How to face your final year of school with ADHD

Don’t panic. There are a lot of things you can do to prepare for and manage your final year of schooling with ADHD. You’ve come to the right place.

teenage boy study smarter with ADHD
Cameron Burrows Monday, 7 November 2022

You’re finally here. It’s finally here. On the other side – freedom, choices, opportunities, no more school uniform! But here, looking at your final year, it can be a little daunting. It’s a lot for anyone to face. 

For neurodiverse folks, sustaining focus and hard work for a whole year can be an extra challenge. People with ADHD tend to work in short, sharp, efficient bursts powered by interest, competition, novelty or urgency.

No one wants to get stuck in competition mode, urgent fear or the excitement of novelty and interest for an entire year solid – how would you sleep? How could you take a break? Do you just collapse for a year at the end of it to compensate?

First, reality checks: no one is working at full focus for the whole year. Even if they think about little else on purpose, they’re still existing as humans which means they’re thinking about dinner, about that special someone (IRL or in a book, don’t judge!), sleeping, worrying about what to do next year, and balancing the fear that they’re doing it wrong and it will all collapse in a heap of failure.

So, for everybody facing their final year, you’re all in the same boat. It’s a big boat, you are not alone and you can get through it without causing an irrevocable personal apocalypse.

Come back to that reality check whenever you need to level your head. Fear, anxiety, frustration and procrastination may follow you through the year but every single time the answer is that you are not alone, the world will keep spinning, you are enough as you are and you are doing a wonderful job, even if you don’t like your marks. 

So, how to hack the final year to suit your ADHD brain? These tips can be useful for brains without ADHD too, so take pride in using these ideas to help yourself succeed.


1. Brains need bodies

Your final year of schooling will bring a massive cognitive load. All those worries, all that content, all that practice to do and all the complexities of being seventeen-ish in a sea of your peers.

ADHD adds to that cognitive load and can make it harder to hear what your body needs. So, treat your body as if it’s a small child or beloved pet in your care with no one else to look out for it. It needs water, food, movement, rest and sleep – build your day around these pillars if you can. 

How? Set alarms for everything (with gentle songs or tones so you’re not constantly jumping out of your skin). An hourly ‘sip and stretch’ reminder from your phone or smart watch, a pre-breakfast ‘think about breakfast’ prompt and as many ‘get to bed’ alarms as you have to get out of bed can help you take control.

Use the ‘repeat’ function to make sure it happens every day and that you don’t have to think about it again. This takes a lot of worry pressure off your brain through the day – you set this up really well, and you built in flexibility with your back ups, you can trust past you to look after present you and let your brain stop calculating whether you’ve looked after yourself properly. 

We do need to talk about food. Food can be a real challenge for people with ADHD, not because of any inherent eating disorders (though if you do struggle with disordered eating, please follow your professional’s advice – your health matters so much more than your marks) but because of boredom and distraction.

If you’re hyperfocused, you’re likely to forget to eat, be hungry and grab the nearest edible substance which is usually sugary or salty because that stuff lasts forever, gives a dopamine hit, and doesn’t need to live in a fridge. Annoyingly, that kind of food doesn’t make your brain happy. 

There are some speedy, transportable and more healthy options, though nothing can top a fresh cooked meal chockers full of veggies. Pre-cooked rice cups that you microwave, oat sachets, sliced deli meats, protein shakes, and pre-noodled veggie packs (zoodles or the pumpkin ones that unfortunately aren’t called poodles) are your friends.

Pre-cooked frozen meals can be wonderful if you or someone you live with can be bothered batch cooking something tasty. The microwave is your friend. Not your best friend for life, but if it’s the difference between eating some lollies or getting some nutrients, then zap away. 

Your brain needs your body, so look after your body to look after both!


2. Sensational strategies

Beyond keeping you alive, your body can be a helpful academic supporter for your brain. How we encounter information can help our brains to remember that information more efficiently, and can help us to prompt our brains to access that information later. So, use your senses in your studying and do it consistently from the beginning of the year. 

Sight: Use colour coding to help your brain organise information into subjects. Not just in the tabs or book cover of your notes but in everything. Everything related to Maths should be, say, blue – the paper in your notepad or notebook, the highlighter you use, the text colour by hand or online, the background in your online notes, the folder on your desktop. Assign colours to subjects following your gut feeling and stick to it from day 1. Some days you’ll hate the English colour, and others you’ll be keen for the History colour (I hope, please do History, I’m not biased in this advice by being a history teacher at all), but those are signs that it’s working. You’re activating your body to help your brain. 

Sound: Similar to colour coding, use sound coding to help you study. A particular band, album, song or genre for each subject will give your brain memorable structures and save it from a lot of planning, analysis and anxiety. Bonus, when you’re stuck in the exam, start to ‘play’ a relevant song in your head and watch your brain shift into gear. 

Smell: Just like colour and sound, allocating a smell to a specific subject will help to get your brain on board and ease the load of studying. Candles and essential oils are an easy choice (you can just take a whiff of them without lighting them or spraying them around, but try not to get essential oils straight on your skin). You can also use spices in little jars, plants from outside, different perfumes, room sprays, moisturisers or even muscle and congestion rubs which each have fairly distinctive smells. Remember, the point is to make your brain happy so don’t go overboard and stop using anything that gives you a headache.

Taste: As with the others, if you’re a gum chewer, use different flavours for different subjects. Particular healthy snacks can also help here – a little tub of almonds on your desk for studying Biology, jerky for Physics and crunchy oats for English might help to keep you nourished as well as help your brain to store information more easily. This is not to recommend continuous grazing while you study, but to provide a taste prompt for your brain. 

Touch: Last one, but this one’s excellent for ADHDers in particular. When you’re studying, you may be managing fidgeting. Having a specific thing you fidget with for each subject can help too. You’ll know your fidgets if you have them, but things like a fidget spinner, pop trays, bubble wrap, a coiled tape measure, different pens and markers to twirl or click or tap, drumsticks, rings – allocate them to a subject, just for this year.


2. Code Yourself

Before things get into full swing at school, write yourself a list of behaviour codes that are tailored to you, your warning signs and your attention habits. You may have to do an audit, and a friend or family member might be helpful, but if you can get a list going of things like:

  • ‘when the laundry covers the top of the chair completely, it’s time to put on a twenty minute show I’ve seen a thousand times in the background, and race the show to get the laundry put away or into the machine’
  • ‘if I stand up after studying and get a head rush, it’s time to leave the room, do a forward fold and a sun salute, and find water’
  • ‘if I cry twice in a day, that evening is a write off and it’s time for a hoodie, favourite craft and an early bed’
  • ‘if we get the assessment back today, no matter the result, I will take myself out for frozen yoghurt or go barefoot in the park after school’

This list will grow and change, and you might decide to respond differently to your behaviour marker when it comes up, but the point is that this eases the decision-making load on your brain because you’ve already told yourself what you’re supposed to do next. It also helps you to figure out how you’re feeling and how your body’s going, since ADHD can make it harder to notice these things.


4. “Get organised”

This instruction can be the bane of the ADHDer’s school or work life. Advice like ‘just get organised’, ‘have you thought of using a planner?’, and ‘calendar apps will solve your life’ is right up there with ‘just sit still’, ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘focus, don’t get distracted’ in the list of annoying, frustrating and infuriating ‘solutions’ for ADHD. So, instead, let’s talk about strategising. 

Odds are, you will get unsolicited advice about organisation, study and your future from people throughout the year, that’s true for all students, it’s not unique to ADHDers.

But, ADHDers face a lot more ‘corrective feedback’ than others in general, which means that your reserves of patience, grace, humour and resilience might be a bit more depleted than those of your neurotypical peers. 

So, like coding for yourself, plan some responses to these kinds of frustrating moments. They can be vague, like ‘I’ll think about that’ or ‘wise’ or they can be honest, like ‘I’d rather not discuss this on the weekend/at a party/when I’m tired’.

You can be funny but try not to be cruel – yes, it’s annoying and sometimes ignorant if the person should already know that you’ve tried everything, but unsolicited advice like this is usually kindly motivated and it’s almost never worth the effort of conflict. 

But how do you actually get organised with ADHD? If there were a universal solution, it would be everywhere and someone would be a millionaire. Trial and error and self-forgiveness are the main tools for getting organised with ADHD. 

A paper wall planner might be brilliant for your sibling but awful for you. A school diary might have been brilliant last year but a source of guilt this year. A calendar app might have improved, or there might have been new software updates that resolve an issue you previously found infuriating. Audit your own preferences and go from there. Some things to consider:

  • do notifications help you or annoy you?
  • do paper planners fill you with excitement or dread at the moment?
  • how can you use guilt productively for yourself – as in, how can you prompt yourself to avoid or minimise guilt rather than let it build up and get you down?
  • is a well-tended email inbox enough? Can you email yourself important tasks and then not delete the email until it’s complete?
  • are you currently managing to stick to your ADHD management plan if you have one? Are you remembering your meds (if you take them), and to get to all appointments (for ADHD and otherwise, like bracers, chiropractors, physios, facials, etc)? 
  • are you getting all your priority tasks done (like exercise and food and friends)? Be honest about your priorities, if you don’t care about tidying your room then be honest, but consider when ‘avoiding a parental explosion’ will become a priority too.
  • can someone you trust help with this without it being a full-time job for them?
  • can you trick yourself with early due dates for assignments?
  • can your teachers send you reminders via email for big tasks? (some will, some won’t, some will mean to and forget)
  • are post it notes the answer? 

Wherever you land on organisation, be kind to yourself – you’re doing your best and no one can ask for more than that.


5. Ask for help

Building on organisation, you can create a buffer around your ADHD struggles by talking to people. You don’t have to be obvious or loud about it or become ‘the ADHD kid,’ but sending a teacher an email letting them know that you struggle with focus and organisation, that you’re doing your best and could they please send reminders or forgive a late assignment can go an awfully long way to easing the pressure. 

Similarly, if special provisions are available to you, explore that option. It’s not ‘cheating’ or being lazy or being a ‘snowflake’. Our education system has recognised that not everyone operates in the same way and that some life circumstances can impact school performance.

It’s done this through the special considerations provisions and while the system is a long way from perfect, it’s not going to get better by suffering in silence, punishing yourself unnecessarily because your brain has a difficult relationship with dopamine that is entirely beyond your control, or disadvantaging yourself to avoid other people (who don’t know or particularly care about you) thinking you’re lazy. 

In terms of daily life organisation, people can be surprisingly helpful if you ask. A good friend might be more than happy to send you ‘stand up and stretch reminders’ every time they do that themselves, and a sibling might enjoy trying to surprise you with their ‘drink water’ reminders.

Help can be fun and it can build bonds with other people, and you can always thank them for their help and ask them to stand down from reminder duty if you want change. 

You can also motivate yourself by offering to help others. You may not be great at remembering to feed yourself but if you’re worried a friend might be holding off on their after-school snack until you remind them, you’re both much more likely to end up eating.

Plus, helping others gives us nice rushes of dopamine, as well as purpose, meaning and stronger relationships. Worth a try!


6. Hack your hyperfocus

This is the part of ADHD that people call a superpower and, like all heroes at school, you’re still learning how to use your powers properly and for good. 

Long term projects like preparing for a major exam or doing major works for creative subjects or extension English courses can be daunting enough to stop you from even trying, whether ADHD is a factor or not.

One hack that can help here is to turn the long haul into a bunch of short haul problems. You and your peers have a certain distance to cover. If they can do it at a steady jog without stopping, that’s great. You might prefer to sprint and rest, and that is great too. It’s allowed, you have permission, you don’t have to account for how you’re getting yourself there. 

What does this look like? If you’ve got a major project or just want to organise a study plan, chat with the teacher, a classmate, a sibling, a parent or a tutor and break that project down into all the relevant steps, bits, distraction points and probable problems.

Predicting what needs to happen is difficult for everyone, so having someone to talk it through with can bring things down to earth and help you get real about what you need to do. Make sure the steps all get written down, ideally in a shareable format that can help you seek accountability later.

Then, you can treat each of those project blocks as an independent task, do them when you’ve got a focus burst, and then stop thinking about it in the gaps. Don’t beat yourself up for not being ‘on’ all the time, for taking breaks or for doing things your way. 

An example of how this might look for a study plan could be looking at the syllabus and the class content plan and deciding that notes are due on each syllabus dot point on a certain date (with an accountability check or a funishment – like having to let your sibling style your hair, or hanging with your accountability friend but they get to choose the film and you have no say in it.

Obviously, if you do the work on time, you get to make them look silly or choose the movie). Then you can add in practice activities and build things up across the year until you’re doing timed practice papers. 

For a major work, you might need to think differently. If it involves research and inspiration, you may need to set a time limit on that – as in, you’ll let your mind run wild until Monday of Week 6 and then you have to work from there.

That can help prevent you from thinking ‘but there must be an answer out there’, ‘I can solve the whole problem’ and ‘if I just do a bit more research I’ll be ready to do the next step’.

Then, if it involves writing, you owe someone 500 words a week through term 1, or a complete first draft by the end of term. ADHD brains thrive on urgency, so take some control of what is urgent and when and direct your hyperfocus to take over from any procrastination guilt.


6. Manage Distractions

ADHD can be a wonderful thing. It can help you master a subject overnight, see solutions others can’t fathom and give you endless reserves of enthusiasm.

But, when you’re trying to do a final year of school, the glitter of interest can fade from schoolwork and march off into the woods of distraction.  When this happens, there’s no point telling yourself off for it. Instead, recognise it, respect it and manage it. 

How? Keep a future file. This can be in any format as long as it can catch all of the things that you want to investigate and explore outside of school life. Big or small, by writing down the idea that’s niggling at your focus, you’re giving your brain the reassurance that you both can and will come back to it, and that the idea is safe until that time.

The notes feature on your phone can be great for this, as can keeping open a draft email to yourself, or a piece of paper at the back of your school folder. 

How can Cluey help?

Having a tutor to talk to can be a wonderful way of building accountability into your study, workshopping your project plans, and of coding your memories for easy brain access. Interacting with other people about certain subjects can make the content more memorable, because you might remember their facial expressions when they explained mathematical induction, or the joke you made when they tried to speak like Shakespeare.

Cluey is eager to help, so if you’re curious about Cluey’s approach to tutoring students with ADHD, get in touch with Cluey today.

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