Scaffolding typically refers to those temporary wooden and steel structures outside of buildings while they are under construction or undergoing repairs or upkeep, such as getting a fresh paint job. These mini-towers give workers firm footing while they are doing their jobs, and are removed when the project is done. Scaffolding is a term also used when discussing the management of ADHD, the first such mention of which I heard from Dr. Tom Brown. He used it to refer to the organizational structures and automatized habits that are used to manage executive function difficulties while facing the multitude of jobs and upkeep required in adult life.
More specifically, scaffolding for adults with ADHD refers to the benefit of setting up regularity and consistency in one’s schedule, such as set wake and sleep times, morning routine, or other stable routines that supports the flow of one’s day and endeavors. (Such scaffolding is often provided to children and teens with ADHD, though usually set up and maintained by parents, teachers, and other stakeholders.) Specified days of the week may be devoted to certain chores, such as a laundry night. Standing meetings with a therapist, ADHD coach, yoga class, or work supervisor similarly provide fixed anchor points throughout the week around which other tasks and endeavors can be planned, such as “I’ll study at the library after I meet with my coach” or “After yoga class is a good time to do my food shopping.”
As with most facets of managing ADHD, such time management and organizational skills are helpful for anyone, but are very important if not necessary for coping with ADHD. Rather than holding a debate in your head about whether or not you are in the mood, say, to clean the bathroom, a standing appointment for that task is set with specific, actionable steps to keep the plan and expectations reasonable.
Transform Your Plan
This use of schedule-scaffolding can be augmented with physical, hands on cues. An actual calendar/planner, digital or physical, provides a go to place for recording and reviewing one’s plans and commitments. A calendar/planner also serves as a diary of one’s feats, though it is important to be on guard for “yes-butting” in which these feats are diminished (“Yes, I got to work on time, but I did not get through as many e-mails as I had planned.”). Such information can be used for future planning (“Next time I’ll plan to respond to 10 e-mails rather than 20.”). Other physical cues for tasks are helpful, such as preparing one’s gym bag the night before that way it can be taken along to work; setting out the laundry basket in plain sight as a reminder for laundry night; or any other physical cues that transform a plan from being an abstraction to being real and ultimately manageable.
This idea of scaffolding is actually not a new concept. The pioneering Russian developmental psychologist, L. S. Vygotsky, identified this very benefit of scaffolding in what he deemed the “zone of proximal development.” Vygotsky’s idea refers to the fact that when teaching children, they may be in the process of being exposed to certain new ideas or skills that they have not yet been mastered. A teacher provides individualized support, exercises, modeling of skills, or guidance that allows the student to face and master the new ideas or abilities at which point the supports can be removed, not unlike training wheels on a bicycle or the actual scaffolding outside a building once the job is completed.
A Step In The Right Direction
Managing adult life with ADHD is not as single-focused a task as riding a bike, it is more like a decathlon. There are diverse and demanding roles in various aspects of life that often change over time. What is more, setting up the scaffolding for managing these roles is yet another type of task that can be difficult for adults with ADHD – “If I could organize such scaffolding, then I would not need it in the first place!!” However, getting support from a psychiatrist, therapist, coach, academic advisor, or some other helping professional who is familiar with ADHD is a step in the right direction that can make life a lot more manageable.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dr. J. Russell (“Russ”) Ramsay is co-founder and co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program and an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry in the Penn Medical School. He has authored five books (including Rethinking Adult ADHD available December 24, 2019) and numerous peer-reviewed professional articles and book chapters on issues related to adult ADHD. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Attention Disorders, and has served or is serving on the Professional Advisory Boards of many ADHD organizations Dr. Ramsay is a member of the CHADD Hall of Fame.
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