How to Organize Schoolwork for the ADHD Brain

organize schoolwork

Getting things done… frustrating for your child, and often a time-consuming nightmare for you! So what can you do to make it easier, for everyone?

The Anatomy of Successfully Completing Work

First, understand WHY accomplishing tasks on time, and on-target, can be so challenging for your child with ADHD. (And, if you are an ADDult, realize that the same issues apply!)

  • Does your child know exactly what has to be done, in what format and by what date?
  • Does he understand how to do it?
  • Is she capable of doing the work?
  • Does he allow enough time to accomplish it – especially when there are other, conflicting priorities?
  • Can she initiate task-directed work, especially when avoidance is easier?
  • Will he stay with it through completion?
  • Once completed, will she hand it in?

Organization is the Key to Getting Schoolwork Done!

Trying harder rarely helps. Working smarter does. To work smarter, your child needs strategies that are designed to work WITH the way she thinks.

Sometimes it is possible to ‘Just Do It,‘ but usually the ability to get things accomplished depends on having systems that make it easier to remember and repeat desired behaviors (whether writing down assignments or straightening up a room). To help your children succeed, encourage them to become more aware, and accepting, of their challenges and strengths. Suggest that they put on their detective hats, to discover organization and time management strategies that work with the way they think. Here are some ideas to help:

LABEL Everything! Use a labeling machine, like the Brother P-Touch, to make everything neat and consistent. Printed labels are easier to read than handwriting, and stick to dividers better than paper inserts.

Organize By Color. Associate a color with each subject. Consider a sturdy pocket folder or slash divider (for loose leaf binders) in the appropriate color, so there is an easy place to keep handouts and homework. Or use a small accordion folder with color-coded labels or stick-on dots for each subject. Cover textbooks in the same color – easier to pull the right one from a locker.

Create a Simple Filing System. Create a consistent place to put papers pruned from an overloaded binder — papers that aren’t current, but may be needed when studying for finals. Make it easy (unless your child enjoys 3-hole punching, let it go!). Just unfold the crumples from the backpack and stick them in the appropriate folder (using a color-coded, labeled file folder for each subject, as above) or hanging folder. In place of a file box, you can also keep the papers in labeled magazine holders on a corner of the desk. (This avoids the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem of closed file drawers.)

Distinguish Between Projects and Tasks. Kids tend to confuse projects with tasks, which is a major pitfall to getting things done. Doing 10 math equations is a task. Studying for a test or writing a paper is a project. The first step of any project is to break it down into tasks – baby steps that can be completed in one or more timed sessions. Don’t assume the steps for any project are obvious to your child. When you create a task list (see Project Sheet) for each project to manage overwhelm, it tends to limit anxiety and avoidance.

Create a Project Sheet. Write the Project Name at the top of a sheet of (lined) paper, with the goal of exactly what needs to be accomplished. Then write down the Task List to identify and clarify each step needed to complete the project. Next to each step, have him write the approximate amount of time he predicts the task will take. (Consider a space for the actual amount of time it took – this helps improve the child’s understanding of how long things take). Also, have a space to put a checkmark as each task is accomplished – it provides a sense of completion.

For Bigger Projects, Allocate Time. Rather than attempting to complete a task or project in one sitting, it is less overwhelming and more productive to work on a task for 20 minutes at a time, with short breaks. Set a timer, or use a visual count-down timer like the TimeTimer. This also helps to contain perfectionism.

Take things one task at a time. Teach your child to focus on one thing at a time, actually do the small step, feel good about it and feel more capable of accomplishing the rest. Knowing the exact task to work on makes it easier to start. For example, if a child is told to study for a test by reading chapters 4-8, answering the questions at the end of each chapter, reviewing class notes and the teacher’s handouts, she is likely to get anxious. That affects her ability to do the work, either leading her to do a cursory job just to get it over, or avoiding it altogether. But if tonight she’s just got to re-read chapter 4, that feels manageable.

Schedule Each Task on a Planner. It is important for kids to ‘see’ the flow of work and the passage of time. A great way to do this is with a planner with columns for each day (opens to 2 pages). Schedule tasks by working backwards from the due date. Your child (with your help, as needed) should block out times that he is not available (school, sports, family events, etc.). Then you have a realistic and visual representation of when he is free to work on the project.

Build In Rewards. No one likes to work without feeling rewarded, and getting a good grade is often too far away to be meaningful or motivating. So if your child follows the ‘Plan’ for a certain period, she should get a reward. Perhaps it is extra time to do something she enjoys, working on a ‘fun’ project, visiting friends, taking an extra guitar lesson or dance class. Just like adults get paychecks, students also need incentives. This is not a bribe – it is just reward for hard work.

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