How ADHD Affects Learning and Academic Performance

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

How ADHD Affects Learning and Academic Performance

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects all aspects of a student’s life, including their ability to learn and perform in typical classroom settings. Students with ADHD often ‘underperform’ academically as they struggle to absorb new information and complete assignments and exams at a level that matches their intelligence. Typically, the biggest factors underlying the gap between academic performance and intelligence in students with ADHD are weak executive functioning skills.

Executive functions are the brain-based abilities that are responsible for organization, focus, planning, delayed gratification and emotion regulation. They represent the brain’s central executive, tasked with overseeing the management of our decisions, behaviors and emotions. Executive functions begin developing in infancy and continue to develop until a person is in their early 20s. Typical classroom-based learning, homework assignments and exams are all designed around the assumption that students have age-appropriate executive functioning skills. In fact, executive functioning skills predict academic success more reliably than test scores, IQ and socioeconomic status.

Research has repeatedly shown that students with ADHD lag 2-3 years behind their peers in executive functioning skill development. As a result, they are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to school-based learning and academic performance. Dr. Thomas Brown, a leading expert on executive functioning skills and ADHD, breaks executive functions down into six separate, interconnected clusters. As you read though these clusters below, think about how weaknesses in some of these areas may be impacting your student’s ability to learn and perform academically:

  1. Analyzing and Activating - Organizing thoughts and materials, prioritizing tasks and initiating work
  2. Focus - Focusing attention on the project, task, or assignment, staying focused and shifting attention back to the task at hand in the face of distractions
  3. Effort - Continuing to put in effort until the assignment or task is completed and working at a pace that isn’t too fast and careless or too slow and unproductive
  4. Emotion - Managing feelings of frustration when an assignment feels difficult or overwhelming and persisting with the assignment or task instead of stopping before it’s completed
  5. Memory - Remembering and recalling the steps and information that are needed to complete an assignment or task, remembering to bring home materials needed for homework assignments and remembering to turn in completed assignments
  6. Action - Monitoring progress and adjusting actions and plans as needed until the task or assignment is completed

Executive functioning weaknesses are most impairing when the demands that are being placed on a student greatly exceed the student’s executive functioning capacity. So, for example, a bright second-grade student with weak executive functioning skills who receives very few homework assignments, has brief periods of seated classwork during the day and is in a highly structured classroom may have mild or moderate impairment and may perform well academically. In contrast, this same student may struggle significantly once they are in fifth or sixth grade, when classwork and homework become more demanding and students are required to switch classes during the day.

The goal of many behavioral and academic interventions for ADHD is to narrow the gap between the student’s lower level of executive functioning and the higher level of executive functioning need to successfully meet expectations . Interventions focused on closing the gap can take the form of skills training (like organizational skills training), behavior management plans that boost motivation and engagement by rewarding behaviors related to staying on task, completing assignments and staying organized, checklists and other tools to improve memory and break down complex tasks into smaller chunks and academic accommodations that modify assignments or exams to make them more manageable for the student.   

There are several excellent books that include interventions designed to improve or support executive functioning skills in students with ADHD. Two of the most popular and effective books are Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Full Potential and Smart but Scattered Teens, both by Peg Dawson Ed.D. and Richard Guare, Ph.D.

Helping students improve their executive functioning skills takes time and patience, but the hard work pays off when students see a boost in their academic performance and their confidence and motivation to succeed in school. 



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.