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How To Teach Your Student With ADHD To Prioritize

Updated: Jun 13

Read Time: 5 minutes


Have you ever found yourself at the end of a busy day and felt like you accomplished nothing?


If so, you know how it feels to be a student with ADHD.


Prioritizing critical tasks is one of the biggest struggles for students with ADHD.


Keep reading to discover a simple and effective framework to share with your students so they end the day feeling empowered and accomplished.


Ready to go?


The Problem with Staying “Busy”

Most students start working by doing whatever they see first.


Maybe they open Google Classroom and see a missing assignment or begin an unfilled worksheet in their backpack.


I totally get this approach, and I’ve done it a million times.


This might keep them busy for the day, but when the day ends and they realize they still need to submit a draft of their final essay by 8 AM the next day, despair and avoidance start to kick in.


In my experience, this "just start somewhere" approach does not lead to feelings of accomplishment at the end of the day.


Productivity Tips That Don’t Work For Students With ADHD


After providing executive function coaching to more than one hundred students, I’ve heard all types of “strategies” that are well-intentioned but don’t work for students with ADHD.


Here is a commonly repeated one:


“When you are given a task, do it right away.”

I don’t love this advice. While there are times when knocking out a task right when it is given can be useful and helpful, it doesn’t tell the whole story.


Often, it is better to set that task aside and determine where it falls in your priorities.


And for the “Tackle the easy stuff first!” believers? Sure, it is great to get some momentum going and move from inaction to action, but what happens when you’ve been “tackling” the easy stuff all day and then you get to the end of the day?


These approaches don’t work for students with ADHD because their executive function is like a battery that drains each day.


All the “easy” tasks accumulate, along with decision fatigue from the day's challenges, leaving no energy to approach those critical to-do’s that were held for last.


What Research Tells Us About Prioritization

A famous study by Stanford professor Baba Shiv illustrates the battery-like nature of our executive function.


Baba asked 165 undergraduate students to memorize either two or seven-digit numbers.


After memorizing one of the numbers, students were offered a snack: chocolate cake or fruit salad.


Those who memorized the seven-digit number, experiencing a higher cognitive load, were nearly TWICE as likely to choose the cake.


The lesson?


As our cognitive load increases, our inhibition diminishes, leading to poorer choices.


By tackling difficult tasks when our executive function is strongest BEFORE the decision fatigue of the day sets in, we have a better chance of mustering the willpower to accomplish the most critical tasks.


Read on to learn how you can leverage this research to help your student end their day feeling accomplished and fulfilled rather than overwhelmed and dejected.


1: Teach Them To Begin With The End In Mind


Instead of suggesting your kid "just start something", ask your student these questions before they start their homework:


“If you check your portals, which class has the lowest grade right now?”

Your student might say, “Oh, I see I have a ‘D’ in science, but all my other grades are a ‘B’ or above.”


Then, as the parent or executive function coach, you would say, “What grade would you like to earn in science by the end of the semester?”


Likely, your student will say an “A” or “B,” at which point you would say, “How would it feel to earn an ‘A’ or ‘B’?


Most likely, they will say, “relieved,” “accomplished,” or “proud”.


In this short interaction, you have done a few powerful things:


  • You’ve modeled a series of metacognitive questions that will allow them to learn how to prioritize


  • You’ve used motivational interviewing to help them set an executive goal in an area of need


  • You used the power of non-verbal working memory and visualization to help them connect a desired feeling with a future outcome


Now, they will need your guidance to identify something they can do today to support that larger goal.


2: Teach Them How To Identify The Next Best Step


Half the battle is done once your student has identified their long-term goal.


Now, you need to go small -- really small.


If we continue with our example above, your student could review all the missing and upcoming Science assignments and determine which one has the greatest point value.


One of the easiest ways to manage this process is to create a Student Dashboard, which you can learn more about in this article.


When they see all of those pesky assignments with their due dates and point values, it will be easy to determine which is the top priority — the one worth the most points!


Saliency determination, or knowing what is most important, is a major challenge for students with ADHD. Seeing all their assignments in one place with the associated point values and due dates makes things much easier and reduces cognitive overwhelm.


Before they start on something past due, have them email their teacher to confirm their action plan. There is nothing worse than doing all the work and then hearing the teacher say, “You can’t turn this in.”


If you want to learn more about that process, check out the email templates from this article which provides templates you can use with your student to make communicating with their teachers a breeze.


3. Teach Them How To Task-Initiate


The old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? — One bite at a time.”


Similarly, now that you have identified the long-term goal and the most salient next step, it is time to work on the smallest next step.


All this cognitive work to uncover the priority will result in a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day, but that hinges on the student actually doing something.


Here is a powerful question you can ask to prompt action:


“What is the least time you would be willing to work on (insert assignment name)?”

Your student might say something like, “3 minutes.”


Then, you can say, “Want me to set a timer, and we can check in after those 3 minutes are up?”


After doing this with hundreds of students, 99% of the time, the student will want to continue working on it after that initial 3 minutes is up.


They actually start to feel a sense of euphoria upon engaging in the dreaded task!


The bottom line: Satisfaction is not drawn from staying busy but rather from identifying the task that is most connected to your long-term goals and taking action on it.


Today’s Action Step


Here is how you can act on this framework today.


  1. Sit with your student and ask them to pull up their grades.

  2. Have them identify which class has the lowest grade.

  3. Next, have them use their portals to identify which assignment in that class with the lowest grade has the highest point value.

  4. Ask them what the least time they are willing to work on that assignment is for. Set a timer.

  5. Once they have completed that minimum time, ask them if they want to keep going. You might be surprised by what they say.


With just 30 minutes of your time investment, you can help them learn the power of prioritization that will yield a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.


If you want to explore this approach further, my Semester Success Blueprint (SSB) course is designed to help parents and educators support students with ADHD or Autism in prioritizing what matters most.


This self-paced course empowers students to have fewer missing assignments (or none!), confidently communicate with their teachers, earn better grades and test scores, and reduce parental nagging and bickering.


Join SSB to help your student end their day feeling accomplished and fulfilled rather than exhausted and overwhelmed.




About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 


With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.


He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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