Looking at AD/HD through the Lenses of Academic and Social Manifestations, Neuroscience, and Adolescence.

Personal Introduction

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  • Personal Introduction

    As a young child, I struggled with learning to read, learning math facts, and switching from one topic or task to another. I could spend hours working on a project to draw a self portrait, taking care to include every detail of my brightly patterned pants. In first grade, my teacher had me tested for learning disorders. From the tests they gave me, they found that I processed material disproportionately slowly. And it’s true, I do.
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  • Definition

    Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) is a complex disorder that affects all aspects of an individual’s life, including family and social relationships, and academic and professional performance and satisfaction. The best known aspects of the disorder mentioned in the clinical label are just a few of the more observable manifestations of the disorder, which is commonly known as ADD.

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  • The Neuroscience

    Executive functions are housed in the prefrontal cortex and the caudate nucleus in the basal ganglia. For people with AD/HD, the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia are less active than in people without AD/HD. This is because in the brains of people with AD/HD there is a relative deficiency of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This means that the neurons that send out dopamine and that are helping an individual to, say, organize her homework, are firing fewer times per second than they would for most people. What further complicates inactivity in the prefrontal cortex is that SPECT brain scans have shown that the harder individuals with AD/HD try to focus, the less active these parts of their brains are.
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  • Types

    The most widely accepted subtypes of AD/HD are inattentive, predominantly hyperactive, and combined types.
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  • Development

    In the past some doctors have thought that AD/HD was something that children grew out of. AD/HD specialists now understand that this is generally not true. Humans’ brains continue to grow into our mid-twenties, and our brain function, especially our capacity for forethought, continues to improve until our brains stop growing. For someone with mild AD/HD, symptoms may be reduced significantly as they mature, but for most individuals with AD/HD, their symptoms will continue to affect them throughout their lives.
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The Brain

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  • The Brain

    By minimizing the exposure to television and computer games, you are creating opportunities for more neuronal pathways (other than those used in watching television) to be grown and strengthened. Eating a diet low in simple carbohydrates and sugars and high in proteins and Omega-3 fatty acids can help improve almost anyone’s brain and health. Exercise, especially cardio exercise, which increases heart rate, will boost blood flow to the brain, which will improve brain function. Sleep also can greatly improve many aspects of brain function, including working memory, attention, and recall.
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Strategies for Maximizing Brain Function

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  • Understanding Your Learning Style

    Applies to everybody, with AD/HD or not.
    • Educate yourself and those with whom you interact about how you learn.
    • Ask yourself strategic questions about your academic style:
      • How does your brain work best/worst?
      • What kinds of support will help you to function optimally?
    • Identify your study 'breakdown point'. Where in your process do you begin to get offtrack?
    • Once you know your breakdown point, design a specific strategy to get you past it. For instance, if you actually do your homework but then forget to bring it to school, figure out how to load it into your backpack before you put your books away so that it is already in your backpack when you leave home the next morning.
    • Consciously design a study environment that works well for your brain.
  • External Organization

    Helpful for people with organization and sequencing weaknesses.
    • Colorcoded and visually appealing (clear and simple) organizational systems will be more fun to keep
    • Calendar—Write things not just on the due dates but when you need to work on them. Work backwards from the due date to plan when you will work on projects.
    • Note taking techniques: Create a template before you take notes. Helpful notetaking techniques include Cornell Notes and notes with a column on the side for freeassociation or tangential ideas (called Neuron Notes in LickWilmerding’s Brain and Behavior classes.)
    • Desktop Organization: Keep paperwork, supplies, and workspace in one place—and have a clear organizational plan. For example, have a set of textbooks to keep at school and a set at home (there are online resources where you can rent textbooks for a school year). Another example is keeping all notes in a single binder or all notes on the computer. This way, when you need your notes you know exactly where to find them.
    • Intervention, perspective… organizing with others! Having others help you organize your space or your time can help increase motivation, accountability, and perspective (i.e. if someone else can understand your filing system, you probably will be able to, as well.)
    • Plan time deliberately (designate scheduled times to do what you need to do). For example, on Sunday evening I try to block off the hour from 4 p.m. until 5 p.m. to reply to all of the emails I may not have gotten to during the week.
  • Working Memory Supplements

    Helpful for people with working memory deficits and those who drift off.
    • Write things down—Use post it notes, Stickies on the computer, or index cards (a handy way to use index cards is to keep a few held together with a binder clip). This way you won’t need to worry about losing those awesome tangential ideas!
    • Make it visual. Reminders you see easily, that “pop”, will be more effective than those you skim over. Using color and changing the color or placement of the reminder when you catch yourself starting to ignore it can help.
    • ’Only Touch It Once’: Do a task the second that you see or think of it. This is a good rule for simple tasks which can be accomplished in one sitting. It is a good way to minimize the small tasks that go to the bottom of a “to do” list. For example, if I don’t reply to an email right away, I struggle to remember to reply at all.
    • General Memory Strategies
    • Organize information into picture form (mind maps, drawings), if that is easier for you to process.
    • Activate your memory with the following questions: What do you already know? What do you need to know/learn? What other info can be linked to what you already know or need to know?
    • Categorizing things that you need to remember (don’t just list, but organize the lists into concepts).
    • Leave more time to process and learn more complex information and format it (visually or in auditory format) so that you can process it most easily.
    • Break content down, stop and paraphrase... do reading (or studying what you need to understand) when you’re rested. Take notes rather than highlighting (unless you are very spare with highlighting).
    • Use a study group so that you can rehearse ideas out loud.
    • Visual memory (and processing) aids: Cards, Charts (maps), Symbols.
  • Procrastination Strategies

    Helpful for people who struggle to start tasks, or who have sequencing weaknesses.
    • Use internet blocking tools.
    • Keep Lists
    • Start these lists with something you have already done, and check it off right away. Checking off the first thing on a checklist can help with initiation of a task.
    • Incentivizing, while not foolproof, can often help with procrastination. If incentivizing completion is daunting, don’t go there. Giving yourself a 5 minute drawing or music break won’t impede progress—and it may help motivate you. Just remember, if the incentive is a break, be sure to set a time limit and a timer.
    • Creating artificial deadlines, or “Tiny Chunks”, as I like to call it, can help you to initiate and plan out work for a task. Make sure to leave yourself enough time to complete the task. (If you have trouble estimating the time a task will take you may want to ask another’s opinion.)
    • Just start—then plan. OR Create a plan—then execute it. Some people work better just going for it—and then taking a step back to reflect on structure. Others prefer to create a structure and then fill in.
    • ”Synthetic Enthusiasm”: Figure out how you can make yourself excited about a task, or a portion of a task.
    • Balance your workload: Don’t overload one day. A list that’s too long can inhibit motivation. One way to help balance work is to decide on just two or three (or even one) tasks to complete in a work period (and remember it can be just a “tiny chunk”) and do them as early as possible.
  • Time Management

    Helpful for people with sequencing issues, which can make it hard to estimate how long tasks take.
    • Timers. Use them. Use them to time your homework, and to help remind you to be accountable for distractions. Use them to develop your timeestimation skills and selfknowledge. Use them to help you remember when to take a break.
    • PrePlanning: Plan your time before you start your day, but try not to be afraid of change. Remember what your goals are and what can be compromised.
    • Pattern planning: This is a type of planning time in which each week (or each day, even) is patterned roughly the same way. For example, on Wednesdays, a person might always wake up at 6:00, go to the gym for 45 minutes, be at work from 9 until 5, make a grocery list for the next three days, eat a proteinrich chicken for dinner, read for an hour at 7:30, and go to bed by 10. This is clearly not entirely feasible for students whose schedules are subject to change because of outside forces, but the idea is that the more routine a schedule is, the easier it is to remember what is on the schedule.
    • Use a digital watch. If you have slow processing speed, they’re easier and faster to read. They also have timers.
  • Impulse Control Strategies

    Are you a ‘blurter’? Then these are for you.
    • Develop clear expectations and goals for yourself. Ask people you trust to help create these expectations or goals for you. While this is not a “cure” for impulsivity, it is a good guideline for anyone.
    • Visual reminders or visual cues have helped some students. For example, one girl liked having a postit on the corner of her desk that said DCO, standing for “Don’t Call Out”.
    • Hold yourself accountable but be compassionate with yourself. Try not to be defensive or make excuses, but understand that you’re not struggling on purpose. These tasks are hard for you and may take more time and effort than they would for others, but it is worth the effort. AD/HD is an explanation for why some things are harder, not an excuse. Be forgiving of yourself on minor missteps.
  • Hyperactivity Strategies

    Are you the fidgety type? These might be helpful for you.
    • Be analytic about your own thought processes. Does fidgeting help you to focus? If so, figure out what type of ‘fidget toy’ are pleasing for you to play with. Some things that might work are jewelry, ribbons, balls (to squeeze), scrunchies, knitting…
    • Make sure that your fidget toy does not distract the people around you! (This means YOU, oh penclicker!)
    • If doing something with your mouth helps, try not to chew shirts, nails, hair, or candy. Chewing gum or seeds (I like to chew chia seeds) can be more satisfying (and less gross).
    • At home, consider getting an exercise ball or swivel chair to sit in while you work.
  • Attentional Tools

    These are helpful for people who drift off, get distracted easily, or have difficulty sustaining attention.
    • Use a “Snap back” cue or code word to help you pull yourself back. Sometimes you can ask a teacher to write the cue on the board if you seem to be drifting off.
    • Noise blocking headphones can help minimize auditory distractions.
    • Try music while you study—but stop if it doesn’t help. The music that has been found to work best for many people is mainly instrumental music that you know well. New, novel music and music with lyrics does not generally work as well.
    • Take a (short) time out to rest or do a low stimulation activity if you’re over stimulated.
    • Minimize transitions between tasks when you need to be productive. Transitions are opportunities for distraction. When doing homework, have everything you need at your desk before you start working.
    • Work in a distractionfree environment. As much as possible, try to not work on the computer, or use internet blocking sites when you do. Clear your desk of colorful or otherwise visually distracting stimuli. Find a quiet space.
    • "ReBoot" your brain when you get mentally stagnant. Get up, step away from your work, move around briskly (do jumping jacks or squats or take a short walk.)
  • Strategies for Cognitive Rigidity

    These can be helpful for people who 'overfocus', or get stuck in a mental groove.
    • Create a stimulating, consistent environment for your work. Prepare to be productive by bringing all pertinent materials together before you start.
    • Set “alert” timers to notify you that soon you will need to transition. This way you can be more mentally prepared to shift activities or places.
    • Create a list of your most common worries that you don’t need to take up 'mental desktop space' with them. Write down reasons why you don’t need to worry about these things. Refer to this list as needed.
    • Take a transition break. “Groom yourself” or take a short walk and then start again. By creating an artificial buffer zone, you can give your mind time to transition between tasks. For example, taking a shower can help create the sensation of “cleaning” oneself of the previous activity. A good think to consider, though, is whether or not these transitions will actually make it more difficult for you to start the next task. For some people, transitions can be times when you lose momentum or get distracted—try to be conscious of whether this applies to you.
  • Online Organizational Tools (time management and note taking)

    These are helpful for almost anybody who gets distracted by social media, or has difficulty organizing tasks.
    • Google Calendar: Available free through google accounts (Gmail). You can find this on the top of the page. You create events, adding as much or as little information as you might like. You can also color code, search it, create email or popup reminders, and share things with others (just like you might with a google document).
    • Evernote: This one is my personal favorite... manage todo tasks AND random ideas, links, etc, all at once on a free downloadable software. You create notes that you can sort into notebooks”. You can also search and tag posts easily, store documents, create audio files and manage projects.
    • Tiddlywiki: Nonlinear free downloadable software for a personal web notebook. I can’t say I totally understand this onebut nonlinear/tangential thinkers, this one’s for you! You can easily “write/paste, save and apply a tag” without organizing or fitting it into the bigger picture. It has rave reviews from people with and without AD/HD.
    • Remember the A free (downloadable) online todo list that lets you manage tasks and sends email, SMS or IM reminders about tasks. It also can sync with google calendar.
    • Task Another free todo list manager that lets you sort tasks by time or place and also reminds you to do periodic or recurring tasks. Lets you make note of things that you should get to at some point, but aren’t time sensitive, and lets you colorcode and manage simple projects.
    • iGTD: A free app for Mac that helps you organize things to do and remember. “iGTD helps you organize your life by contexts. Organize your life by projects. Drag your files or browser links to iGTD. Synchronize your tasks with your mobile or PDA. Add new tasks via the menu bar submenu. Search your tasks quickly.”
    • A free (although not unlimited) system to manage “todos”. You can sort tasks into larger projects or themes or types of tasks (tasks to do in car, on email, ect.) add things that you need to sort. You can also add in additional information about “todos” and set deadlines.
    • Basecamp: Unfortunately, this site is only free for a month. This is primarily a project organizing site where users can work together using todo lists, discussions, offline files, or online text documents. You can also see other people’s calendars, can group people, can manage as many projects as you would like, and more. However, it is an expensive site and was originally meant for (and so is geared towards) professionals. 

Works Cited

  • Amen, Daniel. Healing ADD: The Breakthrough Program That Allows You to See and Heal the 6 Types of ADD. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2001. Print.
  • Baldwin, Lynne. Personal Interview. 2012.
  • Barrett, Diana. Personal Interview. 2012.
  • Brown, ThomasAttention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Hallowell, Edwardand John RateyDriven To Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2011. Print.
  • Montgomery, Winifred. Personal Interview. 2012.
  • Samuelson , Beth. "Improving Memory and Organization: Tips and Techniques for Boosting Academic Performance." Parents Education Network. The Exploratorium, San Francisco. July 2012. Lecture.
  • Wallace, Jo. Personal Interview. 2012.


Part of the definition of a learning disorder is that it significantly impacts behavior and learning. That includes having a significant disparity between intelligence and ability. (For example, if someone is really good at comprehending language, but misreads words, it will significantly impact their shown “ability”, regardless of their intelligence.)

Inability or resistance to shifting attention, tasks, or mental states. For example, someone who has difficulty getting their minds “unstuck” from a particular thought or has trouble transitioning from doing homework to having dinner or vice versa.

An Independent Study

    • Written by Sarah Koch '14


It is important to recognize that while AD/HD symptoms can be caused by head trauma, it is most often caused by genetics. It is nobody’s fault and it is not a disorder of willpower. While anything that can hurt a normal brain may compound the symptoms of AD/HD, the condition is not caused by lifestyle, modern technology, or diet. However, by improving our relationships with these aspects of our lives, we can all improve our brains.

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