ADHD in Higher Education
High school and university can be challenging places for those of us with ADHD. It's a time when we're expected to direct our own studies, manage our time, and have far less supervision to help us do so.
Those of us undertaking higher education between the ages of 16 and 21 also have to deal with emotional development and social demands to go along with the tremendous academic pressure to do well.
Difficulties in Higher Education
Sitting and concentrating for hours on end can be a huge challenge, especially if the class isn't particularly engaging. Distractions abound, both externally (other students, the view outside) and internally (thoughts and feelings). Organising, understanding instructions, and knowing how to plan ahead to complete work on time all create difficulties.
We tend to have issues with friendships at school, both in making friends in the first place, and maintaining those friendships as time goes on. We often miss important social cues, are prone to dominating conversations and interrupting people, and our poor memories mean we can forget important details about our friends' lives, making us seem uncaring.
Exams can seem terrifying. Revising for our them requires planning, organising, and good time management. Understanding and remembering large quantities of information can seem very daunting, and the exams themselves often feel like an unknowable mystery looming ahead.
Pressure to Get Good Grades
Educators, parents, and just about everyone else tell us that getting good grades is of huge importance. Because we have to put so much more effort into school compared to our neurotypical peers, it's easy for us to get overwhelmed and burn out. We often feel as though we're trying our best, but it still isn't good enough.
For each of these areas there are things we can do to help ourselves, and also things that others can do to help us. With some good strategies and a solid plan in place, we can build effective support systems that will ensure we bring out our best — academically, socially, and personally.
ADHD can cause multiple challenges in the classroom. We might really want to learn, but find it difficult to concentrate, get easily overwhelmed or distracted, or have trouble organising or managing time.
There are things that we can do for ourselves, which we will look at later. But there are also things that can be done by the school or university to help us learn. Try talking to your parents and educators about how your ADHD affects you at school, and see if they can try some of the following to help you:
Where you sit in the classroom can really affect your wellbeing and performance. If you have trouble sitting still, a flexible seating option provides sensory stimulation and can help you concentrate.
Standing desks, foot rests, seat cushions, or resistance bands on chair legs can all help. If you're easily distracted by classmates, increasing the space between desks or sitting close to the teacher and/or away from high-traffic areas can help.
Ask for a written schedule for daily routines and rules. Request that, when possible, the teachers tell you ahead of time about schedule changes. Request typed notes or an outline of each lesson to help with taking notes.
Ask if you might have two sets of books — one to keep at home and the other to keep at school — so you don't have to worry about forgetting textbooks and be unable to complete schoolwork or homework.
Ask if directions can be delivered both out loud and in writing, and that you then repeat them back so make sure you've understood them.
Request clear written and verbal assignment instructions, with notes on what a successfully completed assignment would look like. Ask for help breaking long assignments into smaller chunks.
Suggest that understanding of subjects could be demonstrated in different ways, like oral reports, posters, and video presentations. Ask for frequent, short quizzes throughout courses, rather than one test at the end. Request extra exam time.
Devise with your teacher a behaviour plan with a reward system. Ask that they use a nonverbal signal (like a sticky note on the desk or a hand on a shoulder) to get your attention and indicate the need for things like taking a quick break, or to redirect you towards the task.
Tools for Academic Success
Education creates a number of challenges for the ADHD brain — organisation, planning, effort, focus, and following instructions. Here are some helpful strategies to make things easier:
Use a Bullet Journal
Your Bullet Journal can be used to plan out your school days and weeks. Use the weekly spread to detail your day. If your timetable changes week-to-week, you can draw out your timetable each week, or stick it onto the page.
If it doesn't change weekly, you can still draw it out each week, or you could create a "master timetable" on a separate page if you prefer.
Each day, use your Bullet Journal to write any notes you feel would be useful — homework, notices, upcoming events, extra-curricular activities, or tracking your achievements.
When I was at school, I liked to colour-code by subject — red for mathematics, purple for science, green for English, and so on. All my folders and workbooks were in those colours. If the workbook provided was a different colour, I made a dust jacket out of coloured paper to cover it.
Have a "Current Items" Folder
Keep all your current homework, projects, and/or assignments in one folder, subdivided by subject. This is great for several reasons. Firstly, it's only one item to remember to bring with you, rather than one per subject.
Secondly, when you receive an assignment you can simply drop it into the folder under the right subject. When you start the assignment later, you will know exactly where it is.
Thirdly, when the assignment is completed, you have a preassigned place to drop it in the folder to take back to school.
Finally, when you hand it in, you won't have to scramble around in your backpack looking for the specific item you need.
Help Yourself Focus
Take any ADHD medication at the prescribed schedule. Eat regular, healthy meals to regulate your energy levels throughout the day. Have regular sleeping hours and stick to them as best you can. Use a fidget toy when sitting at your desk to help you focus on the teacher.
Your desk at home, desk and locker at school, and backpack will all need a regular declutter. I like to call it an "audit"! If you would benefit from help, ask a parent, teacher, or well-organised friend.
Don't feel bad for wanting or needing a little extra help throughout school and university. These are challenging enough times without the extra difficulties of fighting with our executive functioning to stay on task!
It's also important to remember that we aren't "cheating" by receiving this extra help. After all, I'm sure you wouldn't tell someone with a broken leg that they were "cheating" for using crutches, and they should just learn to walk unaided like the rest of us!
Be kind to yourself, try your best, and enlist the help of your parents, teachers and friends.