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ADHD and Learning Problems


Research suggests that learning problems are a key feature of ADHD. Children with ADHD may start having learning problems in kindergarten.

As shown in the table, students with ADHD are at risk for:

  • low grades
  • repeating a grade
  • placement in special education
  • dropping out of high school

Educational outcome ADHD versus non-ADHD peer group
Repeating a grade Two-fold risk
Low grades (Cs and Ds) Two- to four-fold risk
Achievement scores (reading, math) 8% to 10% lower
Placement in special education Two- to four-fold risk
Highest grade in school completed One or two years lower
College grade point average (GPA) 0.7 lower GPA

Why children with ADHD have learning problems

Children with ADHD often have three related difficulties:

  • Attention problems are related to weaknesses in both working memory and academic achievement. Working memory is a “mental workspace” where information is stored for a few seconds, just long enough to manipulate the information to reach a goal.
  • In turn, these two variables relate to each other. For instance, studies show that children with working memory problems do worse on tests. This is true whether or not they have ADHD.

Children with ADHD may also have other problems that affect learning. These include:

  • problems with executive function, which is the ability to identify a problem, plan a solution, carry out the plan, and evaluate how well the plan worked 
  • problems with processing speed

Children with ADHD often have difficulty with study skills and engagement with what they are learning. They may also have specific weaknesses in:

  • language and communication
  • reading
  • writing
  • math

Each of these areas is discussed in more detail in this section. Click the links on the left to learn more.

Helping children with ADHD and learning problems

It is not enough to address the core ADHD symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. To help children with ADHD succeed at school, parents and teachers need to address their cognitive and academic weaknesses as well.

This includes:

  • taking a comprehensive, long-term approach
  • working as a team, with clear communication between home, school, and other professionals
  • identifying the child's learning needs, strengths, and behavioural difficulties early
  • using supports and teaching methods that will help the child learn and stay interested at school

Strategies that can improve children's academic skills include:

  • peer-assisted learning
  • instructional supports
  • study strategies
  • organizational techniques

These are described in more detail in this section of the site. For teachers, there is detailed information on the TeachADHD web site.

 More information

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych
Peter Chaban, MA, MEd
Rosemary Tannock, PhD