Fact: Students dislike homework. Another fact: So do parents. For most parents, just the mere mention of the word “homework” and we start feeling a little panicky, a little sweaty, and maybe even a little like a flight risk. Multiply that by 20 for parents with a student who has ADHD. It’s not the kid who frustrates us, it’s the disorder. It’s just hard to watch your kid struggle and suffer. In working with students who have ADHD, and in raising a few myself, I’ve discovered some things that made homework and study time a little less stressful for everyone involved.
- Designate a study area-I’ll start with what I believe is the most important tip first. Your student should have a designated study space, that is quiet and free from distractions. This is where she does her homework and studies every time, no exceptions. One highly distractible student I worked with had been trying to get his homework done at the kitchen island, the hub of his home. His siblings were constantly running in and out, Mom was cooking dinner, the TV was on, cell phones were ringing, and so on. No wonder this kid wasn’t getting anything done!
Peter Jaska of the ADHD Center offers an ingenious idea regarding bedroom study spaces. He suggests that instead of pushing the bed up against a wall in a corner, position it in the middle of the room (headboard against a wall) so that it separates the room into two equal sized spaces on either side. Designate one area for activities and the other for studying. (https://www.addcenters.com/articles/the-disorganized-child-strategies-for-helping-children-with-adhd-stay-focused). The activity area should contain, well, anything that can be played with or anything that might distract the child. I recognize that this is may be difficult as, in my experience, kids who have ADHD are often incredibly creative, smart and resourceful. I worked with one student who, when left with nothing on his desk to play with, laid flat on his back on the floor, held his desk chair (the kind with wheels) upside down above him while he kicked the wheels, so they’d spin in a circle—all the while making helicopter noises with his mouth. But, as much as possible, keep all fun temptations on the “activity” side of the room. The study space should be free from all distractions, especially cell phones (more on this later). Try to keep as little on the surface of the desk as possible.
2. Allow Downtime After School-I suggest at least 30 minutes minimum, regardless of age or grade level. Their after-school snack should be eaten during this time. A break after school helps them decompress, of course, just like you and I need to unwind after a long day at work. I believe a break is important and deserved for all students, not just those who have ADHD. It is especially important for those who have ADHD, though, because they have just spent the last eight hours doing the things that are the most challenging to them—sitting still, being quiet, paying attention, concentrating, etc. (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/add-adhd/attention-deficit-disorder-adhd-and-school.htm ). They need a break. Even if they have more homework than they can possibly finish in one night, allow them this break after school. This may seem counterintuitive; however, the respite will allow the student to return to work better focused and more productive than if he had skipped it. Encourage students who exhibit signs of hyperactivity to engage in physical activity during this time.
3. Provide healthy snacks-Many studies show that sugary snacks exacerbate ADHD symptoms (https://www.additudemag.com/sugar-diet-nutrition-impact-adhd-symptoms/ ). Whether you agree with that statement or not, we can probably agree that empty calories will lead to hunger later. As it relates to homework, a growling tummy is a distraction and frequent snack breaks are an impediment to progress.
There is a plethora of information on the web about nutrition for people who have ADHD. And, I’ve heard from many parents of children who have ADHD that changes in their children’s diets made a big difference in their behavior and mood. I’m not in the medical field nor am I a dietician, but common sense dictates that apple slices with natural peanut butter is a better snack than candy and chips. On the go? No problem! Consider a low sugar or no sugar added protein bar.
4.Lose the cell phone-Okay, not literally. But, during homework time, it is not only good for the student to turn off the sounds on the phone, but to leave it in another room entirely. A study by the University of Texas at Austin was published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research that found that “a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent.” During testing, researchers gave study participants tests that required the participant’s full attention. Some participants kept their phones near them and others were asked to leave their phones in another room. The result? You guessed it! The test takers who had their phones in the other room “significantly outperformed” those who had their phones nearby. A study by Florida State University found that “a smartphone making alert noises or vibrations is as distracting as actually picking it up and using it.” MIT Professor Sherry Turkle points out in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age that the phone’s mere presence is distracting because it reminds us that “we could be interrupted at any minute.” https://www.computerworld.com/article/3215276/smartphones/smartphones-make-people-distracted-and-unproductive.html
Getting your kid to abandon his or her cell phone—even briefly–could be a tough sell, though. In writing this blog, I learned that there is even a term for “the fear of being without access to one’s cell phone,” it’s called, “nomophobia.” In a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers found that students who scored high on a measure of nomophobia performed just as poorly as those who had their cell phones by them and/or were distracted by texts. https://www.psypost.org/2018/05/just-cell-phone-possession-can-impair-learning-study-suggests-51228.
So, what’s a parent to do? Since the same researchers in the same study found that the effects of nomophobia were the most pronounced 10 to 15 minutes into a lecture, we can surmise that they will kick in in about the same amount of time spent studying or doing homework. I suggest parking the phone in another room and letting students begin “weaning” themselves off their phones slowly. Start by letting him have breaks every 10 minutes for a few days, then every 15 minutes, then 20 and so on, up to 30 minutes at a time (depending on the student, of course). The hope here is that the student will learn two important lessons. One, that she can get more done in less time without the phone beside her. The sooner she completes her assignments, the sooner she can return to that glorious point in time in which she can yet again be as one with her beloved mobile device. The other lesson that could potentially (although not definitely) be learned is that nothing bad happened as the result of her being without her phone for as many as 30 minutes in a row—a FULL 1,800 seconds!
A quick word of warning: Some students, when faced with the choice between doing good work or rushing through it to be reunited with their cell phones faster will go with the cell phone option every time. So, either check over his homework before he turns it in for a few days or monitor his grades closely for a period of time after first implementing the “no phones” rule.
5. Schedule frequent breaks– I doubt any parent who has a student with ADHD questions whether taking breaks during homework or study time is a good idea. Of course they are. The question usually is more about the timing of the breaks. I’m not a big believer in a one-size-fits-all formula that applies to every person in every situation—ADHD or not. Because ADHD isn’t something a person “has” or “does not have,” like the flu, rather it is something that occurs along a spectrum of severity, I’m not a fan of suggesting hard and fast rules about what’s going to work and what isn’t for every kid who has the disorder. This applies to the frequency and duration of breaks during study time. Plain and simple, regardless of age, each kid (in my opinion) will require a different frequency of breaks that last differing amounts of time. You know your kid. You know when you’ve “lost him”—that point in which he tunes out, begins to fidget, gets sloppy, or otherwise exhibits signs that he’s reached his limits. Likewise, you’ve probably also had the experience of trying to get her to settle down and focus after a break—like dinner, snack break, or other interruption—to no avail. It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. Chances are, she needs more time, or a longer break, than she’s gotten. And, there’s really no sense in fighting it, as anyone who has tried and failed can agree.
Instead of suggesting how often and how long breaks should be, I believe it’s better to let them occur organically. When he tunes out, suggest that he take a break. If he finishes his work in one subject, let him take a break before moving on to the next. Instead of timing the break, allow it to end at a natural, or logical time; for instance, after a snack, after a video game battle, or after they’ve checked their phones. Be careful about the phone break, though. Time tends to get away from us—all of us, kids and adults—when we’re playing with our phones. Just make sure to give her advance notice that the break is going to end shortly. Kids who have ADHD don’t always make transitions easily, so plenty of advance notice with a few reminders as the time ticks down is always a good idea.
Parents who have older kids–high school or even college-age–can still teach their children about the importance of breaks, even though the students no longer need to be “monitored” during their after school work.
If your child is “on a roll,” being productive, or in deep concentration, there is no need to force him to take a break or even ask him if he needs one. The more control they have, or the more decisions they can make (well) on their own, the better off they’ll be in the long run. There is ONE exception when it comes to allowing a student to work without interruption. It is for the kid who tends to hyper-focus or get lost in his work. When a person with ADHD hyper-focuses, he or she is typically doing something enjoyable, like playing a video game or shopping on the Internet. However, not all of the things that students tend to hyper-focus on are “fun.” It can happen with even the most mundane things, like homework can sometimes be. The problem is, in my experience, that these prolonged sessions of work often come at a price. Whether it’s making mistakes, forgetting the instructions, or simply draining the mental energy of the student, these sustained periods of concentration are only beneficial to a point. As an example, one student I worked with was doing a science project. As part of the experiment, he had to launch bottle rockets into the air. I was there to help him plan the project and when we wrote down the step in which he actually fired X number of rockets into the air, we decided he should check right then to make sure he had enough rockets on hand. He disappeared for a long time while I spoke to the parents. Concerned, the father went to check on the child. When he did, he found the kid working away on his computer. He told his father that he had to research something, which satisfied the father, who returned and relayed the message to me. When the child did not return after another long period of time, I went to check on him. He told me the same thing, that he was researching something. I could tell the kid hardly knew I was in the room, so I pushed further. Turns out, the kid was a black-and-white, rule-following kid who had actually noticed the warning label on a rocket when he picked it up, read it, and grew concerned that he would get in trouble if he fired it off. So, what he was doing was reading through an endless list of Google search results regarding the various laws about shooting off fireworks in residential neighborhoods in the state of Georgia! He had gotten so hyper-focused on finding SOMEthing, ANYthing that specifically stated that it was NOT against the law for 13 year olds in Buckhead to fire off a handful of bottle rockets in the name of science that he practically forgot what day it was. So, you can see that not all hyper-focusing is productive!
I hope these tips were helpful. Please be on the lookout for my next blog piece about the things every student with ADHD should own in order to be academically successful. As always, if you have any questions about anything I’ve written, please don’t hesitate to contact me! 770-686-2991 or firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!