I have recently started tutoring a 14-year-old student who is diagnosed with ADHD and was struggling with passing a basic math course (think basic linear equations systems, first and second degree equations, evaluating polynomials, Pythagoras theorem, etc.).

For reasons not relevant here, the student is not under any medication, so it's hard for her to concentrate at times. I manage to keep our classes engaging, give her breaks when it's obvious she needs them, keep homework light, etc. I believe she suffers from low selfsteem when it comes to studies, so I am very encouraging, always frame criticism positively, highlight what she did right even if she got the answer wrong, etc.

She understands what the goal of the exercises are and the rules to operate within the exercises, but will often "forget" through an exercise (e.g. get the sign wrong when multiplying two integers; or completely butcher the process of solving a system of linear equations when the day before she knew the method well).

I have noticed that those errors are less frequent the more she practices one kind of exercise (for example, she would get signs wrong all the time when first working on linear equations, and barely gets them wrong now after a few weeks of practice). So I think practice and consistency is key for her, but it is obvious that she cannot "grind" them for hours (or even one hour) as a neurotypical person might be able to.

The situation

Her grades went up, but she still failed the course, so she needs to retake the exam in September.

I have identified the following issues:

  1. She often skips steps when doing something, often leading to numerical errors she wouldn't make otherwise.
  2. She won't double check an exercise is correct before considering it "finished", leading to errors which she would probably detect otherwise.
  3. She sometimes loses focus and considers an exercise "finished" before actually finishing it (for example, not calculating the value actually being asked but stopping one step before).
  4. She is lacking sufficient practice in many areas of the subject, so sometimes doubts what is to be done when it should be automatic at this stage.

I believe all of them can be improved with practice, by making it a habit to double check results (assisted by a calculator), writing down what is being asked and not considering the exercise done until one can draw a rectangle around the answer, etc. Furthermore, it is clear that practice cannot come from 4 days of intense study, as she simply lacks the capacity to sit down and work on something for extended periods of time.

My idea

I thought it might be good to have her do a couple of exercises a day under "exam conditions" (meaning she is expected to deliver her very best work, and particularly double check the answers). These exercises should not take more than 30 minutes in total, so she could fit them whenever she wants through her completely-free summer day. By the end of summer, she should have more than enough practice with each kind of exercise.

My problem with this is that I have seen what happens when she is "forced" to do homework when she doesn't feel like it: she delivers crap (knowing it is crap), to get her parents off her back. That's a waste of time for everyone involved (particularly me, who need to write feedback which I know she doesn't really need, as she knows that's not how you approach the exercise anyway).

I really want to change the focus from "Your task is to get this over with as soon as possible" to "Your task is to do this right". I can't think of a way of doing that, though. Measures like "If you the exercise wrong I will have your parents make you re-do it" sort of defy the purpose of not having the exercises become a drag, plus I know she can't do good work even if she wants to after a while. Plus I'd really like to not have it become a situation in which she is monitored by her parents and feels more pressure, as I really want her to not hate the whole experience.

My question

What would be a good way of getting someone like the student I've described actually get work done and get into good habits when solving exercises (not skipping steps, making it clear what the answer to the problem is, etc.)? It's not so much a matter of motivation or not understanding the course work, just inability to actually do the required grinding the way other people might be able to.

NOTE: I am aware this might be offtopic, but it's literally an issue I encountered as a mathematics educator, and I couldn't find a more suitable community. I also think the answer does depend on the subject being math, as it allows for a different method of studying the syllabus compared to other subjects.

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    $\begingroup$ No one does their best work when it is done under duress. You are in a no-win situation. (Actually, gamifying might help... See if there are any really fun gamified apps for what she's learning.) $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Jun 21 '21 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent question. You might want to specify the country so that we might know what kind of official resources are available. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Jun 21 '21 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ "Interleaving" might help as well -- mixing it up within each session so she does not get too bored with doing the same type of problem over and over (and so she has to re-process the differences in each type of question each day). Agree with the gamifying suggestion. $\endgroup$
    – Opal E
    Jun 21 '21 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @SueVanHattum OpalE I have tried some gamification in the explanation process (by using Minecraft, which she loves, to illustrate as many concepts as possible). I am trying to come up for ideas for this "grinding" stage, where I don't need to explain that much, just offer minor guidance, create a study plan and grade her homework. Maybe granting points for well-resolved exercises which she could redeem somehow (how? Days off is the obvious thing I can gift, but probably not a great way to frame the whole thing); plotting her grades privately and showing her when it shows improvement... $\endgroup$ Jun 21 '21 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ Usually, I am against worksheets, but your case seem to benefit from a very detailed and rigidly structured worksheet. Or, if you prefer using blank paper for exercises, having a checklist, a plan that she would follow. Solving all the exercises quicker would get her parents off her back. I would not gamify anything nor offer prizes - a well-done exercise should be felt like a prize all by itself. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Jun 21 '21 at 19:05

Disclaimer: I'm not a psychologist and I'm not trained to deal with "complicated" students such as this. It's perfectly possible the method I used was counterproductive, I wouldn't know. However, we eventually were successful and the student managed to master the concepts and passed the exam comfortably.

Method used

  • I provided the student with a sheet detailing how to solve each type of problem step by step, with examples; another sheet about how to verify the results they got were correct; and another sheet with tips and tricks to detect errors as soon as possible, to avoid working needlessly.
  • Each day I would send the student 30 minutes worth of exercises.
  • The exercise sheet looked very similar day after day: solve a couple linear equations systems using two different methods, solve a problem requiring Pythagoras theorem with a small twist (do something with the result of applying Pythagoras), and solving a problem which requires setting your own equations system. This would go on for 8 weeks.
  • The student would tackle the exercises whenever she wanted through the day, and split it in chunks if they so desired; they would send them back to me for feedback.
  • I would not demand proof that she had followed any of the advice I gave in the sheets, but made sure to let her know if she made mistakes which would have been caught had she followed my advice.
  • If an exercise wasn't properly solved I would hint at what kind of mistake it was, and tell her that she had to send me a corrected the exercise before I send any more exercises. My aim here was for her to be able to detect mistakes in her own work.
  • The student would be in charge of their own workload: I would not push them or pester them. If she had to redo some exercises, I would be happy for her to do it the next day. At most, if she had failed to send the answers the previous day, I would let her know I would not send any more exercises until the previous ones were handed in, to not overwhelm her.
  • Whenever possible, I would not involve the parents. It had to be clear that it was something she had to do for her own sake and out of her own volition, not to please anyone (her parents or me).

How it went

I noticed some serious improvement the first couple of weeks. Exercises went from being impossible to mark (as it wasn't clear what she was trying to accomplish) to being understandable, and in many cases correct.

At one point she asked me for a few days off, as she knew she was delivering at a good pace and was a bit overloaded. I gladly let her take a week off, and it was really hard to reel her in afterwards (the quality declined significantly from before the vacation).

However, she was motivated and managed to put in the hours (despite my advice not to push herself too hard to avoid frustration/burn out). She ended up realising that it was actually less work to verify the exercises before handing them in and trying to detect mistakes than having to redo the same exercise over and over again. It was still difficult for her, and she would often forget despite me reminding her daily that it was a step she should do, for her own sake, before handing things in.

In the end she was comfortable with the exercises. She knew where to look for mistakes when things didn't add up, but it was very mentally demanding for her to do so (she'd rather redo the exercise completely without looking at her first attempt than re-read her own work to find a minor mistake), so it wasn't possible to do away with the silly mistakes completely. I learnt to first not show my frustration about this and then just not be frustrated by it.

Still the result was good enough, and honestly I think close to the best that could be achieved given the circumstances. I had to switch my aim from "Have her do the exercises perfectly, following every single step, verifying things, etc." to "Have her do exercises well enough", as attempts of achieving the first resulted in great frustration for both of us.


I think something which played in my favour was the fact that I was doing it for free, as she's somewhat close to me. Hence, when she tried to fool me (she tried a few times, by solving the exercises online) or I saw she made absolutely no effort and was wasting my time, I could play the card of "I'm doing this for you, not for me. I know you have places you'd rather be, but I guarantee I do too. I'm glad to be able to help you, but I really don't want to waste my time or yours, so if you're not willing to take this seriously we can just call it quits".

I "only" had to do this twice: once when she tried to fool me by copying her answers from somewhere two days in a row, after I let it slide with some complicit talk the previous day; and the second time when she delivered utterly terrible work for three days in a row.

Personal conclusions

It became clear to me that there's a limit to how well she can do under her current circumstances (untreated severe ADHD). I adjusted my expectations to that, reassured her when she got frustrated with herself and had an honest talk with the parents about my impressions. Anything else is outside my control.


I think you are doing a good job, engaging with the kid and moving things along. There's a lot we don't know about the brain and about pedagogy, even for normal learners. Then for syndromes like ADHD, there's a lot unknown about what exactly that means. Surely not the same thing for each person so diagnosed. And then there are confounding variables to ADHDness (IQ, others). So good job just establishing a program and seeing what works.

Drill and repetition help all students. Some need more than others, but even very original thinkers like Richard Feynman benefited from it.

Few minor additions to consider:

  1. Force entire rework of missed problems. Even if (or especially if) it was a "dumb mistake". I don't mean rework every single problem. But all the missed ones. So if she does five problems and misses two, rework those. And then when reworking them, she (or you or I or any student) should do it from a "blank sheet". I.e. forced to write the whole problem down with any steps or the like. (It becomes a chance to do free practice of the known parts of the problem and gives more correction than just pen and ink fixing one component.) This may not be as applicable if you are doing single step arithmetic. But it applies to any multi-step process (long division, solving for x, fraction multiplication, etc.).

  2. Try to create some small gamification of her work. So if she does a set of 10 (or 5 or 3) problems, make it a goal to see what percent she gets right. Can even track this from day to day and give her some little feeling of trying to beat the day before. Personally I would give a small sweet for a perfect set. (But commenters will disagree.) Could do gold stars if you prefer.

  3. Try to build towards doing some set of problems at a time. If she can't grind 20 in a row, make it 10 or 5 or 3. But something more than just working each problem and immediately checking the answer at the back of the book. Doing several of them and then checking the set. I do think you can start to build up her capacity to do longer sets over time. Especially with material where she is relatively strong. This will benefit her in school with tests and really is something needed for the work world as well. She may have a lower concentration capacity than the average, but I would not assume that it cannot be improved over time. Or that the average student can't improve this over time. Especially with material he/she becomes deeply invested in.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! When I say silly mistakes I mean getting a sign wrong, for example. Since experience showed me that she could only do her best work for less than an hour, I wanted her to be able to re-read her own work and find mistakes. Myself, I never discarded my whole work in an exam if the result didn't add up as a first step, particularly if I was sure I was confident about the general method being correct. Instead I would go over what I had written carefully and try to find the mistake. That could save me quite a lot of time. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ In her case, I wanted to avoid her doing the same exercise 5 times in a row and making silly mistakes in 5 different places; I wanted to teach her that it can be faster to simply walk herself through what she had written again. Alas, that was like torture to her, and she'd rather redo the whole thing (often leading to her making a different, unrelated mistake somewhere else if the exercise was long!). $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ For "2" I thought long and hard and couldn't find anything she might be interested in. We often didn't meet in person, so I couldn't give her sweets, And she is a little too old for gold stars I think (I might be wrong, but I think at her age I would have found them patronizing). "3" we actually did. The first sets were small, they slowly got larger and the last few days she was doing two or three worksheets a day in preparation for the exam :) Thanks again for your answer! $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ I honestly don't think there is an age limit on gold stars @user2891462, although they can feel patronizing if done wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Chris Cunningham
    Oct 6 '21 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ Napoleon (who started the citizen army, well, after the US, at least) was asked about his awarding of metals, "those are just scraps of cloth and trinkets of brass". His response: "Men die for those scraps of cloth." Oh, and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmet_sticker P.s. Doesn't almost even matter if it is hokey. It makes things less BORING. Gamify. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Oct 6 '21 at 16:49

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