Reading comprehension, writing, math related to executive functions: tips for ADHD

Executive function (EF) deficits are often confused with – and exacerbated by – ADHD symptoms. The reverse is also true, making EF and ADHD inextricably linked but also distinct.

To meet a student’s challenges with reading comprehension and other academic skills, teachers and parents must first understand their backgrounds. For example, disorganization may be a manifestation of core ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity and inattention. On the other hand, physical restlessness may be a sign of being overwhelmed in a student who is having trouble separating and problem solving due to low EF.

Whether it’s executive dysfunction or ADHD or both, educators and parents should follow these 3 steps to help a student build skills and confidence in middle school and high school:

  1. Create learning environments that mitigate the impact of deficits.
  2. Modify assignments to minimize the impact of weaknesses.
  3. Teach skills related to the specific task and minimize the impact of deficits.

Here are three common challenges teens with ADHD face, and examples of solutions for developing each academic skill:

[Get This Free Download: The Teacher’s Guide to Common Learning Challenges]

Academic Skill: Reading Comprehension

The problem: The student reads a chapter of a story book but cannot stay focused on the content and cannot answer any of the comprehension questions at the end. In this case, ADHD inattention causes or worsens EF difficulties with memory and thought organization.

Reading Comprehension: EF Solutions

  • Activate more senses and learning styles using graphic novels, supplemental videos, or even historical action games to tell the story.
  • “Priming” the student to focus on what matters in review comprehension questions before reading. This helps solve problems with organization or comprehension.
  • Encourage the student to listen to the audio version literature homework while reading.
  • Ask each student to turn one chapter into dramatic audio game so other students can listen while they read the entire book.

Academic Skill: Essay Writing

The problem: A student delivers an accurate essay that is fairly well written, but it wanders off and misses the central theme. She thinks she’s covered the material and becomes upset and frustrated when an evaluation suggests otherwise. Motivation decreases, resistance increases.

Essay Writing: EF Solutions

  • Provide “external scaffolding” giving the student a simple outline with sections to flesh out – an essay structure on which they can hang their facts and ideas. From this more organized, sequential, and meaningful plan, the student can create a more complete narrative.
  • If the rewrite task causes resistance, allow the student to “tell the story” by recording it, using the outline as a guide. This will help the student achieve success while practicing effective organizational skills that can be replicated on future assignments.

[Read: Writing Essays Like a Big Screen Pro]

Academic skill: Mathematics

The problem: The student “runs out of steam” after doing a few math problems, then begins to make careless mistakes, complain, and become disruptive – all signs of cognitive overload linked to poor EF skills.

Math Exhaustion: EF Solutions

  • Ask the student to estimate the difficulty of the task on a scale of 1 (really easy) to 3 (far too difficult). Then ask, “What can we do to move a task from level 3 to level 2?” (The answer could be: “Start with the one that seems easiest” or “Do one at a time.”)
  • “Sowing” the mission including a problem that the student did last time, and start with that one. Grounding a child in past success will help them move towards the task, not away from it.
  • When your child succeeds in a math problem, ask him, “How capable are you of doing that?” This triggers a success mindset where “It’s not too hard” and “I’m pretty sure I can do it!” At home and in school (indeed, in life!), success leads to increased motivation, better focus, and a brain that wants more success.

Developing Reading Comprehension and Academic Skills: Next Steps

School Blocks: Fundamental Executive Functions

Access more resources from ADDitude’s Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions series exploring common learning challenges and strategies for refining basic EFs in school.


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Scott R. Banks