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The Pivotal Role of Adults in Teen ADHD Care

Do not underestimate the effect of ADHD on academic planning, even for teens.

One of the quickest ways to undermine a teen with ADHD is by underestimating the impact of ADHD on academic planning. As Dr. Ari Tuckman, an international expert on ADHD and author of the book More Attention, Less Deficit, says, “Too often, 504 plans (academic supports) look good on paper, but don't take into account the fact that many teens with ADHD don't fully see how ADHD is impacting them, don't want to be seen as different, and therefore aren't motivated to really make use of those services.”

ADHD undermines an individual’s self-management abilities, including self-advocacy and planning. This means that students with ADHD are behind in the very skills needed to grapple with their own ADHD. Because of that reality, students who have ADHD typically require adult-initiated support at any age, until they demonstrate to us they are capable on their own.

Defining the Challenge

ADHD does not only affect attention and behavior, but a much larger skill set called executive function. A child with ADHD can be fifteen years old going on ten when it comes to these self-management abilities, which are the foundation of everyone’s ability to manage, plan, and coordinate in life. For a teenager, difficulties in executive function define academic concerns such as forgetfulness, procrastination, difficulty with writing, and poor time management.

It’s a fallacy to think that a student can handle these situations through effort or motivation alone. Forgetfulness, for example, is an ADHD symptom; a student with ADHD can’t choose not to be forgetful. The same concept applies to careless mistakes, missed assignments, and procrastinating. Grading a teen with ADHD without teaching him how to manage his ADHD does not get him any closer to a solution. A teen capable of figuring it all out through trial and error probably would not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD in the first place.

An ADHD diagnosis almost by definition means a student does not know how to fully manage tasks yet on their own, including when and how to reach out for support. According to Dr. Tuckman, “Self-advocacy presumes that a student is aware of all of their assignments and the kinds of help that they will need to complete them successfully. Unfortunately, too often assignments fall through the cracks, so the student doesn't know how to advocate. Or, because ADHD is associated with symptoms like procrastination, by the time a student feels activated to work on the assignment, it's too late to ask for assistance.”

ADHD directly affects the ability to identify problems, follow through, and adapt when plans do not work out. When a student decides they want assistance, ADHD symptoms such as distractability and impulsivity undermine follow through. Having a guidance counselor or teacher available as needed does not work when an individual cannot plan her time well; such supports have to be scheduled to have a chance of working out. Open-ended supports in school, while well-meaning, are therefore a common set up for failure. Long-term independence and self-advocacy are the goal, but that endpoint doesn’t typically get reached without adult instruction.

What to Do for ADHD in Teens

ADHD is a medical disorder that affects organization and planning and delays academic independence. Because of its medical cause, educational law covers everything that ADHD impacts – not only grades. Fully supporting students with ADHD starts with an accurate assessment of their skills, followed by parents and teachers providing direct instruction as they catch up.

Since individuals with ADHD struggle with new routines, adult involvement is vital. When asked what does work with ADHD, Dr. Tuckman confirmed that, “The most effective interventions involve closer and more frequent monitoring from teachers of where the student is with their work and addressing shortfalls quickly, before they snowball. This also requires parents to be aware of what is due when, and to check to see that the work was fully completed and actually turned in.”

To support students, one broad goal with ADHD is to “externalize the system” by creating habits and routines that compensate for poor executive function. That means through repetition teaching students skills like how to use a to-do list, or manage a project by breaking it into parts. Like any new habit, getting started requires concrete reminders, which are easier with adult support. Only once a routine seems thoroughly learned can we step back and let a student thrive on their own.

Executive function based skills are learned slowly with ADHD, and adult-created supports are how most students reach their goals. Even a frustration like not consistently writing down assignments isn’t a motivational issue – it relates to distractability, disorganization, carelessness, missing details, and other aspects of ADHD. Procrastination and poor time management go hand in hand with ADHD; they are not a choice. Practically speaking, we need to confirm that a student knows how to:

  • Keep track of assignments
  • Break projects up into parts
  • Manage time
  • Organize themselves
  • Study and write well

For the upcoming school year, parents and teachers can support students with ADHD using the following approach:

  1. Promote independence. Give students a chance to set up their own educational routines – but then step in to assist them if their plan seems off base. Check in frequently to make sure the plan is working well throughout the school year.
  2. Intervene early. Instead of watching and waiting, prompt students to problem solve immediately whenever you observe an academic situation that persists or remains inefficient. For someone who may not want to appear different, may not see the scope of their own ADHD, and who struggles with planning, the most effective and understanding solution is when adults take the initiative.
  3. Provide guidance. Aim to collaborate on solutions before problems escalate. For many students, however, more direct instruction is required at first– show them exactly what needs to happen and reinforce it.
  4. Take the lead. Expect that adult support will be needed to maintain any new habit. This means teachers or school staff during the day and parents at home at other times.
  5. Gradually withdraw supports. Adult supervision should not be fully withdrawn until a student shows themselves capable. Recognize, however, that poor executive function can persist all the way through college. It’s not about their actual age, it’s about their academic skills.
  6. Return to step one any time a new ADHD-related challenge persists.