The challenges of studying as a student with ADHD

Adelina Streletskaya shares her studying approaches

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a laptop, cup of coffee, notebook and pen, and phone on table
Navigating a university structure not built for your brain can be frustrating. PHOTO: Andrew Neel / Pexels

By: Nercya Kalino, Staff Writer

We’ve all seen the lists of study tips that advocate for strict schedules and the Pomodoro Technique, but most of these tips are designed for neurotypical brains, meaning they don’t work for everyone. The Peak spoke to Adelina Streletskaya to get her perspective as a student who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a “neurodevelopmental disorder that causes various hyperactive and disruptive behaviours.” A behavioural neuroscience student in her second year, Streletskaya spoke about study tips, what diagnosis means to her, and some of the habits she has developed over time for her academics.

Streletskaya explained she was medically diagnosed in September 2021 but first became aware of ADHD in the beginning of 2020. She recalled, “I would get random comments when I was younger from teachers saying that I would talk too much or that I wouldn’t pay attention.” This is an experience that some people may go through due to being unaware of the different ways the symptoms of ADHD can present. Additionally, while boys (or those socialized as boys) are more likely to display hyperactivity and impulsivity, girls (or those socialized as girls) are more likely to display symptoms internally, such as low self-esteem and inattentiveness. Thanks to TikTok, there has been a spotlight on women and girls being underdiagnosed with ADHD. 

Once Streletskaya realized what was happening in her brain was not her fault, it changed  the way she saw herself in academics.

Streletskaya explained she used to be a lot harder on herself for not understanding certain topics the same way her peers did. “I would get really confused as to why someone would be able to just go to a lecture and understand it right away but I wouldn’t be able to do that. Before my diagnosis, I was getting really frustrated with myself [ . . . ] but after the diagnosis it made a lot more sense and I started working on understanding it better and [having] self-compassion.

“It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. My brain just functions differently.” The important thing is to be patient with yourself, she added. 

Now that she knows she has ADHD, Streletskaya has a different way of looking at her studies. She first dedicated time to research ADHD to learn more about the traits behind it. She realized teaching herself about the topic made it easier for her to be calmer with herself. Once she had a better understanding of what this meant, she changed her routine by giving herself more time with tasks and scheduling breaks to avoid being overwhelmed. 

Streletskaya explained she also takes medication for her ADHD. “I think my life changed quite a bit, especially when I started taking my medication,” she shared. 

“One thing that is misconstrued is that medication drastically changes something with people with ADHD and that suddenly your brain is going to be working a million miles an hour and that it’s going to solve all your problems, but medication is more like a band-aid,” she said. 

From her perspective, there is still a lot of adjusting that one has to do, in addition to medication, to change the tendencies that would lead to old habits. 

“Instead of working against my ADHD, I started working with it,” Streletskaya expressed. She explained paying attention to routines is important and understanding she’s a morning person has been key. Now, instead of leaving her studying until the evening, she studies in the daytime. She also recommends having different study spots for different subjects and emphasized the necessity of tackling one thing at a time. She gave the example of the commonly recommended Pomodoro Technique, which alternates set studying times and breaks, as a method that did not work for her. “It just didn’t work for me because that 15 minute break would turn into three hours,” she said.

Another way Streletskaya works with her ADHD is by understanding her symptoms and using them to her advantage. She explained she tends to talk a lot so she integrates this into her study routine by explaining what she’s learned to classmates or friends.

As contrary as it sounds, a routine is an important aspect of working with ADHD — even though ADHD makes it difficult to develop a routine. Medication may help, but for the most part, it’s about understanding how ADHD intertwines with lifestyle. It may be hard at first to let go of habits, but in order to progress with the help of medication, students should take time to observe and take note of the things that are difficult, and start making changes slowly. 

There are challenges in any journey that requires large life changes for a long term impact. For Streletskaya, comparing herself to others is one of those challenges. “It’s really hard to see someone who gets it right away and how it takes way less work for someone to get the same understanding as I do. It gets very frustrating because it almost feels unfair and like they have an advantage,” she said. To an extent, when she reflects on how much others can handle doing in a day, she sometimes feels as if ADHD is a punishment. 

“By the time I plan and schedule and actually study, I don’t have energy for anything else,” she explained.  

Although comparison is a thought process familiar to most students, it is important to remember achievements. A way to do this is by writing down accomplishments and putting them somewhere visible. It is easier to believe that priorities are out of control, but it comes down to finding important tasks and investing time into that. For Streletskaya, that is her academics.

Streletskaya suggested trying multiple ways to figure out what works for your study style with ADHD. She explained Google is the best place to start to find tips but SFU’s Centre for Accessible Learning is another option. She also suggested talking to other people who have ADHD and can validate your experience.

“Don’t be afraid to try anything and everything,” Streletskaya stressed.