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Student struggling with homework

Student struggling with homework

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I have a high school student who has ADHD. We've tried several different ADHD medications but they don't seem to help. He is highly intelligent, takes honors courses and tests well, but struggles (is currently failing three classes) because he can't get his homework finished and turned in on time. He was having trouble with a problem in calculus. I suggested that he skip it and move on to the next problem. He said, "I can't, my brain won't let me." He says he loses all ability to focus. Is there a name for this type of problem? I'm wondering if it is a form of OCD. Does anyone have any strategies and/or suggestions for where to look for some strategies he can use?

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Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Hi Renee,

This is a tricky problem. I think it's hard to find a solution without knowing him personally, but the first thing that came to mind is that he may have too much on his plate. Perhaps he should drop one of the classes so he has time to focus on the others. It's more important for him to take less classes and feel like he has a handle on everything, than to be overwhelmed. He should definitely continue to push himself academically, but maybe lighten the actual load.

Have you had conversations with his teachers? What are their thoughts? Maybe they can come up with specific assignments for him that are fewer problems but of the same rigor?

Brendan Peo's picture
Brendan Peo
Special Education Teacher/ Instructional Design Assistant

Hi Renee-

What a tricky question. Unsure if that is OCD, although the characteristics seem to be similar, there are other components to that. I think he needs some motivation. Working towards a reward/attached to a goal!

Have you tried any strategies related to goal/rewards? Can his mainstream teachers modify the work for him... give him more obtainable questions that WON'T frustrate? (Same number of questions as his peers, but not as complex?) I know it's calculus, so there's only so much a teacher can do to modify those concepts!! :(

Kerrie McDonnell's picture

Renee, first, I would want to know what strategies the student is using to overcome these challenges (getting stuck, etc) during the school day. Perhaps a counselor could review strategies with him and prepare him a "cheat sheet" of reminders to use when at home. Secondly, can the homework be modified? Is it an absolute necessity to finding success in these courses? Also, I would look into the availability of completing necessary assignments with a staff member after school if you have a type of homework club or study hall after school or even during the day.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Renee!

I'm assuming you have had a neuropsychological/education evaluation to diagnosis the ADHD?

My kids have ADHD as well. We have occasionally had to tune meds to get something that works- this usually means trying not only different doses, but different formulations, and if meds do help, it can be like turning on a light in a dark room. That said, organization and time management are still a challenge and we've needed to provide significant supports and scaffolding over time until they were ready to do this for themselves.

We've had tutors from time to time that have been more like coaches, to help the kids organize their time, structure their studying, etc. Less direct instruction, more support and time management. Its been great and has reduced the friction at home as well, which is a big plus.

That said, also look at whether he is trying to do homework with all the tools readily at hand; have snacks ready and maybe even a little caffeine (nature's ADHD meds) and a schedule or work time in a good place- all these external supports helps reduce the distraction and chaos. But also ask him what would best help and see what he thinks- sometimes being organized, setting reminders on phones and devices, etc. can really help as well.

Pat Kulp's picture
Pat Kulp
Autism special education teacher from Tumwater, WA

My grandson experiences ADHD and is struggling in school. Modifying the assignments into smaller segments has helped. It was stated that this student is intelligent and takes honors classes. Is the homework beneficial or detrimental for him? A good strategy to support the student is to provide copies of the classroom notes for referencing or working with a peer after school. I like what Whitney said about asking him what works best for him and why he loses focus when it comes to homework.

Clara Galan's picture
Clara Galan
Former Social Media Marketing Assistant for Edutopia


When I was teaching, I worked closely with the resource teacher - and getting in assignments could be quite the challenge depending on each student's needs. In my experience, having strict deadlines and check-in dates for bigger projects is helpful. Many of my special needs students found it difficult to prioritize and set up a plan. Making a check list with bite-size assignments is much more manageable. Resource students should have a weekly check-in time with not only the resource teacher, but also with their classroom teacher. Here are some other resources that might be helpful:

You might like some of these ideas on cultivating focus from author Daniel Goleman:, as well as the following articles:

1. Social and emotional techniques that help students focus on academic progress:

2. Helping students develop the skills to focus:

3. Assistive Technology for education:

4. Special Ed Best Practices Inspire Successful Expanded Learning Time for All Students:

5. More blogs on Special Education:

I hope this is helpful. Your additional support can make the world of difference to these students. :)

Ken Peterson's picture

"He is highly intelligent, takes honors courses and tests well".
I would suggest a Program Modification to his IEP so that he is only required to do 1/4 of each homework assignment.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Hi Renee, we asked our community on Facebook about your situation, and it triggered a very rich discussion about getting students to do their homework. You can find it here:

Here are a few of the responses that came closest to your particular situation:

Elissa G.
Back to the student with ADHD folks, I have many kiddos with this, unmedicated due to $, and I have ADD. This is middle school but I find anything tangible can be a motivator. You can be high-brow and say the task provides an intrinsic reward, but this is about going down a path to completion. Folks with ADD get 80% done and it is literally pulling teeth to push yourself to finish. You have to force yourself for last last sprint. Having a visual reward (even a piece of candy) can pull in the focus. I completely get the "can't move on". It really is like a wall you are trying to pole vault over. Use an index card to cover up the troublesome problem - out of sight, out of mind. [Emphasis added].

Sandra D.
Can you offer choices? The most appreciated assignments seem to be those that are most relevant to the students. Let them choose. That tends to make them more eager to do the work on time.

Julie W.
If this student needs to complete his work in order, then possibly he should. See if you can work with his teacher as to the quantity of problems he is taking home to complete. Can he show mastery of a skill or concept with just a few examples, maybe 2 or 3, and not complete " all the evens" or "all the odds"?

Lysandra C.
Self-monitoring for attention of task completion depending on the specific issues. You can check out great resources for self-management at The IRIS Center.

Shannon S.
I do not see this as a skill that needs taught, rather I see it as a behavior that needs shaped and an unwanted behavior that needs extinguished. Create a system of "self-checking" where the student is actually taught, and provided with, periods of time to mentally review a checklist, or is allowed to write down their assignments and visually review. These types of kids often do better with visuals. Use the cell phone, ipads, scanned worksheets, etc. so it can be retrieved later at home electronically as well instead of carrying a piece of paper, which could easily get lost as well. Teaching the correct behavior with rewards at first and then faded and on a small scale will teach the expected behavior. How do I know this works? Kids don't forget to take their keys with them to drive a car now, do they?!

Maureen K.
I always used a planner with my students. They could check things off as they were accomplished and take home what was not done. It was their ticket out the door and had to be signed by me and signed by a parent at night. If they still "forgot", no anger we just had a working lunch to get caught up. Didn't happen often and peace reigned. I rarely assigned homework. Mainly is was completion of regular classwork and not busy work. Think the kids knew that and were proud of what they were learning.

Laura M.
I teach intermediate school level, so I feel that building those homework skills are important for the higher grade levels, and an important life skill of finding value in completing tasks. I have one routine homework assignment per week. Students are given 5 points bonus for turning it in by Wed (its due on Thursday) each week, rather than just penalize late papers. It has improved my return rate on homework 99%. I have only one or two students in any given week not turn in homework on time. This is usually because they have it but forgot to turn in. This includes my accommodated learners and my venture kids. Not to mention reduces my headaches in chasing down work.

I moved up a grade level this past year, and I see the progress the kids have made and the fabulous parent support, making their involvement even stronger.

Lauren V.
I have a 'punch card' system where student earn rewards every 3 assignments they turn in. I also let student choose their rewards (ticket system). I only give homework once or twice a week at most, and I always give students two days to do it. I respect that they have homework in other classes and give them some responsibility in planning their time. Another student gives lunch detention when students don't turn it in and they complete it at that time.

Mirsada D.
I have each subject area listed (including morning work). There are three boxes following each, the student gets a check each time he or she is not staying focused and on task (shouldn't get more than 3 in each subject but teacher can revise the number of boxes for checks initially and set goals to minimize that number with student). At the end of the day I initial the chart and give the student one reward (I give raffle tickets and students shop with them) for each subject the student did not get any checks in. The subject areas are not important here, but because my students keep track of the charts on their own when I tell them they have a check they need to know where to put it on the chart so thats the purpose of the subject areas being listed on the chart. If the student does not complete all their homework or get their chart signed by a parent, they lose all their tickets.

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