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."
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.
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.
ADHD-savvy teachers also assign homework orally and hand out written instructions, increasing the likelihood that one or the other will register. Some allow students with ADHD to run occasional errands, like delivering files to the school office, to burn off fidgety energy. Alternating between physical and mental activities helps, too, as does increasing the novelty of lessons by blending films, tapes, flash cards, and group work.
Students who spend years in nurturing classrooms eventually move on to jobs, with potentially unsympathetic bosses. Some experts warn that job applicants and employees should not disclose their condition. "You don't know what your boss or coworkers think or know about ADHD," says clinical psychologist Ari Tuckman of West Chester, Pa. "There's still a lot of misinformation out there. If they have some farfetched notion about what it means, it may not be conducive to a good working situation."
The first step in minimizing the ADHD factor at work is to make it TO work, says Matlen. "Getting up in the morning requires a tremendous effort," she says. "A lot of people with ADHD have trouble shutting down at night—their brains are so overactive they can't sleep." Multiple alarm clocks may help: one on the nightstand to wake up and another five feet away that can only be turned off by getting out of bed. A third in the bathroom might even be a good idea, Matlen says.
Since productivity often varies depending on the time of day, flex time is a viable alternative to a fixed schedule. Some employees may choose to delay their start time; others may arrive early, if that's when they're most focused, or decide to occasionally work from home.
Eliminating workplace distractions like chatty coworkers can boost concentration. If available, private offices or cubicles should be requested. When you approach your boss, describe a symptom instead of naming your condition, Tuckman says. For example: "I have a tendency to get distracted if I'm in a noisy environment. Is there a quiet spot where I could sit?" Otherwise, spend an hour working in an unused conference room, or close the curtains to minimize outside distractions. A noise-blocking headset or soft music can muffle—if not eliminate—office racket. Even adding a "do not disturb" sign or turning the desk to avoid facing the door can help those thrown off by interruptions. Meetings in particular can be nervewrackingly chaotic or deadly dull. If you tend to zone out or lose track, record them and review the sessions later, undisturbed.
Since people with ADHD are often visually oriented, files, schedules, and other documents should be color-coded. To combat time management problems, break projects into smaller tasks and create a schedule allocating a specific amount of time to each piece. Use a vibrating watch to (silently) stick to that schedule—and to remember phone calls and meeting times.
Moving around throughout the day can counter a tendency to fidget and chatter. Scheduled breaks are helpful, especially before and after long meetings. "Take the long way when you're walking around the office," says Tuckman. "Take the stairs instead of the elevator, and go for a walk or to the gym at lunch. Tell people that you do your best thinking when you're moving around—that it gets the juices flowing."