Surviving High School with ADHD

Quinn Speir
Published on
May 21, 2021

In my Freshman year of high school I found out that I had ADHD. My grades were slipping and I couldn’t keep up with school like I had in the past. I used to be a straight A student, but now I was faced with the prospect of failing a class for the first time in my life.

When I finally got the diagnosis, I felt relieved that it wasn’t that I was just lazy, I was failing because my brain was physically different. From there, I still had to figure out how to thrive in an environment not designed for people like me. In the nearly two years since getting my diagnosis, this is what I have learned.

1) You can’t work against your brain.

I can’t count the number of times I have been told to “just focus” or to “just do the work”, but when you have ADHD, that really isn’t possible. At least when you are starting out, you have to go by your brain’s schedule.

For some, this means setting timers to try and control when your brain is “on” and when it is “off”. For me, this meant doing the complete opposite. I may work for three hours straight, then take a half-hour break, this is just how my brain works.

For most people with ADHD, they struggle with the initial hurdle of switching and initiating a task. This means the Pomodoro method of frequently switching between work and rest, is a nightmare. Thus, work with your brain by limiting the number of times you have to switch tasks.

Personally, I tend to do things in big chunks, rather than spread them out. Instead of doing 30 minutes of a project each day over a span of 2 weeks, I will work for 2 hours, 3 times a week. This also applies to my daily school tasks. Since I have the luxury of going to an online school, I am able to do an entire lesson in one sitting, homework and all.

2) Your attention is valuable.

Once you begin to pay attention to a subject, don’t stop. Breaking your focus means you have to eventually initiate the task all over again. An ADHD brain’s focus is powerful, hyper focus can allow you to finish your lessons in one go.

However, this often leads to procrastination and distraction. If you get in the habit of using your hyper focus superpowers to procrastinate and do a project in one day, you will get burnt out fast.

3) You need to plan everything out.  

Uncertainty is the bane of productivity. If you keep telling yourself “I’ll do that later”, it is probably never going to get done. Get a planner and physically write down everything you need to get done and when you are going to do it.

Get that to-do list out of your head and into your planner. Break down big projects into bite-sized tasks and figure out when “later” is. It will be a lot easier to get work done when you have to keep breaking your focus to remember the other things you have to do.

Let remembering be your planner’s issue. (Speaking of remembering, put everything into your planner. It defeats the purpose of writing things down if you can’t remember where you wrote it down.)

4) Something is better than nothing.

A trap too many people with ADHD fall into is the “all or nothing” mentality. The feeling that you can’t turn something in unless it is your absolute best work.  This mentality often comes from years of putting the same amount of effort as your peers, but always getting worse results.

You feel like you just aren’t working hard enough, that if you weren’t so lazy you could reach your potential. Needless to say, this is BS. You are working hard enough, maybe just in the wrong ways.

Regardless, sometimes it’s okay to not “fulfill your potential”, not every assignment has to be a masterpiece. In fact, none of your assignments have to be a masterpiece. Sometimes, you just need to give the bare minimum.

Sometimes, you may need to give less than the bare minimum. Either of these is better than turning in nothing or spending all your energy revising and then not finishing assignments for any other class. It is better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one.

5) Prioritize maintenance tasks.

It is easy to get caught up in the flow of work and the determination to be done, but you still need to take care of yourself. Maintaining maximum productivity requires prioritizing what I call “maintenance tasks”.

Maintenance tasks are regular tasks you have to do in order for your body and mind to keep running smoothly. They can range from eating breakfast, to doing laundry, to keeping a clean living space.

Regardless of what your maintenance tasks are, they should be your #1 priority. School can wait until after you have clean underwear and a full belly. I promise you, getting your school life together will be that much easier once you have your maintenance tasks done.

6) Don’t be afraid of help.

For me, my help came in the form of a 504. I get accommodations in school because, believe it or not, ADHD is a disability. You’ve heard it a million times, but I’ll say it again, getting help doesn’t make you weak.

You wouldn’t ask an amputee to run in a race without a prosthesis, so why should you ask yourself to achieve the same heights as your peers without help? Having ADHD doesn’t make you any less capable or intelligent, it just means you struggle more in areas where others typically don’t.

So what if you need a formula sheet for your math tests, or you need instructions gone over separately with the teacher? Some people just need extra help getting through the “framework” of school so they can show their knowledge.

Keeping all this in mind

Go forth into the world. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should give you a starting point. School with ADHD is a journey of self discovery more intense than many people will face until adulthood.

While it is easy to get caught in the downsides, remember to look on the positive side sometimes. I wish you best of luck my friends.

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