Simple Tips for Boosting Academic Motivation in Kids with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

If you are finding it more challenging than ever to get your child to focus on academics right now, you are not alone. With summer-like weather upon us and many weeks spent without a structured school schedule, kids with ADHD are struggling to focus on their schoolwork like never before.

This lack of focus is causing more frequent meltdowns and greater tension between parents and kids over schoolwork. And it’s not just the kids who are struggling to stay on task; parents are struggling, too. Everyone is finding it harder to stay motivated and stick to the routines and plans that were put into place weeks ago, when we all started staying home.

With a few more weeks of school remaining, what can you do to keep your kids engaged and on task with remote learning? The most effective strategy involves only two steps: (1) breaking longer academic “periods” down into shorter chunks of time and (2) alternating these short bursts of academic work with fun and engaging activities. You could also consider requesting reduced assignments from your child’s teacher. Shorter assignments (e.g. only completing every other problem on math worksheets) and other forms of reduced work are a common accommodation for kids with ADHD who have 504 and IEP plans.

Adjusting your child’s schedule so that it includes less time spent on academics can seem counter-intuitive if you already feel like they are not getting enough learning through their school’s remote education programming. But it’s important to think about quality rather than quantity right now. For example, let’s say you have three 30-minute periods blocked out for academic time for a total of 90 minutes each day. If your child is struggling to focus and is doing anything and everything they can think of to avoid schoolwork, then they may actually only be engaged in learning for about 15 of these 90 minutes. The rest of the time is spent on procrastination, daydreaming, meltdowns, and negotiations with their parents.

If, in place of three 30-minute blocks, you adjust the schedule to include four 10-minute blocks of academic time, your child may actually spend more time learning over the course of the day. Kids with ADHD are able to focus, stay on task, and sustain motivation much more effectively when they do their work in shorter bursts. So, if they get to work and stay on task for 10 minutes four times a day, they will actually spend 40 minutes learning each day.   

To make sure your child gets the most out of each block of academic time, take the following steps:

  1. Pick a realistic length of time for the academic blocks. The amount of time a child with ADHD can stay focused on schoolwork depends on a variety of factors, like age, attention span, executive functioning abilities, the amount of distraction in the room, and how interested they are in the subject. Older children or those with a longer attention span may be able to focus for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Younger children or those who are really struggling to focus right now may only be able to stay motivated and on task for 10 minutes. Based on your experience with your child, choose a length of time that seems within their reach.
  2. Use a timer. Use a timer while they are working. Visual timers like the Time Timer clock or app are best, but any timer will work as long as your child can see and hear it. For more about using timers to help kids manage their ADHD, check out my post on this topic.
  3. Reward your child for staying on task. When your child stays on task during the entire academic time block, reward them. Always reward them based on whether or not they stayed on task – not based on how much work they completed (reward the effort, not the outcome). You can reward them using a When-Then plan (e.g. when you stay on task for 10 minutes, then you can join a Zoom call with your friends) or by using a classic reward chart. If you alternate academic time blocks with fun time blocks in your child’s schedule, then it can be easy to incorporate a when-then reward model into your day by using many of the fun activities that your child is already doing.
  4. Supervise your child during academic time whenever possible. When kids with ADHD are really struggling the most, they get a big boost from a little bit of adult supervision. You don’t necessarily need to sit right next to your child while they are working. Simply being in the same room as your child will help them focus and will hold them accountable when it comes to staying on task. We all have very busy schedules right now, but hopefully shortening the length of academic time blocks will make it more feasible for you to be in the room when your child is working.
  5. Praise your child. Staying focused and on task for any length of time is no easy feat for any of us these days. When you notice your child working and staying on task, praise them – let them know that you’re proud of their ability to stay focused and motivated.

Keeping a child with ADHD engaged in remote learning programs isn’t easy, but these simple changes to your child’s schedule will help. Shorter blocks of academic time and rewards for staying on task may be just what your child needs to stay motivated during the final weeks of the school year.   



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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