Teaching Students with ADHD

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) is a neurobiological condition which affects roughly 9% of children. Students with ADHD can present a formidable challenge to even the most seasoned of teachers, and knowing how to effectively support them can be quite difficult.

First of all, it’s important to understand the nature of ADHD, and how it manifests in the child’s behavior.

What is ADHD?

Students with ADHD can be understandably quite frustrating for their teachers, but remember: it is a biological condition. The student did not choose it. Knowing this should provide some degree of patience and understanding, which are crucial for the intervention process.

ADHD causes students to struggle with attentiveness, focus, and organization. These students are often highly impulsive, hyperactive, and distractible. They may struggle to complete tasks, and often lose or misplace items. This restless inattentiveness often leads to frustration and inappropriate behavior in the classroom, which can be a serious problem for teachers as well as other students.

How to Teach a Child with ADHD

Children with ADHD tend to exhibit similar symptoms, but every child is an individual, and there is no single solution that will work for every student. As a teacher, you will need to walk a tight-rope, balanced between a firm adherence to rules and routines and a commitment to kindness, patience, and positivity. Consistency is key.

Set the Rules and Stick to Them

Rules are the foundation of a structured, effective classroom. Rules should be straightforward and simple to understand. They should also be predictable; making exceptions or “letting things slide just this one time” will only confuse your students and rob you of your authority. It is your job to ensure that all students understand the rules.

Every bit as important as the rules themselves are the consequences for when they are broken. These consequences should be established at the beginning of the year, and consistently applied every time a rule gets broken.

When a rule is broken, it is important to provide the student with appropriate feedback, making sure he or she understands WHY the consequence is necessary. Do not humiliate the student in front of the whole class; brief one-on-one talks are best.

Every Child Learns Differently

Students with ADHD do not excel in situations requiring extended seatwork, or prolonged, quiet focus. Lessons may need to be modified to accommodate these students’ needs. How can the lesson be more engaging? Are there opportunities for hands-on learning or movement?

You will need to identify what the student needs, and what keeps the child motivated. Perhaps the lesson can be modified to allow for shorter periods of work-time. Perhaps small, intermittent rewards (reinforcers) can be given for every successful period of work-time. The child may be socially motivated, and may work hard for an opportunity to play with his or her peers. Or perhaps the child would prefer to be rewarded with some quiet, alone time. Whatever the case may be, motivation is highly important. Without proper motivation, the child is apt to become frustrated, and the problems will worsen.

Children with ADHD struggle with organizational skills, and will likely need some one-on-one help to become organized.

Strategies for Communication:

Rules, consequences, modifications…these are all critical, but they’ll only work if you’re effectively communicating with the student. This goes back to the tight-rope: you must be firm and consistent while remaining kind and positive. You may need to repeat your expectations often, and even have the student repeat them back to you. In this way, you ensure that the student both agrees to and understands what is required.

A common problem in the classroom is the dreaded Power Struggle. Students with ADHD often become frustrated, which leads to defiance and disruptive behavior. When this happens, teachers often succumb to their own frustration, and may yell, punish, or send the child to the principal’s office. This unfortunately does not improve anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you allow the situation to escalate, and start butting heads with the student, you lessen your ability to foster positive growth in the future. The student will be more guarded and resentful, and behaviors will probably worsen.

The key to avoiding power struggles is to remain calm, disengage, and, above all, respond with patient firmness. Power struggles pit you against your student; you become opponents, when in fact you should be on the same team. If and when a student engages in negative, disruptive behavior, do not become emotionally reactive.

This is critically important: you are modeling behavior. If you engage in the struggle and use power, anger, or intimidation, you are teaching a lesson you really don’t want to be teaching. This is not easy. It requires a great deal of emotional strength and control, but it is crucial.

When the student becomes disruptive or defiant, don’t stop the class to engage the student. The student is seeking attention; if you give that attention, the student will be reinforced and will be more likely to engage in the negative behavior in the future. Also, it’s humiliating to be reprimanded in front of the whole class. Instead, get the rest of the class to keep working, and bring the student out into the hallway for a brief, one-on-one conversation.

Be understanding and kind in your choice of words (for instance, “I understand why you’re frustrated…let’s work together to solve this problem…” etc.). Remember, you are modeling behavior. Model calmness, and the student will pick up on it.

Sometimes immediate response is necessary. When this is the case, don’t respond with anger or frustration. A calm, matter-of-fact statement is best (“That’s not an appropriate comment. Let’s keep working, and we’ll talk about it later.”).

The WAY you communicate is as important as WHAT you communicate. Anger and frustration will only make the classroom problems worse.

Pick Your Battles

Students with ADHD typically struggle with appropriate behavior. Behavior contracts are a key strategy for modifying behavior. Behavior contracts are an agreement between the teacher and the student. They define the desired behavior, the criteria for success, and the rewards and consequences for behavior.

When establishing a plan for modifying behaviors, it’s important to pick your battles. A student may have 10 or more specific behaviors which you want to improve, but working on all of these simultaneously is simply unrealistic and will overwhelm both you and your student. Instead, pick one behavior to start with.

Devise a behavior contract for this behavior, and carefully establish the criteria for evaluating progress, as well as rewards and consequences for behavior. In this way, the student has something measurable and obtainable to work toward. Again, be consistent: you are as responsible for the successful completion of this contract as the student. This has shown to be an effective way of guiding behavior toward more appropriate expressions.

In Summary

Teaching students with ADHD is not easy, but positive progress can be made through the application of a few principles.

First, understand what ADHD is, and how it affects your student. This will cultivate empathy and patience in you, and will better prepare you to deal with the challenges the condition presents.

Second, you must be firm and consistent with rules and expectations, while remaining kind, patient, and understanding. Let the child know you care, and that you’re on his or her side.

Third, identify how your student learns and what they find motivating. Modify lesson plans to accommodate their needs, and keep them engaged.

Fourth, do not allow your communication to be driven by emotional reactivity. Responding to negative behaviors with anger and frustration leads to power struggles, models poor behavior, and ultimately makes the problems worse. Be calm and in control, kind yet assertive. Clearly communicate your expectations, and provide consistent feedback based on those expectations.

Lastly, pick your battles. Behaviors can be modified, but it works best to focus on one behavior at a time.

Teaching students with ADHD is a great challenge, but don’t give up. As a teacher, you have the ability to make a meaningful and profound impact on these students’ lives, and to enable them to overcome the many challenges they face.

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