How to Help Children and Teens with ADHD Stay on Task

Young boy sits with parent at small table and adds activity to calendar on wallMany children and adolescents with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) have a hard time keeping track of their assignments, after-school activities, doctor’s appointments, and other daily tasks and commitments. Parents, of course, often take on the responsibility of reminding them about these things and making sure everything goes as smoothly as possible. While that certainly helps in the short term and can minimize parenting headaches, providing kids affected by ADHD with opportunities and tools to develop organizational skills is a better long-term strategy.

Helping kids with ADHD keep track of their schedules ideally should begin at a young age with at least keeping them aware of what their schedule is. A large calendar in a common area, a color-coded, hour-by-hour schedule, or a similar item is especially helpful for preschool and elementary school-aged children. Older children and teens may also benefit from calendars on tablets, smartphones, and other portable devices. This can reinforce the idea that technology can be useful as well as fun.

The following tips are suggested for keeping track of activities on a device:

  • Put the school day, after-school activities, doctor’s appointments, trips, etc. into a calendar app. Ideally, it should be synced with one on the family computer.
  • Have a shared family calendar, but allow your child to have their own private calendar.
  • Encourage them to use alerts as reminders. In some instances, having teens set alerts to go off when they are in specific locations (places outside of school) could be helpful.

For younger children and teens, using a whiteboard or some sort of visual list of tasks can be helpful. Older children and teens often benefit from using task lists on electronic devices (provided they have frequent access to them). However, often kids (and adults, too) put items on a task list and forget to check it, so the tasks do not get done. Thus, here are some suggestions for maximizing the effectiveness of electronic to-do lists:

  • Have your child or teen download a few different ones to see what format they like best.
  • Especially for younger children, set up lists so you also have access to them.
  • For children/teens of all ages, have a private to-do list and a shared one so your child can add items they need you to do (complete permission slips, etc.) and you can add items for them to do (pick up milk after school, etc.).
  • Make sure alerts go off at times when your child/teen realistically is able to do the task.
  • Take advantage of apps that integrate a task list and calendar and visually show tasks on the calendar at the time they are scheduled to be completed.
  • Don’t have your child/teen put every little thing they need to do on the list (say, 20 or 30 items on a single list) because it may be overwhelming and thus decrease the likelihood they follow through on completing items.

No matter which tools you use to help your child or teen with time management, electronic or otherwise, it is important to help them build organizational skills from a young age that extend beyond you constantly reminding them. Learning not only where to be and what to do, but doing so on their own, fosters feelings of self-efficacy and accomplishment, decreases reliance on parents, and is a core skill they can use throughout their lives.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey Heller, PsyD, ADHD: Inattention, Impulsivity, and Hyperactivity Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Taylor

    May 24th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    I have found that with my husband it is always best for is to have everything in writing and a visual of that too. So see I can’t just tell him a date, he has to be able to see it on a big calendar and have it on his phone. You would think that having too many things like this would be a distraction for him, but no, he likes to see it over and over again and then it kind of sticks with him better.

  • Rena

    May 25th, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    The phone alerts are awesome for my son. Now he is in charge of setting all of that up so that is some added responsibility for him, but it really has been good for him.

  • pia

    May 25th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    I understand that the repetition can tend to be a little frustrating but I think tat to keep younger children on task a lot of the things that we take for granted have to be done as a routine, something that the child becomes so accustomed to doing it that it is habitual and begins to feel more like what they are supposed to do and less like work.

  • Rhea

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:43 AM

    I don’t even feel like I have a calendar of my own anymore, because everything that I get to do is so interconnected to the things that the kids do.

  • carter p

    May 27th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    One of the most helpful things for us as a family was to get all of our sons teachers on board with us too. They have been great at helping us maintain continuity so that what they do at school we model at home and vice versa. I am not sure that without their help we ever could have had the success story with him that we have.

  • Tinsley

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    from a very early age I think that my parents knew that there was something going on with me that caused us to have to do things a little differently. I am lucky that they did not make this seem like a burden or a challenge although I am sure that at times it certainly was both for them! But we worked with a counselor to come up with the best ways that they could all help me to achieve and I did. I am also glad that they allowed me to be a part of this process, to talk about the things that did work and those that didn’t and that they were not set that it had to be one way and no other options were available.

  • Jenna

    May 29th, 2016 at 9:57 AM

    We keep visual reminders everywhere, keeps him focused and his mind on the things that have to be done instead of wandering about in the things that should be left for later and for free time.

  • Justine

    May 29th, 2016 at 7:05 PM

    My husband sort of has this thing where he almost hyper focuses on something, and then he can’t pay any attention to anything but that. To say that he cannot multitask is an understatement. Could he have ADD>

  • mika

    May 30th, 2016 at 9:54 AM

    @justine have the two of you talked with a doctor?

  • Carey Heller, Psy.D.

    May 31st, 2016 at 11:43 AM

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Anita

    September 18th, 2016 at 8:48 AM

    I’d love to see more on how to keep your teenager on task while in the thick of an assignment. If I am not present, checking in periodically, he will linger over a single assignment for hours. He’s stuck in his head or using the computer (that he needs for the assignment) for frequent or long video “breaks.” It’s gotten to a crisis point where he has no time to organize, to clean his room, to work on the volunteer work he set up for himself, or even to hang out with friends (which is presumably the most important thing in his life, but he has no time leftover). The workload isn’t light, but even with mild distraction he would spend maybe 1.5 hours on it instead of 8 or more. Any suggestions??? Thanks in advance!

  • Sarah

    December 5th, 2022 at 3:52 PM

    I have to knock on the door or wall if she is in doing homework, so that she remains on task. I also encourage 1/2 down time the minute she arrived off the bus along with a snack and water. I have her set the oven timer and after that timer, she sets out to complete her homework. I check on her periodically and ask if she needs any help. She often feels overwhelmed, tired, jumpy, zoning out and overreacts constantly, when she gets overwhelmed, she becomes angry and frustrated, I say time out, go scream into pillow or discuss after a 10 min break, what the real route of the problem is, generally something happened at school or on the bus. I remind her that she has plenty of time and encourage breathing techniques and chill time.

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