The following is adapted from a talk that I recently gave for CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD, an organization whose mission is to improve the lives of people affected by ADHD) on the subject of Creating Structure to Help Your Teens and Preteens with ADHD Get Schoolwork Done at Home. I am dividing it into three installments. The first is about The Value of Structure. Here goes:

As a classroom rebbi for teens - and often the jumpier ones - there are all different types of days in the classroom. They range from a highly engaged - even electric - atmosphere, to, “didn’t that guy say he was going to the bathroom half an hour ago?” to, “I’m an ADHD coach. I could’ve sworn I know what to do in these situations…”

During these trying times, schooling is a challenge for everyone. Parents need to find enough devices and places around the house for kids to go to class remotely - all the while tending to their own careers and household responsibilities. Teachers need to suddenly learn how to engage a class over a computer screen. Students need to adapt to school without its natural structure and the presence of their friends. Teens or preteens with ADHD who struggle in the classroom may struggle all the more so trying to do work at home - without the safety net of the school setting.

Helping your child with ADHD structure their day can make a big difference in their scholastic productivity, as well as help them develop valuable life skills. Here is why:

ADHD does not only impact attention and hyperactivity, as the name may lead one to think. Many experts note that in this regard, as well as others, ADHD is actually a misnomer. (In fact, in a talk entitled “The Lesser Known Symptoms of ADHD,” I list over fifteen behaviors that are symptomatic of ADHD.) Rather, ADHD impacts the brain in a broader way. One of the areas in which the ADHD brain differs from that of its non-ADHD counterparts is that in the ADHD brain, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed.

The prefrontal cortex is the seat of the brain’s executive function. The executive function of the brain is like the chief executive of a company. It uses stored information to make informed decisions, plan for the future, and execute those plans in an organized way. The ADHD brain struggles to retrieve stored information in making decisions, struggles to plan for the future, and struggles to design or execute plans in an organized way.

The particular challenges that impact getting homework done are the challenges of time management and task management:

The ADHD brain struggles to manage time in two ways. (It is important to note that not every ADHD brain has every symptom of ADHD.) One is a lack of awareness of time in planning - not realizing how long an activity will take. This leads to planning that imagines more tasks being accomplished than time will practically allow. The other is lack of awareness of passing time - more time going by than they realized while engaged in a particular activity.

Let us take an example. Your child with ADHD may think that in two hours there is enough time to study for a test, check social media, run to the grocery store for you, take a shower, eat supper, and call Grandma. The rude awakening - with no advanced planning - will likely take place when the two hours pass and fewer than half of these activities have been done (or even started, in all likelihood).

The challenge of task management refers to a difficulty in prioritizing tasks. This means that while the executive function usually enables one with a number of tasks before them to do those tasks in an order based on importance or efficiency, the ADHD brain struggles to do this. This may mean getting caught up in an unimportant task while a deadline passes on an important one.

The effect these challenges can have on getting schoolwork done at home is clear. A teen may sincerely expect to accomplish a great deal more than there is actually time to do, and may get caught up in the least important (though most interesting) task rather than doing their schoolwork.

Helping your child structure the day removes the burden of executive function from your child. The challenges of appreciating how much time each task will take and prioritizing different tasks has been addressed. They now have an itinerary of what to do and when to do it. (In the spirit of full disclosure, this does not yet get you “home free.” You probably know that already. Other issues will also be addressed. Hang in there. We got this.)

Some good news: Although the ADHD brain struggles with executive function, it can be taught these skills. The investment you make to help your child structure their day now can help them learn these valuable skills for life!

Part 2 will address How to be the Parent You Need to be in Order to Help Effectively. Part 3 will address Practical Strategies in Creating Structure. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!