How to Thrive as a Student with ADHD

Ms. Katelyn Dix, English 12 and AP English Literature Teacher
When my colleagues and I were planning “adulting” programming for seniors, I had flashbacks to the anxieties of my young adulthood. I’m sure I’d been told a thousand times how to effectively navigate the adult world, but I am also sure I shut that advice out, assuming I’d never be able to live up to that ideal version of adulthood. When I considered what would have been helpful when I was a high school senior, I opted to present a session on “Adulting with ADHD.” I hope that both my presentation and the information here will assuage some anxieties and feelings of inadequacy about being a student with ADHD.  

ADHD Looks Different in Everyone 
Like many women of my generation, I didn’t even consider the possibility that I might have ADHD until I was thrown into the “real world” without an external system of structure around 24/7 to keep me on task. Even when I’d been tested for learning disabilities as a kid, attention had never come up as a concern because I was not hyperactive and didn’t “act out.” 

According to Katie Outlaw, our Middle School Dean of Students who is also a School Psychologist, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can look very different in girls as compared to boys. Boys tend to display more hyperactive and impulsive behaviors, while girls fall more on the inattentive side. Because of this, it can be much harder to diagnose girls with ADHD. Some common characteristics that parents and teachers often see with girls who have ADHD are:
  • Easily distracted and may appear to be daydreaming
  • Can appear withdrawn or “in her own world”
  • Gets hyper focused on a choice activity and has difficulty switching tasks
  • Forgetful, often needing multiple reminders to complete tasks
  • Backpack, locker, and/or bedroom are often messy
  • Impulsively speaks out in class or interrupts conversations
  • Difficulty managing multiple tasks at once, and may not meet deadlines with schoolwork
  • Careless mistakes on schoolwork and assessments
While ADHD looks different in every child, these tell-tale characteristics are seen from a very early age, sometimes as early as preschool. While boys are often getting into trouble for their hyperactive behaviors in school settings, girls may appear to be forgetful, messy, withdrawn, or have learning gaps due to their inability to focus.  

Not Really a Deficit 
One of my favorite ADHD-related memes is an image of Dwight Schrute from The Office declaring “I will have seven first priorities.” This gets at something which is commonly misunderstood about ADHD. Despite the designation of a “deficit,” ADHD is really less about having a dearth of attention to give and more about having unusual levels of difficulty monitoring, assigning, and filtering an excess of attention. For students with ADHD, the structure of a normal school day can feel uniquely challenging—being tasked with redirecting our attention from, say, a physics lab to a history lecture to a weight training session, with only a brief interlude between each, can be frustrating and exhausting. And although it can take us longer to devote our attention to a task, hyperfocus is also extremely common in the ADHD brain, and being forced to switch gears when we are working on an assignment we’ve finally become absorbed in can be difficult. 

Finding What Works 
That said, the relative safety of the school environment can also be a wonderful place for a teenager with ADHD to experiment with the different techniques and systems that will empower her to make her brain’s idiosyncrasies work for her rather than hinder her. It was in high school that I first started using mind maps for brainstorming, planning, journaling, and outlining—a strategy that has had such an impact on the way that I think and learn that I hesitate to even call it a mere “tool.” Finding the strategy that will work for the individual ADHD brain is a trial-and-error process, and there is no shortage of tools and techniques out there to experiment with. The goal is to find something simple and adaptable that creates just the right level of structure needed to give all that attention a place to go. 

Our Learning Center Specialists, who are trained experts in executive functioning, teach our middle school girls beginning in sixth-grade Skills Class how to study and organize their time and assignments. Sarah Clardy, Middle School Learning Specialist, has worked with our middle school girls to teach specific executive skill techniques for different types of learners. According to Outlaw, we have many students at GPS who have a diagnosis of ADHD and have found success at school, working with our Learning Center Specialists to find study and organization strategies that work best for them.  

Love Your Brain, Train Your Brain 
As a dog lover, my advice to students struggling to make their ADHD work for them is to think of your brain, affectionately, as an excitable but trainable puppy. Anyone who has ever trained a dog knows that it takes a lot of time and patience, and that it isn’t always permanent—even the best-trained dog might snap at a squirrel or pee on the carpet when she’s overwhelmed or frightened. Likewise, our brains are not going to magically become hardwired to attend and transition with the same ease as others’ brains, and that is fine; ADHD also makes us empathetic, creative, enthusiastic, and tenacious. We should be as gracious to ourselves as we are to the puppy who is trying her best to please. 

There are some ways we can help ourselves adapt to the world we live in, though, and most of them involve creating external systems that mimic the internal systems we are often assumed to have. In addition to mind maps, other brain-training tools include meditation, physical exercise, time management methods like the Pomodoro Technique. There are also some helpful apps, such as Finish, a habit tracking app that allows you to keep track of habits you want to build or break, and, which is for email management. 
Even the best tools will not work all of the time, which is why patience with oneself is so crucial. But with practice, trial and error, and resilience, students can learn to adapt in ways which will eliminate anxiety and allow them to do the most with their bright, beautiful, ADHD brains.