Excessive Attaining College students with ADHD & Studying Variations: Assist Methods
As far as her fellow students and professors know, Katie is the perfect college student. She is an exemplary model for organization and order and also a pure A-student.
But Katie is working hard to maintain that facade – and it’s slowly crumbling. Often exhausted after class, she falls into a deep sleep in the afternoon hours and wakes up in the evening with the help of her stimulant medication and caffeine to work until the morning.
Katie has ADHD and she is not alone.
This scenario is far too common for students who have to put immeasurable efforts to achieve average college grades due to learning disparities such as ADHD. Like the proverbial swan, neurodivergent learners appear calm and collected on the surface, but they step frantically underwater. Unfortunately, these students can spend their entire academic career kicking frantically and wondering why they’re getting stuck.
Students’ experiences with learning differences
In my teaching career, many “Katies” have come to me in different states of desperation. They are highly intelligent, but their efforts to be “perfect,” “high-performing,” or even just “neurotypical” are too often damaging to their physical and mental health.
For students with learning disparities, working memory deficits, disorganization, inattentiveness, and chronic procrastination can turn a task like writing an essay into something like climbing Mount Everest (with an elephant on your back).
[Free Download: What Learning Disabilities Look Like]
As teachers, we care deeply about the well-being of our students, but it is easy to overlook the warning signs. If we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of seeing certain learners through rose-colored glasses and not noticing how hard they are trying to stay afloat.
Sometimes the daily pressures of modern teaching keep us from looking any further. If we did, we couldn’t turn away from the obvious signs of exertion – the dark circles around our students’ eyes, the angry pounding of their feet during class, the haunted look on their faces when they think the professor isn’t is looking.
For students like Katie, masking the properties of their neurodivergent brain is a habit that they have subconsciously refined over the years in order to survive in a world designed for neurotypes. The masking probably got them through their school days quite well by the time they reached college. The effort required to keep up and outperform one another increases quickly in college and the mask usually starts to slide.
In addition, many students are living independently for the first time, away from a secure environment and family. The support network that has protected them for most of their life is suddenly removed and they have to be left to their own devices. The shock of this new transition causes executive functions to flatten. Everyday life suddenly becomes incredibly overwhelming and stressful.
[Read: The College Survival Guide for Students with ADHD]
Ironically, masking neurological features often prevents a student from receiving an official diagnosis and the support that would enable them to navigate their learning differences and be successful.
How teachers can help students with learning disparities
1. Make time each day to mindfully reflect on your teaching practices. Take a close look at how you see your students. Are you going too binary? Do you subconsciously categorize the “Katies” in your class as “the good” students and others as average-poor?
2. Know that gifted learners need just as much of your attention. Traditional training teaches us to deal with “problematic” students, but we are subconsciously programmed to ignore the high-flyers in the class and be content that they sail smoothly each semester. After all, an A student is a great measure of how well we’ve done our job, isn’t it? Not necessarily.
3. Talk to your students about their life outside of class. It’s a great way to spot factors that could affect your academic performance – or how academics get in the way. As I often point out during teacher training, a student who regularly gets good grades but behaves inconsistently is likely to be hiding a learning difference. Relevant questions include:
- How are your sleeping habits?
- Do you take time to relax and socialize?
- Do you have friends? (It is quite common for students with learning differences to invest so much time and energy in their studies that their social life is almost forgotten.)
I often ask my students to fill out a weekly schedule and I ask them to write down what they do for each lesson on a typical day. It can be quite enlightening by the time you hit the evening hours as many students describe studying late into the night and maybe sleeping just a few hours before class.
If this is the case with some of your students, follow up with more targeted questions. The goal is to understand why they feel they need to study this way. Try to find out how it affects their quality of life as well. Ask questions like:
- How long does it usually take you to plan an essay?
- What strategies do you use to organize your time?
- How do you feel when you have to start a task?
- How many times a week do you feel anxious?
- What tasks do you feel overwhelmed with?
You may also find that some of your students with ADHD are perfectionists. These students are so concerned about the end result that they become trapped in every single detail of a task and, as a result, freeze. You can multiply this effect by 10 if the student is a high achiever. After all, your students need to know that it is possible to get good grades without burning out. You just have to teach them alternative study options.
This type of investigation can lead to useful discussions with your students about their strengths and challenges, and how to effectively manage stress, manage their time, and motivate themselves.
Teachers need to watch out for these red flags and pay equal attention to their high performing and compliant learners. With the right help and support, many students with ADHD and other learning disparities can develop healthy, long-term strategies for educational success. You can finally let go of shame and learn to thrive and embrace your unique and amazing brain.
High-performing Students with ADHD: The Next Steps
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Updated July 7, 2021