Adolescents with ADHD Are Much Better Learners Than We Think!

Adolescents with ADHD Are Much Better Learners Than We Think

Takeaway: We usually think of ADHD in terms of all the troublesome behaviour it can trigger. But there’s depth to the ADHD mind that researchers are only now discovering. Because, rather than stopping adolescents from learning, ADHD simply gives them a different set of needs. So, as parents and facilitators, our job is to recognise and help meet these needs.

When we think of ADHD, we usually focus on the problem behaviours it triggers.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) describes a cluster of traits surrounding adolescents attention and energy levels. Specifically, adolescents with ADHD tend to be inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive to varying degrees – and their specific ‘type’ of ADHD depends on which of these traits show up the most. So we’re used to judging ADHD primarily in terms of its negative behavioural issues. For example, a teen with ADHD might be creative and artistic, but we’re more likely to fixate on how impatient and argumentative she can be at times. (Learn more about ADHD.)

But ADHD also hugely impacts how teens approach learning.

Adolescents with ADHD can have an above-average IQ and still struggle to learn. That’s because ADHD traits make it harder for them to process information. For example, they can easily follow a single instruction but will likely feel overwhelmed if you layer it with more details and extra steps. Interestingly, these aren’t isolated struggles, because adolescents with ADHD also tend to have specific learning difficulties (SpLD) like dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia. For instance, one study found that 7 out of 10 children with ADHD also had a learning difference — a much higher proportion than in groups of children without ADHD.

This overlap between ADHD and specific learning differences is because they both have common roots in brain wiring.

Our brains have a set of core processes called executive functions that control how we do things like regulate our behaviour, remember new information, analyse conflicting thoughts and ideas, etc. And interestingly, science has shown us that ADHD and learning-related behaviours stem from changes in these same brain mechanisms. So, there’s a common root to a lot of their overlapping challenges.

Executive functions are the key to ADHD challenges because they can complicate every aspect of learning.

ADHD affects adolescents in different ways, but it usually complicates the following tasks associated with learning.

1. Staying focused on the right things.

Adolescents with ADHD find it difficult to tune out distractions and focus on just one thing. And even if they manage this, they find it hard to stay focused for long. So, they often daydream in class, procrastinate with homework, and make silly (avoidable) mistakes when working on assignments. Also, since there’s often too much stimulus for their brains to filter out, they could experience sensory overload – where sounds, smells, and physical sensations (like the feel of certain fabrics) can overwhelm them.

2. Remembering new information and ideas.

ADHD affects a child’s working memory, so she’ll likely forget a lot of what’s being taught even if she manages to pay attention. More specifically, she’ll struggle to memorise multiplication tables, spell of difficult words, remember dates in history class, and more.

3. Organising thoughts, behaviour, and life in general.

Children with ADHD find it hard to stay organised. And this spills over into every aspect of life. For example, they likely will show up late for class, prioritise the wrong tasks, make mistakes when sequencing steps from longer assignments, and struggle to outline essays.

4. Controlling impulses and staying on track.

ADHD makes it harder for adolescents to suppress problematic impulses. For example, if a child with ADHD gets carried away with a class discussion, she’ll likely find it hard to let others finish their thoughts before she jumps in. This means she’s interrupting the flow of valuable new information that will help her learn and grow. And this pattern will repeat itself in other settings, too – like when she’s reading a book but keeps checking her phone to see what her friends are up to.

All these elements make adolescents with ADHD less ‘cognitively flexible.’

To learn things, we need to be cognitively flexible – I.e., be able to adapt our behaviour and thinking to our environment. And this involves a series of steps. Specifically: paying attention to what’s happening, choosing the right thing to focus on, staying focused on it for long enough, matching our energy levels to the situation, and controlling distracting impulses. As we’ve seen, these are all things that adolescents with ADHD struggle with, so it’s no surprise that they associate learning with feeling frustrated. And it’s this frustration that worries adolescents the most – because no amount of coaching can help if they aren’t ready to try to learn.

But this doesn’t mean adolescents with ADHD aren’t capable. Rather, they simply have different needs.

We tend to frame ADHD purely as a weakness when actually, it’s just a difference. For example, in a landmark study, researchers made a group of children watch two videos – one an educational maths video, and one a scene from The Phantom Menace (Star Wars, Episode 1). The group had an equal mix of children with and without ADHD, and each child was alone when watching the videos. The results were fascinating. All the children with ADHD sat perfectly still (like their non-ADHD counterparts) while watching Star Wars but fidgeted while watching the maths video. Why? Well, the researchers proved that it was because they needed to use their working memory for maths. And their thinking was smoother if they were allowed to swivel their chair or tap their feet. Interestingly, this was the opposite of their non-ADHD counterparts, for whom fidgeting would be a distraction. So, having ADHD as a condition makes children behave differently

This brings us to our key takeaway: We need to adapt to ADHD Adolescents’ learning needs rather than keep trying to make them ‘fit in.’

All adolescents want to do well in school, but those with ADHD have the deck stacked against them. So, we need to use ADHD-friendly teaching techniques to remind them that they can learn and are intelligent. This might mean encouraging them to move around more, switch to visual schedules, use time-out rooms with calming decor and lighting, or play with fidget tools while thinking. It’ll all depend on your child’s specific needs and her custom care plan, so feel free to reach out to us for ideas. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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