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ADHD Child Failing at School? Here's What Parents Can Do

May 31, 2023
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    ADHD can affect a child's education in many different ways. Inattention symptoms make it hard to concentrate, follow directions, or retain information. Hyperactivity and impulsivity symptoms may impact a child's behavior or make it tough to sit still. Then, there's the potential for other setbacks, such as social challenges, which affect many but not all kids with ADHD.

    With all of this in mind, the school system can be tough to navigate for kids with ADHD and their parents. However, parents can help their children succeed. So, what should you know? This article will discuss how ADHD may affect school performance, whether kids with ADHD can do well in school, strategies for academic success, and parenting tips.

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    Do Children with ADHD Do Poorly in School?

    Independent of factors such as socioeconomic background that classically play a role in educational outcomes, ADHD has been associated with lower school performance in research. This means that ADHD does indeed make it more likely that a child might do poorly in school. However, detection and proper treatment can reduce the effects of the condition on academic success. Statistics show that:

    • Teens with ADHD are more likely to drop out of school.
    • People with ADHD are less likely to go to college or obtain a four-year degree.
    • Those with ADHD who receive pharmacological treatment (medication) for ADHD are more likely to succeed in school than kids with ADHD who don't take medication.
    • ADHD increases the likelihood of a co-occurring learning disability, which may further impact education and should be addressed if relevant.

    This does not mean that a child having a difficult time can't succeed. For kids who experience challenges, this is just another reason to put extra time and care into finding what works to support their education.

    Do Some Kids with ADHD Do Well in School?

    It's a common misconception that a child can't do well in school if they have ADHD. While research shows that it is more likely for a child with ADHD to face challenges, many children with ADHD do well, or even excel, in school.

    In studies looking at what helps kids with ADHD improve academic performance, treatment is a variable that makes a significant difference. A multi-modal approach to treatment that includes both medication and non-pharmacological interventions (e.g., therapy) appears to have the most benefits.

    Alongside treatment for ADHD, understanding the strategies that support academic success in kids with ADHD can help a child do well in school. Let's talk about what families can do to help.

    Strategies For Academic Success With ADHD

    Parents can advocate for children's educational needs in the classroom, make changes at home, and collaborate with teachers to help kids retain information, make progress, and get better grades. The following strategies tend to be well-received and beneficial for students with ADHD who struggle in school.

    Create a supportive learning environment at home

    While they may spend a significant amount of time at school, kids do a lot of their learning at home, too. Creating a home environment that supports your ADHD child's learning can be extremely helpful during homework time and other learning activities. Here are some tips:

    • Remain patient and help your child through challenges that arise during assignments. These could relate to learning itself (e.g., not understanding a math problem) or emotions such as frustration.
    • Focus on positive regard. A child labeled "disruptive," "not trying hard enough," etc., may start to believe it about themselves. Give encouragement, praise, and positive feedback instead.
    • Reduce distractions. A child's homework or study space should be free of unnecessary noise, distracting items (like phones), or clutter.
    • Communicate your expectations clearly. Set expectations (e.g., "no games before homework is done"), relay them to the child directly, and stick to them.
    • Give immediate feedback. When a child does something well, like finishing a designated part of their homework packet, give verbal praise right away.

    Push for accommodations

    Students with ADHD, learning disabilities, and various other concerns are eligible for a 504 plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974. A 504 plan provides individual students with accommodations tailored to their needs that help them succeed in school. No two children are alike, even if they both have ADHD, so the accommodations that work best may vary. With that said, examples of accommodations used for kids with ADHD include but aren't limited to the following:

    • Frequent breaks.
    • Seating arrangements that reduce distractions.
    • Additional help in the classroom.
    • The ability to chew gum or use fidget toys in class.
    • Extra time on tests.
    • Modified assignments.

    Once a child has a 504 plan or IEP in place, it can be easier to get their schooling needs met. That said, it can take time to get a 504 plan for your student, so don't be discouraged by the process. Whether a child's in first grade, third grade, or entering college, people with ADHD are eligible for various accommodations, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

    Work with your child's teacher to develop a plan

    Working with school staff is crucial. Help your child's teacher (or teachers if the child is in middle school or above) develop an understanding of ADHD. Well-meaning teachers may not always be familiar with the different ways ADHD can present or affect learning. Talk about the concerns your child experiences in school and the classroom.

    Then, give teachers suggestions of what might help your student or work together to brainstorm ideas. Even without a 504 plan or IEP, teachers may be able to modify assignments, adjust seating, or change something else that helps your child's learning and overall classroom experience.

    If your child works with another staff member, such as a guidance counselor, regularly, you likely want to build a relationship and communicate with them, too.

    Teach organizational skills and study habits that work for your child

    Teaching your child ADHD-friendly organizational skills and study habits can make a world of difference. Habit-building routines are beneficial, as are some other practices. Here are some helpful and well-received tips for kids with ADHD:

    • Have a homework schedule. Create a routine for your child where they complete homework at a specific time of day after school. Ideally, parents or another adult should be available to support kids or stay close to them if needed during this time, especially for elementary school children.
    • Get ready for school the night before. Have your child prepare their backpack and school supplies for the next day after homework time each night. That way, there will be one less thing to do before school in the morning. This can be particularly advantageous for kids who experience lateness or tend to have rough, emotional mornings before school.
    • Teach problem-solving skills. Does your child get stuck or frustrated often while studying? If so, discuss problem-solving skills that'll help them troubleshoot and move forward. This can be anything from breaking big tasks into smaller ones, working backward, or asking for help.
    • Consider a reward system. Reward systems can help increase a student's motivation to study, go to class, and finish assignments. Sticker charts, token systems, experience, small objects, and apps like Joon are all great ideas. Keep your child's age in mind, and make sure you choose rewards that interest them.
    • Use organizational tools. Calendars, charts, and productivity apps can all help a student keep track of deadlines and organize activities more effectively.

    Encourage physical activity and healthy habits to support focus and concentration

    Healthy habits will give kids the best chance at learning. Physical activity is known to aid focus, school performance, sleep, and mood. It can be especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.

    The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that kids ages 6+ get at least one hour of physical activity per day. All kinds of physical activity work, and the hour does not need to take place all at once. If there's a time your child needs to focus (such as homework time), plan ahead and make a schedule where they have, for example, sports practice or time for outdoor play prior to homework time.

    Other habits, like eating regular meals and snacks, are also critical for concentration, mood, and overall well-being. Ideally, parents should provide balanced meals and snacks to children every 3-4 hours, allowing kids to decide how much they eat. If you have concerns about picky eating or other challenges, consult with your child's pediatrician or get a referral for a registered dietician who can help.

    Considering alternative schooling options

    Switching schools is not always necessary, but it can be the right choice for some kids. If regular school settings are no longer the best fit, or if a child has had a persistent negative experience at their current school, it could be worthwhile to explore other options. Homeschooling curriculums come in different forms and could be appropriate for some. Other kids might find that smaller schools, hybrid learning, or alternative schools are ideal.

    Parenting A Child With ADHD

    Learning and childhood development are about so much more than what happens in school. The right parenting approaches can positively impact all parts of a child's life, including mental health, education, future careers or goals, and so much more. Understanding ADHD, a strong parent-child relationship, taking care of yourself, and getting help when you need it all matter.

    The importance of self-care for parents

    Many parents experience tremendous stress when their kids struggle in school. Chronic or prolonged stress can lead to mental and physical health consequences, so it's critical that parents understand the importance of caring for themselves as well as their children. When you take care of yourself, you're able to be the best parent you can be.

    Self-care takes different forms and is usually comprised of a combination of factors such as:

    • Adequate physical activity (at least 150 minutes per week).
    • Eating regularly throughout the day (every 3-4 hours).
    • Getting enough sleep at night or getting help for sleep problems.
    • Mindfulness practices and stress reduction.
    • Working with a mental health therapist.
    • Positive self-talk.

    Managing stress and frustration as a parent

    Families of kids experiencing challenges in class might find themselves getting calls from schools, having power struggles at home, or experiencing stress for other reasons. In addition to self-care practices, consider the following additional tips for managing your stress and frustration:

    • Pick your battles. What matters and what doesn't? Think about your main goals for your child, establishing rules and expectations in those areas (e.g., doing homework, etc.). Let the child have autonomy and flexibility in other parts of life. For example, kids might choose what they wear to school as long as it's not against the dress code. That way, you won't burn out when it comes to enforcing what really counts.
    • Stay calm. Parents certainly won't feel calm all of the time, so it is not to say that you should push down how you feel. Instead, when stress and frustration start to show up or spike, take a moment to step aside and breathe. This sets a good example for kids and teaches them to manage their own stress.
    • Have a support system. A support system of friends, family members, healthcare providers, co-parents or partners, and other parents (or anyone else in your life) matters. It can be especially helpful to find a group of parents who also have kids with ADHD. Online or in-person support groups are a great place to start.

    Communicate with your child about their ADHD

    Kids might not completely understand ADHD, or they may feel ashamed. Be open about ADHD and how it affects things like executive function (which may include planning skills, focus, and follow-through). Kids need to know that it isn't their fault and that while it's not an excuse, it does mean that they might need to approach things like assignments differently.

    ADHD comes with challenges, but it's not a bad thing. It's about learning to work with your brain rather than against it and knowing yourself. In time and with positive regard from parents, students can get to know themselves and find strategies that work. These skills cross over into adulthood, so even if childhood and teen years are hard, it's important to look at the bigger picture.

    Be attuned to their emotional and psychological needs

    Kids, teens, and adults with ADHD are all at a higher risk of various mental health disorders and concerns. Even without a diagnosable comorbid condition, frustration, overwhelm, and rejection sensitivity can all be a source of stress for people with ADHD. Work to maintain a strong parent-child relationship, discuss mental health and coping skills openly at home, and don't hesitate to get support from a child and adolescent therapist if needed.


    Statistically speaking, people with ADHD are more likely to get poor grades and less likely to attend college. While ADHD can lead to and is associated with academic challenges, a child with ADHD can succeed in school. Academic success comes naturally for some kids, but it's a continuous process for other children. Strategies that can support a child with ADHD in their education include but aren't limited to working with school staff, creating a positive environment for learning at home, getting accommodations, and teaching strong study habits. Parenting students with ADHD who struggle in school can be tough, but taking care of yourself, talking openly about ADHD, and supporting children in a whole-person fashion can make a long-term positive impact.


    Dr. Carrie Jackson, PhD

    Carrie Jackson, Ph.D. is a licensed child psychologist, speaker, and author working in San Diego, California. She has published over 20 articles and book chapters related to parenting, ADHD, and defiance. Dr. Carrie Jackson received her Ph.D. in Psychology, with a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology, from West Virginia University in 2020. She completed her predoctoral internship at Rady Children’s Hospital through the University of California, San Diego. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital before returning to San Diego, California to open her private practice.


    Dr. Carrie Jackson, PhD

    Carrie Jackson, Ph.D. is a licensed child psychologist, speaker, and author working in San Diego, California. She has published over 20 articles and book chapters related to parenting, ADHD, and defiance. Dr. Carrie Jackson received her Ph.D. in Psychology, with a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology, from West Virginia University in 2020. She completed her predoctoral internship at Rady Children’s Hospital through the University of California, San Diego. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital before returning to San Diego, California to open her private practice.