Setting realistic expectations for children with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Children with ADHD need clear and consistent expectations in order to thrive at school and at home. Expectations provide structure and consistency, and help them strive to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, setting realistic expectations for a child with ADHD is hard! For the most part, the rules and guidance around typical age-appropriate expectations don’t apply.  

Developmentally, children and teens with ADHD are generally 2-3 years behind their peers when it comes to social skills and executive functioning skills (the skills needed for impulse control, sustained attention, planning, organization, and time management).  

This developmental lag has been identified over and over again in research studies that have used parent and teacher rating scales, past studies that have gathered observations of children’s behavior, and neuroimaging studies that measured brain development in ADHD. So, while you may have a child with ADHD who is intelligent and talented in many ways, the foundational skills that they need in order to reach their full potential are relatively weak.  

More often than not, parents, teachers, coaches, and other important adults in a child’s life do not adjust their expectations based on the developmental level of a child with ADHD. As a result, they inadvertently set the child up for failure by holding them to an unreachable standard. As you might expect, in these situations, the child fails to meet expectations, and their self-esteem suffers. Parents will typically become increasingly frustrated with their child, but they will also try to help improve the situation.  

Sometimes this help comes in the form of “snowplow” parenting – clearing obstacles out of their child’s way whenever possible and picking up the pieces or making excuses for their child when they fail. This response may help in the short term, but long term, it does nothing to address the root of the problem: the developmental gap between expectations and skills.  

To see lasting change, a strategic, three-pronged approach is needed that addresses both the skills side and the expectations side of the problem: 

  • Skill Development – When a child doesn’t have the skills needed to meet an expectation, skill development is a necessary step to close the expectations-skills gap. This could be social skills coaching, academic tutoring, organizational skills training, therapy to help children better manage their emotions, and other treatments recommended by your child’s physician to help children manage their ADHD symptoms more broadly.  
  • Scaffolding – More often than not, in at least some areas, the expectation-skills gap will be so wide that skill development may only get a child part of the way to their goal. At these times, parents need to scaffold while continuing to build their child’s skills. Scaffolding is different from snowplowing. Instead of clearing obstacles out of their child’s way, parents proactively provide support and structure while their child works to meet an expectation.  

Using homework as an example, your expectation may be that your child completes all of their homework every night, but your child may not have the skills and abilities they need to work independently for 30 or 40 minutes. Rather than have an extreme response (e.g., dropping the expectation altogether or doing your child’s homework for them), try scaffolding by creating a structured homework routine designed to help them work as independently as possible every night.  That might mean 15 to 20 minutes of independent work followed by a short break and a second round of independent work time (again of 15 to 20 minutes). 

At Huntington, we practice scaffolding on all skill-based learning, so students see progress immediately and feel successful when they complete each exercise. We do this throughout our programs to build skills, confidence, and motivation. These transfer to schoolwork and homework. 

  • Adjusting Expectations – There will be times when even with skill building and scaffolding, your child is still not able to meet an expectation consistently. In these cases, adjusting the expectation is appropriate. Using the homework example, requesting modified homework assignments may be necessary. A modification might mean having a child complete only every other problem on math worksheets, typing or dictating writing assignments instead of using a pencil and paper, or reducing the amount of required reading each week. The child is still required to meet the expectation of completing all of the assigned work each evening, but the amount of work assigned will be more manageable. When expectations are adjusted, they should be revisited periodically and adjusted again as your child’s skills and abilities continue to grow.  

At Huntington, we adjust expectations in a child’s program and build skills so they learn to meet the standards that are expected for schoolwork and homework. This builds the child’s confidence and self-esteem knowing that they can complete the work successfully. 

Setting clear and reasonable expectations for children with ADHD is essential to helping them reach their full potential and avoiding falling into the snowplow parenting role. Knowing where to set an expectation is hard, and not necessarily something parents should do alone. Reach out to your child’s teacher, therapist, counselor, and/or pediatrician for help.  


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.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

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

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