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ADHD and High School: How to Help Teenagers Succeed

Dear Your Teen:

What’s your advice for ADHD and high school? My daughter is 17 and has ADHD. She did well freshman and sophomore years, but during her junior year, she started making poor choices (like being on her phone in class) and ended the year with some poor grades. Instead of accepting more responsibility as she ages, she seems to be regressing to middle school behavior and decision-making. As much as I want to step back and allow her to be independent, I feel as if I can’t rely on her to resolve this.

ADHD and High School: How to Help

Your concern for your daughter is legitimate and completely understandable. While she is at an age where you would like to be able to give her more responsibility, her particular developmental trajectory means she needs more structure and coaching to help her self-regulate. Teens with ADHD have difficulty with planning, impulse control, and sustained attention. That makes ADHD and high school a tough combination.

In order to help students with ADHD improve their focus, interventions that help with organizational skills are important. On a positive note, you know for a fact that your daughter has the potential to earn good grades. Right now, however, she is having difficulty organizing her time and priorities to continue. Here are some ADHD strategies to consider:

ADHD Parenting Strategies:

1. Use Antecedent Interventions

One way you can help is to implement some “antecedent” interventions. This comes from the “ABC” concept: antecedents, behaviors, consequences. First identify the Behaviors we want to change—the ones that have Consequences we’re trying to avoid. What leads to those behaviors? We call those Antecedents. For your daughter, an antecedent intervention to improve school behavior and performance would be to have her turn her phone in to a staff member at the beginning of the day. This would keep her from texting during class. At the end of the day, she could pick up her phone and carry on as usual. Staying ahead of the problem helps us eliminate situations in which it can occur.

2. Target Her Specific Issues

As far as her grades, you should determine if her ADHD symptoms make it difficult for her to pay attention, or if she is disorganized and fails to complete assignments. Using a planner to write out homework and upcoming test dates could help her stay on top of assignments. You can reward her with special privileges and praise whenever she is able to write out her assignments, complete them on time, and turn them in. Rewards such as extra time added to the end of her curfew or other special privileges might help her with planning. If your daughter’s struggles are linked to inattention, you should see a psychiatrist to determine if medication could be an option to help her focus.

3. Use Rewards and Privileges to Motivate

You can also be a role model, letting her know about how you plan and structure your own day and/or activities so that she understands it’s not a punishment, but an important life skill. Allow her to take small steps towards more freedom and responsibility, contingent upon completing other mandatory activities. For instance, you might allow your daughter to earn extra time out with friends in the evening if she writes all homework down and completes it before going out. If she’s successful she earns the time. If she isn’t successful, help her problem solve and remind her she can work towards the privilege the next day. Your daughter will be able to self-regulate eventually, but right now, she needs you to help her with structuring her days and activities.

Dr. Kristin J. Carothers

Dr. Kristin J. Carothers is a clinical psychologist with Child Mind Institute in New York City.