Time Management for ADHD

There are many evidence-backed strategies for improving time management for ADHD students. From setting up morning routines and implementing brain breaks to using a planner with technological supports and chunking tasks.

Kids with autism often also have ADHD. The literature suggests that as high as 70% of children with autism also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This can mean executive functioning skills are under-developed, often frustratingly so.

Some experts indicate that children with ADHD have executive functioning skills (like organisation and time management) of a neurotypical developing child 30% younger. So, a child who is 15 years old in school, may have the organision, attention, and emotional regulation of someone aged 10 years old. They are in middle school with the executive functioning of a child in Year 5 primary school! This can be incredibly frustrating for the child themselves. It can be frustrating for parents, and for teachers who expect more of their students when it’s just not possible due to neurological differences.

The good news is that it is possible to teach skills in time management.

Why time management skills are important

Time management skills become more important as you grow up.

You need to be able turn up to job interviews, work, and appointments on time and without rushing.

You need to be able to break down large, complex tasks or projects into small pieces and meet deadlines. This applies to assignments at school, homework tasks, and project based work in a job.

You need to be able to predict how long something will take so you can plan your days and ensure you have time for everything you need (including sleep).

It’s been documented that students with ADHD must work harder and longer to do the same tasks at school, compared to their peers. This impacts on relaxation time and stress. So, building skills in time management is one crucial step towards being more successful at school.

How to improve time management for ADHD kids

To be successful, students with ADHD may need time management strategies beyond just using a calendar – they need a mix of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental strategies. These time management strategies can make supervising homework for ASD/ADHD students more productive. As well as helping with scheduling daily living tasks, long term projects and being more successful at school.

Morning habits and routines

One study of 9-15 year old children in Sweden with ADHD found that changing the environment for morning routines significantly increased daily time management throughout the day.

By organising in advance, morning routines took less time. This then set up the day and freed up time early on for other tasks. One example of this was setting out the clothes to wear the night before. This meant that in the morning, it took less time to get dressed. Another environmental change was to place clocks in every room so the time was always visible.

Morning routines were also promoted in this study of University students with ADHD. These participants reported that having clear goals or a list of things to achieve each morning, started the day with productivity. This meant that daily living tasks like meal prep, laundry, animal care, were completed in the morning and cleared the rest of the day for other tasks.

This strategy of preparing for activities also applies to other situations. For example, Russell A. Barkley in 12 Principles for raising a child with ADHD talks about setting up a desk with everything you need. By putting out paper, pens, homework book, to-do list on a whiteboard etc at a desk ready, it saves time transitioning into the task of studying. This helps with productivity and reduces the distraction of not having everything you need ready.

Practicing Predicting Time

In the same study, daily time management was significantly increased through repeatedly practicing time predictions. In this intervention, children had to predict how long it would take to complete a task. Then they did the task while a timer was running. After completion, they compared how long it actually took. Another activity included completing a task in two different ways (like walking or riding to school) and comparing the time each activity took.

After gaining practice in predicting how long things took, children were then asked to schedule a block of time with a number of activities. By knowing how long each activity actually takes, you can more reliably plan out blocks of time.

As part of this intervention, children were also taught how to read the time. This strategy is also recommended in educational materials for supporting students with ADHD.

Using a calendar or planner

Visual planners or calendars have also been found to be helpful to people with ADHD in organising time. Planning systems, often colour-coded, included all things that needed to be done. These systems could be on paper, or a mix of apps like to-do lists, and calendars with alarm reminders. This included assignments and school due dates, as well as personal activities and goals. Having planners of different time lengths (a day, a month, a year), enabled long term priorities to be documented and not forgotten.

Using reminders, like digital alarms or apps, alongside a planner was also found to help with time management. This technological support for time management was also supported by social supports like relying on friends or family to give reminders.

Make time physical and visible

Another strategy, again recommended by ADHD expert Russell A. Barkley, is to make time physical. Rather than being an internalised, abstract concept, make time visible. You could use a big sand timer, a digital timer, a Countdown Timer app, or an online visible timer. A countdown clock helps to visibly show how much time is left, which is a helpful visual compared to just having numbers counting down.

Breaking big tasks into smaller chunks

Chunking, or breaking tasks into smaller steps, is another strategy that helps time management. If you can break a big task into smaller pieces, you can set smaller, achievable goals. This shorter goals can fit into shorter time segments throughout a day, building up to completing a task by a due date. This is much more manageable than trying to tackle a huge task all in one go.

This strategy links into the above strategy of using a planner. If you are able to break a big task down, you can then write a to-do list or set mini goals and record them in your planner.

For younger kids, strategies like FIRST, THEN lists, visual daily schedules, or a whiteboard for to-do lists can be effective in recording the steps.

A FIRST, THEN list sets out a small number of activities to be completed FIRST e.g. get dressed, eat breakfast. These items get ticked off or crossed out when completed. The THEN activity is the brain break or reward for completing the tasks, e.g. watch a short video.

Visual daily schedules could be in picture or word format. They can list the tasks in order, with an indication of how much time each activity is allocated. The tasks can also be placed in two columns – to do and done. The items can be crossed over when completed and written in the DONE column. Alternatively, if the items are on velcro or post-it notes, then they can be transferred across when done.

Taking brain breaks

Another strategy to help manage time is actually around managing attention and energy levels. Rather than sitting there for hours trying to complete a task, build in brain breaks. These short breaks for regulation and rest can recharge mental energy, and increase attention and motivation.

Summary

It is possible to increase skills in time management. It may feel like an incredibly slow and frustrating process. Also worth noting is that one strategy is unlikely to be enough – an array of behavioural, environmental, technological, social and cognitive strategies together is likely to be more effective.

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