Ask the Experts

Q: How Can I Help My Students Get Started on Assignments?

Students diagnosed with ADHD may struggle to start new assignments no matter what the subject matter – math, reading, even art. If they don’t have a 504 plan in place, keep pushing for it. In the meantime, try these three strategies to reduce their stress and increase confidence.

Q: I do my best to motivate my students to jump into classroom work. But a couple of my students struggle to start work — it could be math, reading, or even art. They have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), and they don’t have a 504 plan, but I think that it would help them. How do I encourage these students to get started on an assignment?

A 504 plan sounds like a good idea for these students; keep pushing for that. In the meantime, as you say — they’ve got you — and that’s great. You want your students to come out of the gate running, instead of looking confused and anxious, right? Here are some practical ideas that will help you help them.

Put Kids Into the “I Can Do This” Zone

Having to jump into a task cold is often a trigger for anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt — all reasons that some of your kids can’t get started. Here are some steps you can take to ease kids into an activity by reducing the perceived threat and getting them into a zone in which they feel confident and competent:

Step 1: Give pairs of kids a three- to five-minute task to do together. Start with something that’s fun, and that you are sure both kids can do. For younger kids, it can be a game, like having students guess a number between 1 and 10 or a color. A game of “I spy” or charades can be fun at this stage, too. To get middle school kids engaged, one student can give the other a riddle to solve. Trivia questions work well, too.

Step 2: At this stage, the goal is to get kids to attempt and master a “sample” activity from the actual assignment. Having them work in pairs helps them get closer to the real task without shutting down. Once the kids experience success, they are more likely to engage in the upcoming activity with greater confidence.

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Step 3: So far, you’ve had the kids in pairs, an arrangement that makes it hard for one kid to “opt out.” Now you want the resistant student to work independently. You move right from step 2 into step 3, while the kids’ brain juices are flowing and they are in a positive mental state. Now give each student an actual problem from the activity you have planned for them, telling them that they will do this one alone. Tell them that this new task is “at the same difficulty level as the one you just did correctly, so it’s not a leap.” Saying this helps to keep them in the right place — in the “I can do this” zone.

Do the Easy One First: You Pick It

Teachers sometimes introduce a task by saying “I know you can do this one.” That may be true, but unless the kid believes he or she can, your vote of confidence falls on deaf and defensive ears. Here’s an activity that can help with that. Give the kids a bunch of problems or tasks listed on a page. Tell them to pick the one that they think they can do pretty easily without a lot of help. After they try it, have them “repair” any wrong answers, and compliment them on the process they used. Then ask them to pick out the next hardest task.

Success Rehearsal

If you want your students to greet a new activity with a feeling of confidence, try this: Give each student one problem from the upcoming in-class lesson to work on for homework the night before. If they need to, they can get help from a parent or a classmate via text or email. The next day, ask them how confident they are that they’ve come up with the right answer. If they aren’t sure, pair students who had the same tasks and let them come to an agreement about what is right. This will get both students ready to tell the class how they got the right answer on the problem they were assigned.

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