3 Homework Strategies for Children with ADHD

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
10/16/23  1:13 PM PST
child doing homework in the kitchen with mother putting away dishes. homework strategies for children with ADHD

It’s the start of a new school year, the honeymoon phase is slowly beginning to fade, and the rigor of the academics is taking off. Every year, I begin the new school year with a mountain-high amount of hope that the summer contributed to maturation and consolidation of a new set of skills in my children.  In many ways I’m correct, and my three children show a new level of growth.

For our kids with ADHD or executive functioning struggles, the start of a new school year often comes with a greater need for organization of school materials, time management, prioritization and study skills.

One thing I hear from parents is that their child may spend hours “working” on homework and have nothing to show for it. How can that be? Well, I went to my best source of information – adolescents. The responses were honest and raw. I heard that they start their homework but then the phone dings or they get an idea about a show or a game and look it up (because they can!). Before they know it, so much time has passed and little or no progress on their assignments has been made.  This is usually the time when a parent checks in and the young man or lady tries to “look” busy, but truly, no real work has been done. Or, teens have said to me that’s when they “bark” at their parents and ask to be left alone. Part of that response is the awareness that they have been sitting in front of their homework for a while but little has been done, and the other part is pure frustration and procrastination.

And this cycle continues on and on, for hours. Sound familiar?

Let’s talk about a few strategies that you can initiate at home that will help with building those executive functioning skills while getting their homework D-O-N-E!

(P.S. – Does this sound frustration and procrastination cycle sound familiar as an adult? These strategies work for adults, too!)


1. The Body Double Method

For some of us, we get the most done when nobody is around, with no sound, in the silence. For some of our children and adolescents with ADHD, it helps to have another person in the same room or nearby. Perhaps it’s knowing that the person is present and can check in at any time that maintains focus and improves productivity.  Some of us need the presence of another person to regulate and ground us. That person doesn’t have to say or do anything, they just need to exist.  This is known as our body double.

Speaking from experience, my preference is to set my computer at the kitchen counter and work while my kids are around me. I have always preferred the buzz of other people in the background rather than working alone.  My son, on the other hand, prefers to work in his room because he finds our ‘human sounds’ too distracting. My daughter likes to work on her homework sprawled out, in the middle of my kitchen floor. We each have our preference and those preferences can even shift from assignment to assignment.

If you’re not sure if your child or adolescent needs you to serve as her body double, ask her! If she isn’t sure, experiment. That is, set your child up on the same floor as you are – perhaps at the kitchen table or in your dining room (or another room that has a table and a chair). Ask your child to complete one assignment and then assess. Was it helpful to work near you or was it too distracting?

If your child responds that he was able to get through his assignment quickly and with focus, you have your answer. Now you know that your child is going to need to set up at a table or workspace somewhere by you instead of sending her up to her room.


2. Put The Phone Down and Nobody Gets Hurt

Distractions are around our children with ADHD all. the. time. The chirping bird or the passing truck can very easily result in a turned head. For many of our children and adolescents, their ability to filter out background sound is difficult. In fact, they may hear all sounds in the environment at equal level. Imagine if you couldn’t filter out the buzzing of the lawn mower while you were sending an email. It can be overwhelming and exhausting.

Now, let’s compound that with a vibrating phone or the ‘ping’ that signals your child that someone has reacted to the last SnapChat  – omg, I need to check! The temptation is there to check Instagram every time your child doesn’t want to start a writing assignment or is finding that chapter in Social Studies really boring. Let’s take away a layer of distraction that is tangible. Ask your child to turn their phone in once they begin their homework. All of the texts and other social media notifications will be there once they return, but in the meantime, their homework will get done.


3. Estimate Project Completion Time, and Time It

Our children with ADHD tend to think that any assignment will take the figurative “five minutes.’ How many times have you thought, “You’re going to finish a paper that was assigned two weeks ago in an hour?”

Your child may really think that it will take “five minutes” given their sense of time is not entirely accurate. In an effort to build that sense of time, I like to ask students, “How long do you think this math worksheet will take?” Whatever the answer is, set the timer to their estimated time and let them work. Once time is up, ask them to assess, “How far did you get on this worksheet?” If you notice your child has completed half, ask them, “It looks like you finished about half of the problems in X minutes. How much longer do you think you’ll need?”

This will begin to develop a clearer sense of time and help your child identify what a realistic amount of time might be to finish different assignments. It may also take them another 50 practice runs just like this until that sense of time begins to develop.  But by the 51st time, your child may be able to say, “I think it’s going to take 15 minutes so it’s really going to take 30 minutes. Whatever I think, double it!”

Setting the timer also gives your child a sense of beginning and end. For students who struggle to begin a task, this can motivate them to begin, and for the student who struggles to sustain attention to an assignment, this gives an end in sight. Setting the timer can also bring a sense of levity to homework in that the goal is to complete assignment before the bell rings.

For an assignment that requires longer time to complete, set the timer for the duration of your child’s attention span. If they can work on one task for 30 minutes, set the timer for 30 minutes and go! Once the time is up, ask your child to walk away from their work area, set the timer for 5 minutes and take a break. During that break, encourage your child to move around, engage in jumping jacks or stare out the window, but do not engage in anything electronically-based. Then, set the timer for another 30 minutes, and repeat this cycle until the assignment is completed.


Try using any or all of these strategies at home, but introduce one at a time so as not to overwhelm your child. Once you introduce the strategy, don’t do it for them, but rather model how to do it so there is a level of ownership. For example, if you want to help your son plan the upcoming week, you can stand by the white board but hand the red marker to him and ask, “Do you have anything in math coming up?” If he says yes, ask him to write it. You ask, he answers, he writes. If you want to turn any of these strategies into a habit, practice the skill consistently for at least two weeks. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, scrap it and try another strategy. Like I said, it’s a journey – but along the way, you want to ultimately put your child in the driver’s seat.

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