Math strategies and writing tips for children with ADHD, dyscalculia and dysgraphia
“Just sitting down to focus on math homework is a battle.”
“I feel like I’m always nagging my child about his writing homework!”
As most parents know all too well, math and writing are complex subjects made infinitely more difficult by ADHD symptoms, such as difficulty maintaining concentration and mental effort. Math and writing also require an extended working memory or the ability to mentally juggle multiple pieces of information to complete a task. And working memory deficits, as we know, are common in ADHD.
These unique barriers to learning require equally innovative strategies and techniques to effectively improve your child’s math and writing performance, build confidence in school, and reduce home frustration on all sides. Here are some of my favorites.
Math strategies for students with ADHD
1. Address learning gaps
Mathematics is cumulative. A child with ADHD can be a “Swiss cheese student” if they have gaps in their learning. With incomplete basics, they might get lost and frustrated as they try to learn advanced concepts. Math avoidance and anxiety usually follow.
- Talk to the teacher to understand where your child is struggling the most. Reinforce these skills at home. (Depending on your child’s needs and grades, hiring a tutor Maybe better.)
- Good old-fashioned practice. Math textbooks that emphasize repetition are great for building skills and building confidence over the summer. A few minutes a day is enough. Avoid workbooks that outline skills your child hasn’t seen.
- Math websites and apps also make it possible to increase skills at the user’s own pace. Some favourites:
[Get This Free Download: Proven Homework Help for Kids with ADHD]
2. Revisit Basic Homework and Study Habits
Strong homework and study habits help close learning gaps or prevent them from forming. If math is difficult for your child, start by teaching them to do the following:
- Refer to the course notes. Ask your child to review examples of similar math problems they’ve solved before if they get stuck on their homework. Too often, students with ADHD operate on an “I know it or I don’t know it” mentality, and they give up when they see something new. Reviewing past work will instill a growth mindset and teach your child about self-sufficiency.
- Compare your notes with your classmates. Chat with friends to fill in the gaps and reinforce learning, especially if your child’s grades are unreliable. (The Cornell Notes system, I found, works well for students with ADHD.)
- Create and take practice tests study for the next exams. Looking at a study guide or class notes does not count as “studying.”
- Draw word problems. Visuals can help your child understand the question and find an answer.
- Use graph paper to keep numbers and lines organized, which can help eliminate careless errors.
3. Practice math outside of the classroom
Keep your child’s math skills up to date by highlighting all the everyday situations where math helps. Some ideas: Ask your child to…
- …measure or chop ingredients for meals.
- … calculate the prices according to the indicated discounts.
- … write the grocery list and estimate the total.
- … guess the tip after dining out.
Go further with every situation. Ask things like:
- Is a three-quarter cup of flour closer to zero or one?
- What would 25% of the bill correspond to?
[Read: 10 Fun Ways to Keep Math Skills Sharp]
Writing tips for students with ADHD
Writing is a multi-step, multi-faceted process that requires students to think about grammar and punctuation; spelling; clarity; structure; and vocabulary – not to mention understanding and responding fully to the prompt. This is why writing can be so overwhelming for many students with ADHD.
1. Organize your thoughts to reduce overload
- Graphic organizers (like Venn diagrams and flowcharts) are visual frameworks that show relationships between things. These tools are great for externalizing ideas, creating outlines, and giving working memory muscles a break.
- Act as a scribe. Write (or type) while your child speaks. Best used in elementary or middle school, this technique helps students overcome the hurdle of starting an assignment and can be augmented by asking leading questions to encourage thinking.
- Text-to-speech tools are increasingly common (think the voice typing feature in Google Docs) and work well for students who are brimming with ideas but struggle to put them down in writing. Transcription services like Rev can clean up plain text, making it easier for your child to edit their work.
2. Look for opportunities to write (and read!)
- Start a dialogue journal. Start a conversation (about anything) with your child through a notebook in which you both write answers daily. Do not correct grammar, spelling or punctuation. Keep the activity light and fun to encourage writing.
- Schedule DEAR time. “Drop it all and read” for about 15 minutes a few times a week. Make it a family activity to increase membership.
- Audiobooks are just as rewarding as books.
- Enable TV subtitles to save more reading time.
3. Don’t forget handwriting and typing
- pencil grips teach students how to properly hold writing tools to reduce fatigue and increase functionality.
- The right keyboard can boost focus and productivity. Raised keys are great for tactile feedback, but flatter, quieter keys can reduce distractions.
How to Do Better in School: Additional ADHD Tips
1. Design a homework format that avoids burnout.
- Let your child rest before you start working.
- Some students concentrate better with a little background noise and commotion. Noise canceling headphones can reduce distractions in a busy area.
- Fidgets are ever-popular options that can help increase focus.
2. Fool the brain.
Often the hardest part of getting started with homework or studying is overcoming the negative emotions surrounding it. Short bursts of effort, followed by pauses, are ideal for escaping the brain’s self-preservation mode.
- Encourage your child to use timers, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes of work at a time.
- If countdowns are making your child anxious, focus on completing one task — like writing two sentences of an essay — at a time.
3. Encourage self-advocacy.
Knowing how to speak and asking for help is an important life skill. The email template on this page will guide hesitant and shy children to politely but firmly ask teachers what they need.
4. Focus on a positive parent-child relationship above all else.
- Avoid being judgmental. Overreacting to incomplete homework or poor study habits will only shut your child down. Instead, start a dialogue: “I notice you have five homework overdue. Tell me about it.”
- Avoid power struggles. Give your child space and options when tensions are high. Say, “I know math and writing are frustrating. Come find me when you’re ready to help me.
- Seek outside help. You don’t have to be your child’s teacher. Someone else – an older student, professional tutor, etc. – can take these reins. Outside help provides individual attention and consistency, and reduces family stress and conflict.
The content of this article is derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, ” ‘I can not concentrate !’ When ADHD affects your child’s math and writing performance” [Video Replay and Podcast #397] with Ann Dolin, M.Ed., broadcast live April 20, 2022.
Math Strategies and Writing Tips for Students with ADHD: Next Steps
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