Q: “John, 12, is a good student who works hard, but he seems to have trouble with classwork and homework with lots of writing. He struggles with essay questions on tests, but handles true and false quizzes and multiple choice tests just fine. It is harder for him to process oral requests, but finds visual directions helpful. How can I help John succeed by modifying classwork and homework?”

You have wisely identified a couple of key ADHD challenges that are underlying causes of John’s struggles. Many students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have a hard time writing essays due to their deficits in working memory and quick retrieval of information from cold recall, both of which are executive functions.

Because of their limited working memory capacity, the student with ADD will do better on short answer tests. Limited memory capacity also affects a student’s ability to remember anything other than brief verbal instructions and impairs his reading comprehension.

In terms of learning styles, you’ve identified them well in your comments. He responds better to visual and hands-on learning situations. These tips may benefit John and other students in your class.

Use Scaffolding Strategies

Showing your students how to write a response to an essay question will benefit most students. Say, “Today, with your input, I’m going to write an answer to an essay test question. So what do you suggest as key issues to list in this answer?” Then ask your class to add a couple of sentences as explanation for each key issue.

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Give Fewer Essay Tests

Unless this is a language arts class and depending on your ultimate purpose in testing (understanding vs. cold recall of facts), give more true/false, matching, and fill-in-the-blank tests. Or, if you have time, immediately after the test, have him explain his answers to you or an aide. For a student with ADHD, retrieving information quickly from memory and requiring cold recall will always be difficult. You might consider listing three key parts of the answer to trigger John’s recall. He can connect these facts and elaborate.

Reduce the Amount of Homework Required

If you suspect the student has problems with slow processing speed (takes longer to read and complete written work), give shorter assignments. If it’s a question-and-answer assignment, don’t require the student to write the questions.

Give Prompts to Stimulate Thinking

Depending on the essay topics, show related pictures, cartoons, or bring related items to class—healthy foods, plants, or magazines to skim for ideas.

Consider a Writing Scribe

If writing or typing slows down the flow of ideas, allow the student to dictate her ideas to another student or aide. She can edit the text when it’s down on paper.

Request Screening from the School Psychologist

Look for working memory deficits and possible learning disabilities in written expression or processing speed.

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