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HSLDA Homeschooling a Struggling Learner

February 13, 2013


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Teaching Strategies for Teens with Focus/Attention Difficulties

By Joyce Blankenship
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

I receive many phone calls from parents teaching teenagers who struggle with focus and attention issues. Some of these students were diagnosed with ADD or ADHD at an earlier age. Others have never had a formal diagnosis, but display many of the characteristics of students with attention deficits which can be found on checklists, such as the one on our HSLDA struggling learners website.

About the Author

Joyce BlankenshipJoyce Blankenship HSLDA Special Needs Consultant Joyce Blankenship assists members and answers questions about homeschooling struggling learners.

These parents are at a loss as to how to proceed in their homeschooling journey now that their child will be entering the world of junior high or high school-level subjects.

They ask: “What can I do to make learning easier for my teen? He has difficulty completing schoolwork, is unorganized, highly distractible and forgets what he learned the day before.”

After discussing behavioral issues, nutritional options, or curriculum choices, I leave my caller with some practical strategies that she can use to help her student learn no matter what curriculum she uses or subject she is teaching.

It is important to know how your teen learns best and use this knowledge as you plan your teen’s schooling. This is a unique advantage of homeschooling—you can provide your student with a truly individualized education. Although students with attention deficits are not all alike in their learning styles, many may learn spatially (by seeing) and kinesthetically (by doing). They may have a more creative, intuitive style of learning and find enjoyment in discovering their own way of solving a problem.

Nevertheless, these students also need to learn to generate work that is sequential and logical, which proves to be very difficult for them. According to Chris Dendy, author of Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD and Executive Function Deficits, students with ADD or ADHD often need more hands-on activities that incorporate visual cues to master challenging academics such as math or writing essays or book reports.

Take note of these practical strategies to incorporate in your homeschool daily routine. These will enhance your teen’s learning experience no matter what subject you’re teaching.

Provide Visual Cues

Model skills for your student. Students with attention deficits are often visual learners, so they need to see concepts illustrated as well as hear a verbal explanation. White boards, chalkboards, poster boards and paper can be used to add the needed visual component.

Use right brain teaching strategies. Pictures, color and humor act as “glue” to help learning “stick” in the brain. As an example, a student can learn new vocabulary by drawing a humorous picture to illustrate each word. My children enjoyed using Vocabulary Cartoons by Sam Burchers to improve their vocabulary.

Teach your teen to color-code his textbooks. For example, for a history text, highlight all dates in blue, important people in purple, and main events in green. My daughter, who uses this method to help her remember important facts in her college classes, shared with me that this is the study tool that has been the most helpful to her.

Make use of a weekly assignment book. Each day’s assignments should be written out so that your student has a visual reminder of what he needs to do.

Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers are pre-printed reproducible blank forms that employ lines, circles, and boxes to organize information. Graphic organizers form a powerful visual picture of the information, and this allows the mind to discover patterns and relationships it may otherwise have missed. They can be used to structure writing projects, to help in problem-solving, decision-making, studying, planning research, and brainstorming.

Types of graphic organizers include:

  1. Cluster: used for generating ideas on a given topic
  2. Chain of Events: used when the topic involves a definite beginning, middle and end
  3. Venn Diagram: used when examining the similarities and differences between two items
  4. Pie Charts: used to show divisions within a group
  5. Story Maps: used to help a student summarize, analyze and understand a story or event

• When I homeschooled my daughter who had focusing difficulties we used a writing program called Writing Step by Step by Mary Lou Ward. It employed the use of graphic organizers and helped her to successfully organize, classify, and write down her thoughts.

• Provide your student with poster board and colored markers to create his own visual aid. When studying biology, a student may draw a human cell and use colors to differentiate the different parts of the cell.

• Use Desktop Helpers to provide a convenient reference to aid memory problems. These are available in a variety of topics such as math facts, punctuation rules, and state abbreviations.

Hands-on Learning Experiences

The hands-on and experiential strategies that you used when your child was in the elementary grades are also effective as he moves into upper grade levels. Use some of the ideas below, or let your teen exercise his creativity and come up with ideas of his own!

• Create a model of a bridge or famous building.

• Let your student videotape himself demonstrating a science experiment.

• Let your teen show off his cooking skills as he studies the culture of a foreign country in geography.

• Write and illustrate a children’s book.

• Write a song about an event in history.

• Make a prototype of an invention that uses a pulley.

• Construct “foldables,” three-dimensional graphic organizers that can be used at any grade level and with any subject area. Foldables can be used as a study guide, a motivating way to take notes, or as an alternative to taking tests. Your student is actively engaged in the learning process as he creates a foldable and is more likely to retain information as this hands-on activity includes a strong visual component.

After following precise directions, the student writes or draws the information on each surface of the folds. Foldable styles include accordion, shutter, matchbook, layered books, and tri-folds. I often used this activity when homeschooling and my children were very engaged. Since many of our students with attention difficulties have strong right brain tendencies, this allows them to display both their creativity and knowledge.


• Equip your teen with manipulatives to increase attention and alertness during his school day. According to Dr. Sydney S. Zentall, a leading educational researcher on attention deficits, doodling or fidgeting may help a student learn. So don’t be afraid to give your student a Koosh ball, some pipe cleaners, Silly Putty, or paper clips to handle while he is working on those science questions or writing that essay!

• Provide a giant exercise ball for your student to sit on instead of a chair. Many people believe that it helps posture by strengthening core muscles, provides needed movement, and relieves stress. Your teen will love you for it!

Take a Break

Periodically, encourage you teen to take a “brain break.” Brain research indicates that physical activity has the capacity to improve cognitive processing by rejuvenating the brain. Encourage your teen to get up and move!

  • Jump on a trampoline.
  • Do push-ups or stretches.
  • Toss Koosh balls.
  • Dance to music.
  • Take turns clapping a rhythm for others to copy.

Helpful Resources on Teaching Strategies for Teens with Attention/Focusing Difficulties:

  • Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD and Executive Function Deficits by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy
  • The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias
  • Carol Barnier’s website
  • Graphic organizers
  • Writing Step by Step by Mary Lou Ward
  • The Four Square Writing Method Series
  • Vocabulary Cartoons by Sam Burchers
  • Teaching With The Brain In Mind by Eric Jensen
  • Teaching the Right Brain Child by Dianne Craft
  • Dianne Craft Webinar, “Kids and Teenagers with Focus/Attention Issues: What’s Up?”
  • How Do I Help?
  • Find Foldables at DMA and Wikispaces Classroom

• • • •

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