Time On Task Improvements with ADHD Teens

  • ADHD students are easily distracted from one task by another task. And rarely do they return to the first task to finish it. ADHD is a deficit in focusing and working on one thing until it is completed.
  • Since ADHD students are usually easily distracted and easily bored, it is a good idea to set up your classroom in such as way as to optimize their focus, and increase their chances of success.
  • Work hard to only reward ON-task behaviors.

Increasing Your ADHD Students’ Time On Task 

Did you know that any attention that you give to your students is potentially rewarding? That’s right! Even when you are nagging them, that “negative” attention is potentially rewarding.

The rule is:


Behavior that is rewarded tends to re-occur.

Therefore, you want to work to catch your ADD ADHD students being ON-task, and reward them. The reward can be as simple as a smile or a nod. A positive comment can go a long way. Over a period of time, rewarding ADD ADHD students for ON-task work will result in an actual increase in their attention span and time ON-task.

The other rule is:

Behavior that is ignored tends to decrease, or go away.

Of course there are exceptions to this that many in “pop” psychology tend to forget, such as the fact that many behaviors are self-rewarding. Antisocial or criminal behaviors are both self-rewarding. That means the “doing” of the behavior, and the “getting away with” of the behaviors are themselves rewarding. If they are ignored, antisocial or criminal behaviors will go unchecked and out of control. Don’t ignore antisocial behaviors.

However, in our situation, we apply the rule this way…

When your ADD ADHD student is OFF-task, either ignore him or redirect him back to his work. As soon as he is back ON-task reward his ON-task behavior with the smile, comment, pat on the back, or whatever.

  • One of main characteristics of students with ADD ADHD is the difficulty with sustaining attention on tasks over time. In other words, they get bored very easily, even by you.
  • Promote time on task, never time off task. Take time to catch the student being on task and working hard. Reward him with a simple smile or pat on the back. If you do this consistently, you will see his attention span, or time on task, increase throughout the school year, making your life easier in the long run.
  • Your ADD ADHD student will respond better to situations that he finds stimulating and engaging. Varying the instructional medium and pace will help sustain the attention deficit student’s interest.
  • Your ADD ADHD student would probably find lessons that emphasize “hands on” activities highly engaging. Keeping the time required for sustained attention to a task balanced with more active learning will improve your attention deficit student’s performance. Changes in instructor’s voice level and variation in word pacing will also increase his attention during instruction.
  • Break long tasks into a series of shorter “sprints.” Give a minute timer to keep on his desk. Ask the attention deficit student how long he thinks it would take to perform a certain task. Let him set his own time and race against the timer.
  • Stress accuracy instead of quantity of work. Mastery of a subject is really what you want as a teacher anyway.
  • Computers are great for 1 to 1 work and immediate feedback.
  • Students using medication to treat attention deficit disorder will have their optimal attention effects for methylphenidate (Ritalin) 45 minutes to 2 1/2 hours after medication. Other medications differ, and it is best to check with the physician about the time of maximum medication effects. If possible, it is best to schedule the most attention demanding tasks for the ADD ADHD student during this medication window.
  • Combine your verbal directions along with illustrations or demonstrations of what you want your students to do. The more ways you use to describe what you want your ADD ADHD students to do, the greater likelihood that they will actually do it.
  • Your attention deficit student will be more successful when given directions one step at a time. When a series of instructions are given, retention beyond the first direction is difficult. Minor adjustments on the part of the teacher in giving directions will help the ADD or ADHD student a great deal.

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., MFT

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D. MFT

Pastoral Counselor and Professional Therapist in Tehachapi, CA.

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D. MFTTime On Task Improvements with ADHD Teens