School & Learning

7 Surprising Ways ADHD Shows Up in the Classroom

ADHD in the classroom is easy to mistake for carelessness, defiance, laziness, or a learning difference. Here are the 7 ADD symptoms that educators seldom recognize at school — and solutions for each.

A student in his seat and given a specific set of directions is a student with improved classroom behavior.
A student in his seat and given a specific set of directions is a student with improved classroom behavior.

ADHD sometimes manifests in obvious ways — like when a second grader blurts out an answer (again) or when a high school student forgets her completed assignment at home (again). Just as often, though, signs of ADHD in the classroom are more subtle and easily overlooked because they don’t align with stereotypes. Here are seven less-recognized ways ADHD symptoms show up at school, and productive ways to address each one.

Surprising Sign of ADHD #1: Difficulty with Transitions

The teacher gives a two-minute warning to the class that independent reading time is about to end. But when the teacher announces it is time to move on to science, the student does not stop reading.

The Explanation

ADHD is best seen as a medical disorder affecting a child’s overall self-management skills, frequently referred to as executive functioning. These skills let us manage things in life — our goals, projects, time, emotions, or social situations — and they can manifest as forgetfulness, poor focus, or weak impulse control when they’re not working properly.

Kids with ADHD over-focus on what’s captivating, can’t focus when effort is unnatural but necessary, and can’t transition because switching attention is part of managing these skills well. A student who keeps reading after it’s time to move on can come across as misbehaving. But if a child can’t shift attention easily, he might not even register that a teacher is speaking while he’s focused on his book.

The Solution

Give students an advance warning of five minutes. Help them come to a good stopping point. You might suggest that they “pause” rather than stop, reminding them that they can come back to the current task later. Then start the next task with them individually, when possible.

[Free Download: The Ultimate ADHD Toolkit for Parents and Teachers]

Surprising Sign of ADHD #2: Struggling to Follow Instructions

A teacher says it’s time for math. This means students must put aside other tasks to get out a pencil, a piece of paper, and their math book, and open the book to the correct page. A student appears to be ignoring the teacher’s instructions by moving slowly or not at all.

The Explanation

Tied tightly to executive dysfunction, ADHD can be reframed as a disorder of organization, planning, and time management. Getting ready for math requires a student to first hear the instruction and then transition attention out of one activity to another.

They also need to know the location of their supplies, avoid distractions during each step, return their attention to the teacher, and do all that quickly enough to keep up and get settled in time to absorb the lesson. This is a strain on ADHD brains.

The Solution

Avoid telling the student how to start the next activity before finishing the current one. Some students with ADHD have short-term working memory deficits, so trying to remember everything can feel overwhelming. Also:

  • Recognize that planning skills aren’t acquired automatically by some people, who need repeated explicit instruction.
  • Meet with them privately or assign partners to check progress. Make your daily activities as predictable as possible.
  • Post your day’s schedule prominently.
  • Write down the step-by-step directions for doing the task.
  • Provide a visual sequence of the task to be completed

[Self-Test: Could My Child Have a Learning Disability?]

Surprising Sign of ADHD #3: Social Rejection

A student seems to be disliked by her peers. She is socially isolated, eats alone, and doesn’t join other kids in school activities.

The Explanation

While often unintentional, ADHD’s behavioral symptoms can annoy peers. ADHD impairs communication when it causes kids to miss details in a conversation, or struggle to organize their thoughts quickly, which is a working memory-related task. To others, it can seem like the child isn’t listening or isn’t interested in the conversation.

The Solution

Just as we teach academic skills, we should teach social skills. Privately, we should reinforce when we see students with ADHD acting appropriately. We also must teach neurotypical students to be tolerant of others, stressing that all students have individual needs and we must help them as much as we can. When we see students engaging in those random acts of kindness, we should recognize them.

Surprising Sign of ADHD #4: Disruptiveness

Long after the rest of the class has complied with the teacher’s signal for quiet, a student is unable to stop talking and is seen as disruptive.

The Explanation

Being overly talkative is common with ADHD, as is distractedly missing cues and struggling to shift attention. Children rarely learn to change these kinds of behaviors through discussion and/or consequences. They cannot simply choose not to have an ADHD symptom, and they often start feeling bad about themselves when they require so much redirection.

The Solution

We need to teach students ways to regulate their emotions before they need them, not when they are in the middle of a crisis. Breathing techniques and mindfulness activities can be helpful. If we teach them in advance, then we can provide a quiet reminder when the child needs it.

Surprising Sign of ADHD #5: Missing Materials

A student chronically forgets her materials — a pencil and workbook, her homework when it’s due, and other assignments.

The Explanation

Forgetfulness is a symptom of ADHD. Repeatedly marking down grades for an ADHD symptom doesn’t help anyone much — a student with ADHD can’t magically conjure motivation because ADHD is a planning disorder. That means a student who has ADHD lags behind in the executive function skills that would help her devise solutions to overcome her challenges.

The Solution

Talk to the student privately. Brainstorm together. Can she bring in a box of pencils to be kept in your classroom as her personal stash? Provide her with a checklist of what to bring to class that she can carry as a reminder. Give her the responsibility of collecting everyone’s assignments in class as a reward for turning in her assignments on time.

[Download: A Guide to Building Foundational Executive Functions]

Surprising Sign of ADHD #6: Reading Skill Stagnation

A student who doesn’t seem to have a learning disability isn’t progressing in reading.

The Explanation

For fluent reading, we first must decode words effortlessly, which obviously requires language and background knowledge. And then, as new research has confirmed, we need strong attention and executive function to manage all the information we’re consuming. These are the three components, broadly speaking, of strong reading skills.

Kids with ADHD often struggle with reading because of inattention and executive dysfunction, as well as lost instructional time in general. They also may avoid reading until they find it easy because avoiding effort and failure are common with ADHD as well. That’s particularly true without strong screen time limits at home.

The Solution

Many children with ADHD also have a learning disability, such as a more specific impairment in decoding or comprehension. As such, there should be a low threshold for requesting educational testing for students with ADHD. If academic concerns persist, don’t assume this is caused by their ADHD symptoms alone.

Surprising Sign of ADHD #7: “Wasted” Potential

A gifted student seems to have lots of potential in school but doesn’t appear to study or try very hard.

The Explanation

A student may successfully coast for a few years, then hit a brick wall when they are unable to manage time, study, or prepare effectively — usually in middle or high school. The skill of studying relies on long-term thinking, creating a plan, and sticking to a plan; many students with ADHD fail to understand the why of studying, much less how.

The Solution

Juggling an intense workload with poor organizational skills can send a student’s stress level through the roof. Writing and other assignments may take far longer than expected, even though the end product may be brilliant.

Even when a student is gifted, he may shut down if he feels overwhelmed. Therefore, we must break assignments into small steps, encourage the student to set earlier deadlines than what may be required, and provide him with tools that can make the assignment easier to complete. Appropriate accommodations can be life-changing for students, even when their grades are good.

ADHD in the Classroom: Next Steps

Mark Bertin, M.D., is a developmental pediatrician and author of Mindful Parenting for ADHD. Beverley Holden Johns is president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois and the author or co-author of 23 books on special education. Kathy Kuhl helps parents of students who learn differently at LearnDifferently.com.


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