10 Tips for Studying With ADD from An ADD Teacher

Let me cut to the chase. I have ADD. And... I am compulsively organized. Some people, when they learn that I have ADD, suddenly discount my organizational tendencies. It’s compulsive, they joke. It’s because of the drugs, they say. So that’s why you are always bouncing off the walls, they laugh. All these years later, I remain astonished at the frequency of these attitudes. The most difficult part of ADD is managing what other people think about it. The best thing that ever happened was the day I stopped caring.

My first advice to students with ADD is to own it. It’s not some weird behavioral thing, any more than having diabetes. It’s no more fundamental to who you are than red hair, blue eyes, being well-endowed or over six feet. Society has lots of ideas about those things, but the person with that attribute remains a complex person with a lot more going on than that. Having ADD is only a part of who you are. It’s also a great thing once you learn why and how.

Medication for ADD is like sneakers. It means you can run, but not that you know how to train for a marathon. People expect that an ADD diagnosis and medication will make someone focus. It won’t unless they learn how to train their minds overall.

Of course, all studying tips start by recommending focus. Great! But…How? What follows are suggestions that helped me from high school through my PhD, and that I developed working with others. Part of the process of learning how to learn is learning who you are, how you think, what you like. It takes time.

Fortunately, I have found that students who learn how to manage their ADD in school often become tremendously successful at work, because they know how to approach whatever work they are given better than others who never thought about work at all, who simply did what they were told. Students with ADD become creative, managerial, and entrepreneurial. They see how to connect what others don’t. They observe opportunities where others aren’t looking. It all starts with some extra time on a school day afternoon, doing homework.

  1. Focus- No one can focus for four hours straight. Most can’t even do an hour. Any attempt at extended work is why people pretend they aren’t taking breaks by checking their phone/social media/news/etc. Depending on the kind of homework, I suggest picking a 20-minute or a 45-minute block of time. Set a timer. When it rings, write a sentence on a scrap piece of paper about the most recent thought as a reminder for when you return. Take a 5-10 minute break. Move away from the desk, walk around, lounge on the sofa, go to the bathroom. When the break timer rings, return to focusing. Repeat. Most teachers break up class time into different types of activities for this reason.
  2. Other thoughts- While focused, ADD students may nevertheless think about other assignments, what someone said earlier, or how to reply later, a form that must be signed, the change in the sports schedule, etc. This is why post-it notes exist. Jot down every thought, then get back to work. Complete sentences are not necessary, but putting a word or two down will be a reminder for later, and allow your mind to release it. Then keep doing the task at hand. This is also true of becoming fixated on a thought. Write it down. Move on. Write it down again. Move on again. The activity of writing it down releases its hold on the busy brain.
  3. Not liking it- Subjects you don’t like are a challenge for the easily distracted mind. Fact 1- it will be over sooner if you don’t postpone. Fact 2- doing things you don’t like will never end. Fact 3- there are usually dire repercussions for avoiding unpleasant tasks (failing exam or class, not getting into college, embarrassment when everyone else knows what you don’t, being removed from a sports team, being grounded, etc). List them. Keep them in eyesight while doing unpleasant activities as motivation. It might even make you laugh.
  4. Work time- Any distraction is the enemy. It’s true. I wish it weren’t. More so than for other people, the chime of a text, a web page open to email, a news update on the computer, a younger sibling playing, or anything else will rupture focus for those with ADD. Homework takes much less time if is the only activity. Classroom disruptions, despite every teacher, are all too frequent. Use the post-its to manage them.
  5. The book makes no sense- Sometimes, this is true. Most of the time, the book makes sense if you are willing to think more like the book. In that case, learning to read (link here) or getting a tutor can make a huge difference. Students with ADD are more likely to struggle with awkwardly written or organized textbooks because they are already struggling to understand how to think like others and it simply does not make sense to try to think like a disorganized text.
  6. The teacher makes no sense- When the teacher isn’t super clear and compartmentalized, students with ADD are baffled. Rightly so, too. Most teachers try to start class by writing on the board the plan of events; if they don’t, this can be a helpful suggestion during a parent-teacher conference. Just as with PPT audiences, students focus better when they know where they are in the presentation of information. Being given an outline of what to expect at the beginning helps separate and connect the information.
  7. Taking notes- The one problem with computers is their verbal and linear approach. Notes need to flow. Arrows, connections, columns and pictures can help information make more sense. Writing notes by hand is key to students with ADD who often need to lay out information in ways that aren’t suited to a computer or even a lined page. Tools, like digital pens, make transferring handwritten information into a computer file much easier. I recommend these for all ADD students so that they have their paper notes, and the back-up as well.
  8. Holding on to information- Somehow, while reading or studying, the information made sense, but it disappeared later. This is true of most students but worse for students with ADD. Start every work assignment by jotting down an answer to the question: what do I think I am supposed to learn by doing this and how does it connect to what I already know? Conclude with, what did I learn and what questions remain? Do the last part without revisiting any notes. This alone will highlight what is known and what is not. Writing down the answers to these questions is necessary because it also provides a ready answer when a teacher wants to review the material. Sometimes students with ADD blurt out answers that weren’t exactly what they had intended, and others never speak because it is too difficult to organize the information. Writing down what the work seems to be about helps overcome that hurdle.
  9. Organization- Everyone I know with ADD has multiple organization systems for keeping track of work and activities. These systems are maddening to others. These are the people who have computer calendars and paper diaries, whose computer files defy explanation, and who have reminders set on their phone, written on color-coded notes, and a string tied around their finger. The burden of tracking all these systems means, initially, students don’t. Over time the person with ADD learns how. A few minutes every morning or night to gather everything for the next day is truly important. Very few people remember everything when scrambling. Eventually students learn to do this before leaving school, too. Check lists can help. In the meantime: patience. The right combination of tools will develop.
  10. Rewards- Everyone deserves rewards. Figuring out a rewards system, even one that varies by task or over time, helps motivate the inevitable challenges of learning how to cope with a world that doesn’t think like someone with ADD.

And the main thing to remember. Own your ADD. Discover it. Figure your own way through it. Figuring out your own way to make everything work will help you for your entire lifetime. The fact that you are thinking about this now means you are already more focussed on crucial life skills than the whole crowd of folks who haven’t begun to think about it, but will have to someday as well.

Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing.

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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