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The Link Between Brain Maturity & Academic Success with ADHD

brain maturity

For years, clinicians in the ADHD community debated if a link existed between a child's brain development and performance in school. In fact, poor performance in school was believed to be nothing more than laziness, basically a character flaw -- something that children would outgrow with time. But Dr. Russell Barkley's research debunked this myth and brought awareness to the misunderstood issue of delays in executive functioning and its profound impact on students' ADHD. Then in 2007, Dr. Phillip Shaw, an NIH researcher, confirmed that children with ADHD had a three-year delay in brain maturity.

Barkley added to this awareness of brain involvement by reporting that children with ADHD have a 30 percent developmental delay in executive skills such as self-management, organization, awareness of time, and control of emotions than their peers. This explains why children who are chronologically older still struggle with impulsive tendencies and limited working memory, far beyond what we might anticipate for students that age.

Academic Problems Linked to ADHD and Executive Function Deficits

Many students with ADHD have impaired working memory, and some also have slow processing speed, which are critical elements of Executive Function (EF). A research study by Mayes and Calhoun has identified written expression as the most common learning problem among 65% of ADHD students. Writing essays or reports is a challenge because it involves a host of different executive functions, requiring students to organize ideas, recall grammar, and self-edit.

Since learning is relatively easy for most of us, sometimes we forget just how complex seemingly simple tasks truly are. For example, when a student works on a math problem, he must fluidly move back and forth between analytical skills and several levels of memory.

To further complicate matters, other serious conditions may co-occur with ADHD. According to a landmark National Institute of Mental Health study on ADHD, two-thirds of children with ADHD have at least one other coexisting problem, such as depression or anxiety.

These children are at greater risk than their peers for a multitude of school problems like failing a grade, skipping school, or not going to college.

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Poor Working Memory and Recall

While students with ADHD struggle with many aspects of Executive Function, let's take a more in-depth look at just one element – deficits in working memory and recall—and their academic impact.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, researchers report that working memory skills are a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ scores, which explains why children with ADHD and high IQs may still struggle in school. Deficits in working memory and recall negatively affect these students in several areas:


  1. The “here and now”: Our children have limited working memory capacity that often impacts their behavior in the classroom when
    • following instructions
    • memorizing facts
    • performing mental math
    • organizing and writing essays
  2. Past events: Because our students have difficulty recalling the past, they don't learn easily from past behavior, explaining why they often repeat misbehavior.
  3. Time: Many students with ADHD have difficulty using their sense of time to prepare for upcoming events, making it a challenge to estimate how much time a task will take to complete.
  4. Self-awareness: Because of their diminished self-awareness, these students don't easily change their own behavior.
  5. The future: Most students with a working memory deficit are less likely to plan for the future.

Teaching Strategies to Encourage Brain Maturity

I have identified several teaching strategies and accommodations that work well for students with ADHD. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

  • Make the learning process as concrete and visual as possible. Use graphic organizers to provide visual prompts for written expression. With math, use a peer tutor or paired learning with teachers. To aid memory, use mnemonics (memory tricks) and “visual posting” of key information.
  • Modify teaching methods. For example, by “modeling how to write an essay” through the use of an overhead projector, using color for demonstrations, and highlighting key information.
  • Reduce written work by shortening assignments if appropriate.
  • Modify testing and grading by extending test time and dividing long-term projects into segments. Parents should be notified of any long-term projects in advance.
  • Modify the level of support and supervision by assigning “row captains” to check that homework is written down and gets turned in.
  • Use computers and teaching software often.

From significant behavioral issues for some to school project deadlines for others, managing life with ADHD is a constant challenge. We, as parents, need to acknowledge the role that brain maturity plays in academics. It's our job to recognize a child's inability to store and focus on relevant information while providing the support and structure they need to achieve their goals.



  • Barkley, Russell A. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, (3rd ed.) New York: The Guilford Press, 2006.
  • Dendy, Chris A. Zeigler Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2011.
  • Dendy, Chris A. Zeigler Teenagers with ADD and ADHD, (2nd ed.) Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2006.
  • Mayes Susan D. and Susan Calhoun “Prevalence and Degree of Attention and Learning Problems in ADHD and LD.” ADHD Reports, v.8, n.2, April 2000.
  • Shaw, Philip et al. (2007) “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Is Characterized by a Delay in Cortical Maturation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dec. 11, 2007, Vol.104, No.50:19663-4.

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