ADHD & The Brain

We recently outlined the basics of ADHD—its nature, its causes, and strategies that can help address ADHD-related learning needs. But what actually happens in the brain of a learner with ADHD? 

In a typically-developing brain, one begins to learn skills like organizing, planning, prioritizing, remembering, and managing one’s self and emotions pretty early in life. Together, these skills make up our executive functions. With practice and experience, these skills grow stronger as a person nears adulthood, becoming finalized around age 21. While some people are a little disorganized or have a bit of a hard time coping with extreme emotions or extra challenging assignments or tasks, typically-developing brains can successfully handle these feelings and responsibilities in age-appropriate ways with relative independence.

Executive Function and ADHD

Executive function skills are linked to one of four major circuits in the brain. These are working memory, time management, emotional regulation, and metacognition (or self-awareness). The brain of someone with ADHD struggles significantly with mastering these skills, and needs specialized, individualized strategies to manage them. For these students, the brain circuits used by our executive functions are impaired, making the messaging that travels through them become jumbled. Sometimes all four circuits are at issue, sometimes only one or a few aren’t running efficiently.

The difficulty experienced by a student with ADHD has nothing to do with their intelligence, their ability, or their motivation. It has nothing to do with how much they “want” to learn. In many cases, they simply lack the tools that will help them get there. 

Actionable tips

Beyond medication, which only a doctor can recommend, here are some tips for helping students with ADHD at home:

  • Help your child break down tasks into bite-sized pieces. Let’s say you’re working on a project together, but the assignment is in paragraph form. A child with ADHD is likely to have a hard time identifying a starting point, planning the steps necessary to reach their goal, and figuring out how much time they’ll need to complete each task in the process. As a parent (or teacher), helping a child to plan backwards in order to create a road map to success will lead to better results and a whole lot less stress!

  • Create a (flexible) routine. Students with ADHD thrive with structure and predictability, but a schedule that is so rigid it leaves no room for change can be counterproductive. Be flexible and sensitive to what your child needs in the moment.

  • Model calming strategies. Since students with ADHD often have trouble regulating emotions, it can help to be extra explicit with modeling age-appropriate ways to cope. These can include deep breaths, counting, guided meditation, body scans, or a relaxing low-sensory activity like drawing, writing, or reading.

  • Give them a positive outlet for their energy. Verbal and physical impulsivity is a hallmark of ADHD. Instead of feeling like you are constantly stifling their energy, give them a productive place to put it. Schedule classes or activities after school, suggest a dance party in the living room, or have a pillow flight! Letting that energy out will help your child reset their focus and feel more ready to work.

  • Encourage exercise and healthy eating. Since what we put in our bodies directly affects our brain health, be vigilant! Make sure your child is getting a wide variety of foods, especially fruits, vegetables, proteins, and healthy grains. Of course they can indulge every once in a while, but it’s all about balance!

  • Limit screen activities. Watching TV and playing video games are favorite pastimes of many children, so it’s unreasonable to cut these out entirely. However, these types of over-stimulating activities do tend to exacerbate symptoms of ADHD, so allow them in moderation. Help your child find another hobby they’re passionate about, whether it’s collaging, reading, cooking, an instrument–the options are endless.

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