Like many people with ADHD, I wasn’t always a huge fan of school. When August came and the final countdown until day one of a new semester began, the same familiar feelings of anxiety and even dread would crop up every year.
This same pattern repeated itself summer after summer, but that’s not to say I didn’t make any progress. By the time I was in college, and especially after I was diagnosed, I started to make incremental adjustments that helped me go back to school a little more gracefully.
Here are some things I found useful for doing this. I mostly started doing these in college, partly just because that’s when you have more control over how you approach school, but I’m sure some of them could have helped when I was in high school too.
1. Choose your courses strategically
What courses you take determines the basic content of your semester. Choose wisely, because you’re going to be stuck with your choices for a while!
For me, choosing courses strategically meant a few things:
- Making it a priority to enroll in the courses that were most likely to keep me engaged
- Not overcommitting. People with ADHD sometimes have trouble planning ahead and figuring out how much time things will take. When finding the right course load, error on the side of not being incredibly stressed out and overworked. The right course load might not look the same for you as for your friend who doesn’t have ADHD.
- Knowing what kinds of courses fit best with the way your brain works. When I was in college, I found that hands-on courses in things like computer programming and music were a much more natural fit with my MO. So I tried to take as many of these classes as possible. Sometimes there will be a conflict between your interests and the kinds of courses that work best for you. For example, I like math, but the way math courses are structured generally doesn’t bring out the best in me, so I dialed it back on the math courses as I went through college. There’s some trial and error involved here, so you’ll get better at it each year you go back.
2. Plan to make a few concrete changes in how you do things
If you have ADHD, there’s a good chance you’ll have room for improvement when it comes to your study skills – things like time management and staying organized.
That’s how I was when I was in college, anyway, although I genuinely wanted to get better at going through school in a less chaotic and stressful way. So every year I would commit to myself: OK, this year is going to be different, I’m going to be organized, not procrastinate, and keep up to speed with my work.
And of course, every year I’d fail. I’d fail because my plan of action was just too general. “Being a better student” isn’t a specific strategy for change.
An approach that’ll actually get you results is to think up a few concrete changes you can make in your habits. For example, “I’m going to keep a planner where I write down all my homework assignments” or “I’m going to start the homework assignments for this one class the day they’re assigned.”
No need to reach for a radical goal that’s unattainable. Making a few simple adjustments and sticking with them will make everything easier and have cascading positive effects in how you approach school.
3. Don’t have unreasonable expectations
It’s easy to go back to school with unrealistic expectations, even more so before you get diagnosed. I’d often find myself arriving back on campus thinking “this year is going to be different, I’m going to pull things together and stay on top of my work this year.”
Once I got diagnosed, I started to get clued in on the fact that no, my ADHD symptoms weren’t just going to spontaneously vanish. Accepting this made it possible for me to start figuring out how to work with my brain as it was, not wish for a brain I didn’t have.
Going back to school with the unreasonable expectation that your ADHD-related struggles won’t be a problem this time doesn’t just result in disappointment. It actively prevents you from developing healthy coping strategies based on accepting your symptoms and working with them instead of against them.
Instead, returning to college with the attitude that things will be the same, but I can make this change and this change and then my life will be a little better is the way to go because it empowers you to find ways of thriving with your diagnosis instead of holding out hope that your diagnosis will go on summer vacation and not come back.
4. Do a recap of last semester
One of the best ways to figure out where to focus your ADHD coping efforts this semester is to do a recap on last semester. Look at what worked and, maybe even more important, what didn’t work.
Then brainstorm some ways to keep doing whatever worked and to adjust whatever didn’t. Make sure your adjustments are practical, concrete things you can control – not things like using “willpower” to make your symptoms go away.
Occasionally, you might find that the things that went wrong last semester are more general things. Maybe you felt a little purposeless and unmotivated in your work. But general problems can still have specific solutions – in this case, clarifying what your goals are and what you hope to get out of college as you head into this semester.
The transition back to school can be tough when you have ADHD. Accept that things aren’t going to be perfect, and find a way to keep up the fight when things go wrong.
Above all, treat yourself with compassion – listen to your instincts about what’s working and not working, and figure out what you can do to keep your stress down and your motivation up. Best of luck for a productive and fulfilling semester!
Got any ADHD back to school tips? Please share them below!