Academic problems of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Among children of similar ability, those exhibiting Attention Deficit Disorder with hyperactivity .(ADHD) have lower grades and lower scores on standardized achievement tests. Eighty percent of 11-year-olds with ADHD are reported to be at least two years behind in one or more academic subjects. By adolescence, over half of ADHD children taught in regular classrooms fail at least one grade. Over one-third fail to finish high school. These statistics lead Sydney S. Zentall, Purdue University, to conclude that ADHD has been seriously neglected.

Attentional problems

Zentall reports that ADHD students suffer two attentional problems: they have difficulty selectively attending to the most important aspects of tasks and they have difficulty maintaining their attention. It is the combination of these two attentional problems that causes ADHD children to fall behind academically. Despite the fact that they may have a good understanding of math concepts, ADHD students often perform significantly below average in math computation because their inability to sustain attention keeps them from memorizing math facts. These children often exhibit problems in reading comprehension, especially with longer passages. They are less likely to fall behind in vocabulary, however, probably because vocabulary is not associated with sustained attention. Because spelling requires selective attention to details of letter sequence as well as sustained practice, many ADHD students have trouble with it. Their handwriting is often illegible because they have such difficulty putting in the practice time necessary to learn to write well.


Behaviorally, ADHD children exhibit excessive talking and physical activity. Zentall reports that the novelty of tasks or settings as well as task difficulty can affect the activity level of these children. Highly active children appear unable to repeat patterns long enough to be able to memorize or to develop the kinds of automatic responses that enable most students to complete rote academic tasks quickly and easily.


Because ADHD students tend to be impulsive, they find it difficult to consider information carefully or to think about the implications of their responses. For this reason, their performance on multiple choice tests is often poor and they have poor planning skills as well. They often don’t stop to read directions and rarely ask for help because the delay necessary in waiting for help is intolerable to them.

Zentall believes that a person’s activity level follows a normal, genetically based curve in much the same way that height and I.Q. do. He reports that 60 to 75 percent of relatives of ADHD children show similar characteristics. Furthermore, just as external factors such as nutrition can affect height and deprivation can affect I.Q., so factors in the environment can either inhibit or increase activity level and attention in children with ADHD.

Instructional implications

During instruction, ADHD students’ bias toward novelty and the need for activity inhibits their ability to selectively attend to the key features of a task or to sustain attention long enough to develop routines. Failure to sustain attention occurs primarily during simple or repetitive tasks. During these activities, ADHD students seek alternative stimulation, which all too often results in their failure to complete tasks or learn rote skills.

In the absence of sufficient stimulation or interest, they are unable, as well, to sustain the attention required for reading comprehension. Four out of five ADHD children skip approximately one-fourth of the text they read, especially under quiet conditions. They are more likely to skip text and comprehend poorly during silent reading than when reading aloud.

Selective use of stimulation can focus and maintain attention to help these students learn more effectively. Research indicates that audio or visual aids, imaginative use of color and novel settings for tests can improve attention and thereby performance. Likewise, lessons in the form of games can improve behavior.

There is also some evidence that learning tasks that involve gross motor activity can increase attention to task and decrease hyperactive or aggressive behavior. Delays appear to be better tolerated by these students when verbal or motor activity is possible during the wait. Zentall concludes that changes in the nature of academic tasks and the type of response allowed are important accommodations for ADHD students.

“Research on the Educational Implications of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”, Exceptional Children, Volume 60, Number 2, pp. 143-153.

Published in ERN, February/March 1994, Volume 7, Number 2.

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