Surviving ADHD at Work and School

Accommodations range from desks designed for standing, to talking calculators and office location.


School means seven classes with seven different teachers. Work means all day, five days a week, in a pressure-filled, deadline-oriented office. In either setting, there are assignments to juggle, time to manage, and priorities to organize. For someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, success in school or the workplace is a moving and elusive target.

"People with ADHD can't make it out the door on time. They have trouble finishing projects, problems with paperwork, and usually, a disaster of an office," says psychotherapist Terry Matlen, author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD. "When you take the symptoms of ADHD and put them into a work or school setting, there's more than likely going to be a struggle."

[Struggling at Work? If It's ADHD, There's Help]

About 4 percent of adults and children are believed to have ADHD. They are forgetful and hyperactive, have trouble staying focused and paying attention, and understand or follow instructions with difficulty—all symptoms that can wreak havoc on educational and professional success. Up to a third of students with ADHD drop out of high school, and they're also less likely to attend and graduate from college.

It's no better in the workplace: Adults with ADHD lose an average of three weeks a year of productivity, according to the World Health Organization. They earn less than their coworkers, take more sick days, have more on-the-job accidents, and are more likely to be fired. They also don't get the support that students do. To succeed, they must take the lead by developing coping strategies themselves.

At School

Spurred by greater awareness of the condition and a growing number of diagnoses, schools are catering to ADHD students with innovative approaches to learning, such as under-the-desk pedaling devices that simulate bicycle riding. Desks that are designed for standing or have built-in treadmills are also popular. Movement and standing enhance focus and attention, says Katherine Schantz, head of the Lab School, which serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., who have ADHD and learning disabilities. Even squeezing rubber balls or doodling in class can promote concentration, says Schantz. In fact, past research suggests doodling boosts both concentration and recall by preventing daydreaming and helping to maintain a level of mental arousal, allowing the brain to absorb information. Hands-on instruction using multiple senses is far more effective than the traditional classroom setting, says Schantz. Lab School students spend 40 minutes a day in academic clubs that recapture specific times and places in history. The Renaissance Club, for example, welcomes students to Florence, where they work as guild artists for a patron—their teacher—and learn about history, geography, and civics. In the Revolution Club, students dress up as historical characters to learn about the experiences and perspectives of early American life. The clubs appeal to all types of learners, including those who need to see or hear or touch to understand an idea, and liven up monotonous school days that set a student's mind to wander.

Most students with ADHD, of course, cannot attend expensive specialized schools. But mainstream curriculums are taking ADHD into account—for example, by considering where ADHD students sit. A desk near the front of the classroom minimizes distractions and allows teachers to reengage a student with eye contact or a tap on the desk. "But it must be tailored to the individual student," says Ruth Hughes, interim CEO of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), a nonprofit advocacy group. "Some do better in the front, but others need to be in the very back, where they can wiggle and stand up and sit down without distracting everybody."

To combat forgetfulness, the bane of many ADHD children, some school districts give students two copies of every textbook: one for home and one for school. Writing and listening at the same time can be tough for these children, so some systems provide a peer note taker.