For Teachers

Go Get ‘Em, Groups! How Cooperation Helps Students with ADHD Learn

Children can achieve real social and academic gains through cooperative learning, but working with others isn’t always easy — especially for kids with ADHD. Learn how teachers can make group work painless (and effective!) with these five tips.

Three smiley faces drawn on blackboard in classroom by student engaged in cooperative learning
Three smiley faces drawn on blackboard in classroom

Decades of research have demonstrated that working in small, structured teams — that is, cooperative learning — is one of the most effective ways for students with ADHD to master the curriculum. And kids who learn cooperatively typically make significant social and academic gains.

Of course cooperative learning can be challenging for students with ADHD. These kids may veer off-topic repeatedly, frustrating others in the group — or have trouble meeting deadlines or taking guidance from others.

But don’t let these potential problems discourage you from trying cooperative learning! If you structure it carefully, group work can be effective for all of your students, including those with ADHD. Parents might adapt these tips to help with homework, like during a study session for their child and his friends from school.

Group Strategies

Tip #1: Establish a common goal.
Make it clear that the group will be considered successful only if each member is successful individually. Remind students with and without ADHD that all team members are working toward the same goals and rewards, and that they will use the same resources to attain success. Celebrate the efforts of each group, and praise successes as they occur.

Tip #2: Stress accountability.
Let the group know that each member is responsible not only for learning the material, but also for making sure that all other members learn the material. One strategy is to assign each team member one part of the overall project. If the group is supposed to analyze poetry, let each student pick one poem to read and interpret for the rest of the group.

Breaking the assignment into smaller pieces will make it easier for students with ADHD to stay focused. Allowing kids with ADHD to take on responsibilities that draw on their strengths and interests will keep them motivated.

Tip #3: Seat students so they face each other.
Students who see eye-to-eye are likely to share materials, encourage each other’s contributions, and work productively. Circulate among the groups, to observe and answer questions, and give verbal reminders and visual prompts to students with ADHD. Establish a signal, such as a bell or whistle, to get everyone’s attention quickly.

Tip #4: Create diverse groups.
Not all students — and particularly those with ADHD — come to school possessing the skills and social confidence needed to work collaboratively. Teachers must teach teamwork as carefully as they teach academic skills.

Each group should be made up of strong students and those who need extra help. When possible, children with ADHD should be placed in groups with students who can be role models. Designate jobs for each child (reader, materials handler, and so on). See that each student gets a chance to play each role.

Tip #5: Encourage them to talk.
Students should periodically discuss how they are working together and whether they are on track. After a group session, encourage members to ask: “What did we do well as a group?” and “What could we do better?” Weigh in with your own appraisal of their efforts.

Setting Specific Goals

Set a “mastery level” for each member of the group, and reward the group with bonus points for meeting each member’s goal. For example: “If all members of your group score 90 percent or better on the test, each of you will receive five bonus points.”

Adapted with permission from sandrarief.com and How To Reach And Teach Children with ADD/ADHD, Second Edition (Jossey Bass) by Sandra F. Rief.

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