5 Strategies to Help Children with ADHD Work and Learn Independently

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Weak executive functioning skills related to organization, planning, self-monitoring, and motivation make it challenging for children with ADHD to work and learn independently. Many parents find that if they are not sitting with their child and helping them during homework time or during remote learning, then their child simply won’t do the work. This lack of independence is frustrating for parents and makes it hard for children with ADHD to feel confident in their own abilities. To build independence in children with ADHD, parents need to provide routines, organization, and structure around homework or remote learning activities while also taking a step back and becoming less involved in the details of the academic work. Over time, children with ADHD can work independently within the structure and routines that have been provided and ask for additional help from their parents only when needed.  

Here are five strategies that parents can use to encourage independence:

  1. Preview assignments together and make a list. At the start of each work period, read each assignment with your child and make sure they understand the directions. Give them a chance to ask questions and talk to you about which assignments they think they may need help with and which assignments they think they can easily do on their own. Have your child list out the assignments for the work period in order, starting with the easiest assignment first. Once your child starts working, have them cross items off the list as they go.
  2. Use a timer to schedule breaks. Many younger children with ADHD can only stay on task for about 10 minutes, and some older children or teens with ADHD max out at around 20 or 30 minutes. Plan for this by building five-minute breaks into the work period. Have your child set a timer for their first stretch of work time (15 minutes, for example). Their job is to work consistently during this time. Then when the timer goes off, they get a five-minute break. Make sure they set a timer for this break and get back to work for their next 15-minute segment once their break is over.
  3. Monitor your child. Children with ADHD need to be monitored when they’re completing schoolwork or homework, even when they are working independently. Without an adult close by they are much more likely to procrastinate instead of getting started right away and will lose focus more quickly. Monitoring your child doesn’t have to mean sitting next to them, but it does mean being someplace where they can see you and know that you are aware of what they are doing.
  4. Only provide help during planned check-in times. An important part of children developing independence is learning to try things on their own first before asking for help. Encourage this skill by only providing help during prescheduled check-in times throughout the work period. For children who require frequent help, gradually extend the length of time between check-ins until you reach a point that seems reasonable based on your child’s age and ability level (e.g., every 10 or 15 minutes for a 4th-grade student). If your child comes across a math problem or a question they can’t complete on their own, have them circle the problem and keep working. Once they finish the work they can do independently, have them attempt the circled items again. If they are still struggling, they should ask for your help with the problem or question during a check-in time.   
  5. Reward hard work and effort. “First, you work; then, you play,” is a habit that children with ADHD should learn early on. This mantra will help them learn to get their work done on time now when they are students and later when they are adults. You can use this rule to create rewards that your child can earn when they finish their homework and have met your expectations. Think about fun activities your child likes that can be used to motivate them to get their work done quickly. These can be things like playing with their favorite Legos, playing outside, getting a limited amount of screen time, building forts out of pillows and blankets, etc. If time in the evening is very limited and you feel like you won’t be able to squeeze in a fun activity, you can allow your child to earn a small reward instead. Once a week or once a month, sit down with your child and create a list of activities or rewards they can earn for getting their work done each day.

Helping children with ADHD become more independent takes time and patience, but in the long run, the effort is worthwhile. You’ll feel much less frustrated and your child will feel more confident in their knowledge and skills.



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.