who are at there witts end please contact the school in your area and request and IEP test. They won’t offer it to you unless you ask.

  2. bestboy Report

    boy, so many of us are really struggling. and there are so many approaches out there to help.
    As I go through my own struggles, I will offer one bit of assistance that hasn’t been mentioned here yet. It is the concept of ADHD Coaching. You may or may not be familiar with the term “Life Coach”, but an ADHD Coach is someone who is a Life Coach specifically trained in the affects of ADHD. A coach can set up strategies, structures, support and teach skills to both the child and the parent. It is not therapy and not meant to replace therapy. it is a partnership where the client sets the goals and the coach helps the client understand how to move forward and supplies the support and accountability (regular check ins, etc).
    Check out and

  3. maximac Report

    Behavior Helper, drastic behavior does call for drastic measures. I have tried the stripping of the room before and it helped.
    I have a 14yr old son in the 8th grade with ADHD and ODD. EVERY SINGLE DAY, especially the mornings, are hell and well, evenings are as well. It’s “I don’t have homework.” “I’ve already done that homework,” etc… He has 3 “resource” teachers that aid him daily and he is still failing most of his subjects. We all work harder than he does to see that he gets an assignment done. He would rather gnaw off his own arm than do any school work. We have spoken many times about repeating the 8th grade, nothing seems to sink in.

    I read so much here that sounds identical to what I’m going through. Something has finally sank in: I am treating my son as if he were a normal child and there is nothing normal about him. I HOPE to gain more skills for parenting him into a successful scholastic career. He is so very smart, it is such a waste. Public schools here have nothing to offer my child. I am seeking others institutions. Wish me luck!

  4. jewll Report

    I am the Mom of a 20 year old with ADD. He failed his first year of college. He is starting again taking 2 credits. Anyone with some advice on helping a young adult who is choosing to no longer us medications. I want to let him handle it, but also what to be an encouragement and help.

  5. Stephanie Report

    My son is in 9th grade and we struggle everyday. Many days I feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted and feel like giving up and letting him fail also. Then I realize that if I don’t help him, who will. He will totally flounder and not make it. My goal is to help him become independent eventually. However, one thing I have learned from all of my classes and reading, is that these kids are about 3-4 years behind their peers. So, when I put that into perspective, it helps me to know that it will be a lot of hard work, but he will eventually “get it” like his peers, it just will take a lot longer with more effort involved. We are trying to take a positive approach with him on privileges rather than negative. Yesterday, I had to let him know that his privilege of taking his Nintendo DS to school with him everyday has been put on hold until his science grade of a D- comes up. I am working with the teacher and with him to get all of his late and missing assignments turned in before the end of the term in 2 days. He was not happy with this but we have decided that cell phone, DS, MP3 should be a privilege to be earned rather than a right that he gets to have and then taken away.I am trying to let him earn these privileges rather than punish him by taking things from him. So, instead of saying “you don’t get this because your grade is bad” I am working on saying “When you improve your grade, you can earn your DS” It is saying the same thing, but it is a more positive way of helping him and putting the responsibility on him. You may also need to be more specific and break it down into smaller goals, like, “if you turn in the 3 missing assignments tomorrow, you may earn your DS back the following day” so that they see the immediate incentive and work harder for it. Yesterday, when I didn’t allow him to take his DS to school, boy he sure started working on how he was going to get those assignments turned in (with my help the whole way). Again, from the ADHD classes, I have learned that you have to find that one incentive to hold out to them as a carrot to make them want to achieve the goal you have in mind for them. So, find out what it is that you can dangle before your son as an incentive and then be positive in your reinforcement of earning the privilege of having it. Good luck and know that you are not the only one struggling out there. I have found that there is a support group where I live for parents of ADHD kids, see if you can find one around you, or start one yourself.

  6. Meesh Report

    Dear “Dawn B” I am a mother of 2 ADHD kids with one
    also in the 8th grade. All I can say is…Keep trying
    what you are doing…it will work! My first ADHD child
    is now in his 3rd year at College. My second (the 8th
    grader) has been the same struggle but knowing that
    it did work with my 1st born keeps me going and trying.
    Keep up the strength, you are not alone 🙂

  7. judy Report

    i have a child adhd and she is like a roller coaster-grades are up and then down –she can study and pass or failed–then she may pass a test without staudying. She dont want me to p help her with her lesson and she may or may not bring home work…what are some suggest?

  8. behavior helper Report

    Sounds like drastic problems call for drastic measures! I would suggest taking everything out of your child’s room. I mean everything- leave only his bed and 7 sets of clothes. To make things easier, I would do this while he’s at school, but be ready for the fit he’s going to have whenever he returns. Explain to him the new rules and that if he wants his things back he’ll change his behavior. Here’s the hard part- if he follows the rules, he gets one item back, if not he doesn’t get anything back. He only get his things back as he begins to comply and only one thing at a time, not everything at once. You have to stick with the structure for this to work. Of course you decide how frequently to have rewards- everyday or several days or whatever schedule you see fit. You may also want to give his clothing back in sets (one shirt, pants, and one pair of socks and underwear= one item). I tried this with a particulairly difficult child and had great success, but be prepared for some backsliding as he gets more things back, so make sure you let him know that in order to keep his things, he must keep his new level of responsibility going.

  9. Erin Holt Report

    I am a Licensed Professional Counselor as well as a mother of an 8th grader who was diagnosed as ADHD – Combined Type when he was in the 2nd grade. All of the suggestions in the articles on this website regarding working with children who have ADD/ADHD are what I use with my own child AND what I suggest to the parents I work with in my private counseling practice. Along with staying in constant contact with your child’s teachers, it is helpful to make sure that the consequences for his choices/behaviors “sting” enough that it is uncomfortable and inconvenient for him to continue down the path he is going. Consistency in sticking with these consequences is also a major need. One suggestion: make a list of the things that he will “work” for (things/activities that are important to him right now) and use those as rewards For example, if he really likes video games or his cell phone, use those items/activities as rewards for making apppropriate/healthy choices – especially when it comes to school assignments, etc… Teach the difference between “rights” and “privileges” to him. Withhold the privileges until he begins to change his behavior toward school. If you use consequences, you also have to use rewards. It’s important for him to have an “incentive” to change and to see the correlation between healthy choices and rewards. To further the example, in our house, anytime grades fall below 80, all electronics become “unplugged” and video games are not allowed Monday thur Thursday during the school year. This has really helped as he quit rushing thru homework to get to the video games! I recognized quickly that video games, TV, cell phones were “important” and therefore use them as items that he could “earn” to play/use. I also understand that organization is also a difficulty for ADHD children so I take time every 3 weeks to go thru his binder and folders and throw away unneeded papers, etc…Emailing teachers regularly and keeping my name in front of the teachers helps tremendously so that they know that my husband and I are concerned and involved and WANT to be informed whenever our son has a school related issue. We also have him get his agenda/planner signed each day by his teachers to help him be more organized on upcoming tests, assignments due, homework, etc… We also remind him that if he chooses to fail a class due to not trying, not turning assignments in, not studying, then he will be responsible for paying for summer school.
    It can be tough and very time consuming with children who are ADD/ADHD but so rewarding when you start to see them “want” to change and make better choices. Praising for the “baby steps” they take in success is also tremendously helpful. Helping them see the incentives for change NOW will help them when they are old enough to get behind the wheel of a car or out on their own. Anyone who has researched the symptoms of Adults with ADD/ADHD know that they tend to have difficulties with relationships, work, and social areas. I would rather work hard on this end than to have to worry about the bigger consequences when they are older.

  10. Dawn B Report

    Just to let you know, this is what I’ve been dealing with on a regular basis for the past four years with my son who is now in 8th grade. I’ve done everything that is listed especially keeping in contact with his teachers constantly. This has not helped. Consequences have not worked yet with him. Both, my husband and I are about ready to just let him fail. I can’t handle this anymore and sound like a broken record. He tells us if we back off he’ll do what he needs which we know is full of you know what. Any other suggestions in these e-mails would be greatly appreciated.



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