Each year in August or September, thousands and thousands of students move away from the built-in structure and safety net of home to the freedoms and independence of college life. While it can be an exciting time filled with all sorts of possibilities for learning and growth, it can also be a time of anxiety and overwhelm especially if you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Not only do you face greater responsibilities, less structured time, many more distractions, and new social situations, but you face them lacking many of the previous support systems that you may have had in high school.
Attention Deficit Disorder & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD & ADHD) are brain-based disorder that is typically diagnosed in early childhood, but the latest statistics show a lifetime prevalence of 8.3%. While the average age of onset for ADHD is 7, studies show that up to 60% of those kids will exhibit symptoms into adulthood. Kids don’t “outgrow” ADHD. With this in mind, it’s crucial to help adolescents develop study skills to help manage their symptoms at the college level.
ADHD is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity that interferes with function or development.
How ADD & ADHD Affects Students
Poor executive function can result in several academic problems for students including disorganization, prioritizing, getting started and completing work, forgetting homework, difficulty memorizing facts, writing essays or reports, working complex math problems, completing long-term projects, being on time, preparing and planning for the future, and even regulating and managing emotions.
The good news is that these areas of executive function can be improved. For most college students with ADHD, the problem isn’t in knowing what to do, it’s getting it done. Avoiding sidetracks and keeping focused and on target with the plan can all be a challenge that can quickly derail you from accomplishing what you’ve set out to do. For older adolescents and adults, hyperactivity might manifest as restlessness and wearing other people out, while impulsivity can refer to hasty actions without forethought. Instead of running and climbing, for example, college students are more likely to get up and pace frequently. Symptoms of impulsivity can translate to difficulty managing money and making academic (ex: dropping a class) or personal decisions without thinking them through.
Though not considered a clinical condition, research shows that “hyperfocus” occurs in college students and adults with ADHD. Hyperfocus causes students to zero in on one particular thing. On the positive side, hyperfocusing can help students block out extraneous stimuli and accomplish a task. On the downside, students can get lost in video games or TV shows and have difficulty switching their attention to more pressing tasks.
Studying can prove challenging for college students with ADHD. Three of the greatest challenges for students with ADHD are sitting still, sustaining attention, and organization. The good news is that there are several strategies college students can use to cope with their ADHD and be successful in the classroom.
Tips for Success for Executives and College Students
Use technology to get organized.
Smartphone’s come loaded with organizational tools. Beyond that, there are numerous apps on the market to assist with organization.
At the beginning of each semester, put important dates (assignments, quizzes, tests, final exams) in your calendar and set two alerts for each date. This will help you stay on top of assignments.
Set alarms to make sure you make it to your classes on time. Distraction can cause ADHD to get caught up in one thing and forget about another. Using alarms will help you get to places on time and manage your study time in between classes.
Once you get to class or begin studying, however, set that device to airplane mode to avoid intrusive text messages or other updates.
Embrace the to-do list.
Difficulty with organization can lead to difficulty with prioritizing. Keep a notebook specifically for tracking assignments and making lists of the tasks necessary to complete each assignment.
Begin by making a list of every assignment you need to complete during the week. Organize them by due date. Next, break down each assignment into steps. For example, if a paper requires research you’ll want to begin by finding sources. This might require a trip to the library. Writing down each step helps you formulate a plan.
Break down study sessions into manageable chunks.
The thought of studying for hours or completing all assignments in one sitting can be overwhelming. Schedule study periods (add those to the calendar!) and set a timer to avoid burning out or losing focus.
Be sure to factor in frequent breaks to get outside or engage in another activity to release stress, but set another timer to make sure that you return to your studies.
Figure out what distracts you.
Some people with ADHD prefer a silent study environment, while others enjoy white noise in the background. The best way to figure out the best environment for you is to figure out what triggers the most distraction for you.
If you find yourself looking through every book in your room or reorganizing your closet each frequently, your dorm room or apartment is probably not the best environment for studying. If whispers or the sound of pages turning catch your attention when you need to focus, you might not do well in the library. Write down your biggest distractions so that you can find an environment that works for you.
Find out what services your school offers.
Many schools offer academic support through tutoring and other learning accommodations. Your academic advisor is a great place to start, but be sure to check in with each of your professors during office hours to share your concerns and seek help.
Get regular exercise.
Thirty minutes of exercise a day, four to five days a week, sharpens focus and improves executive functioning. Be sure to block out time each day for exercise and stick to it.
Have a place for everything.
If you find that you often misplace things, creating specific organizational routines can help. Hang your key on a hook beside your dorm room door, for example. Buy one folder to hold your class syllabi so that you don’t have to spend time searching before you begin studying.
Creating systems that work for (and make sense to) you will help you stay on top of your academic assignments and your personal needs.
There is growing evidence, both research and anecdotal, that ADHD coaching can be a vital strategy in helping students learn to plan, prioritize, and persist (follow the plan). Coaching helps students develop greater self-determination and direction. It reduces overwhelming and anxiety many ADHD students feel and increases self-confidence and self-sufficiency.
What is so powerful about ADHD coaching is that through the process of being coached, students learn how to coach themselves.”They learn the skills they need to be self-sufficient and successful and actually strengthen their executive functioning skills in the process. “If you can develop your executive functioning, you can be more successful in more areas all on your own,” explains Wright. This is the strength ADHD coaching brings into an individual’s life.
Another bonus—because many coaches work on the phone, you can take your coach with you wherever you go. Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy for students with ADHD to fall behind quickly without even realizing it. Being proactive and getting strategies in place early on to help ensure success is so much more effective than trying to dig out of a hole or correct failing grades. Consider getting started with an ADHD coach to help make the transition to college life a happy, successful, and productive one.