Parent-Teacher Cooperation

How to Talk to Students with ADHD

Great teachers know that saying the right words in the right way can turn a defeated student into a go-getter. Here are 5 communication strategies specifically scripted for students with ADHD.

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There are a few communication strategies that I have found to be especially effective when teaching students with ADHD. For these strategies to work, you have to treat the student with respect. Avoid public embarrassment, sarcasm, and put-downs.

1. BE POSITIVE. Researchers tell us that three to five positive statements should be given for every negative comment. Expect the best of students. To many students with attention deficit, a teacher’s words paint a portrait of the student’s soul. “If the teacher says I can do it or that I’m smart, then I must be.” Students will work hard to become what the teacher says they are. Here are some comments:

  • “You’re working really hard. You have the skill it takes to do this.”
  • “You’re doing a great job. I can tell you’ve really got a talent for this sort of thing.”
  • “You’ve put a lot of effort into this activity” or “Well done” or “Now you’ve got it.”
  • “You’re getting better at this. I knew you could do it.”

[Free Expert Resource: 10 ADHD-Optimized Teaching Strategies]

If a student gives an answer that is incorrect, the teacher might say:

  • “Can you think of another way to do (say) this?”
  • “Let’s go over this again.”
  • “Why don’t we talk this through?” (Talk through the steps. Sometimes hearing themselves talk helps students recognize where the error is.)
  • “Do you think something is wrong here?”
  • “Read it to me. Does it sound right to you?”
  • “That’s close.” (Then explain).

2. GIVE STUDENTS CHOICES, but only two or three. Give students a limited number of options for assignments when possible. “You may choose between these two topics for your essay: 1) one of the major characters and how he or she changed or 2) what you consider the most important theme of the novel.”

Too many choices will be confusing, and students may spend excessive time trying to select an essay topic. Researchers tell us that when students are given choices, several positive things happen: They produce more work, they are more compliant, and they are less aggressive.

3. TRY NOT TO PERSONALIZE. Eliminate criticism and blame. Teach the student to cope with ADHD behaviors. Describe the problem as one that is common for many students with this condition: “A lot of teenagers with ADHD have trouble remembering to take down homework or copying summaries. There are some things that might help you: A friend could remind you; I can give your assignments in writing. What would be most helpful for you?”

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4. GIVE “I” MESSAGES. State how you feel (in private). “I am surprised that you didn’t turn in your work. That is not like you. Is there a problem? What is going on?” “You” messages, as opposed to “I” messages, are often negative and blaming, and may put the student on the defensive. Saying, “You aren’t trying. You could do this work if you just try” can be damaging to a child’s self-esteem.

These students have experienced so many failures in school that they are sensitive to the least bit of negative feedback. When they receive negative messages, many will withdraw and shut down emotionally. As a result, they do less schoolwork.

5. ASK, “IS THAT A GOOD CHOICE OR A BAD CHOICE?” When a student misbehaves, the teacher may ask, “Is that a good choice or a bad choice?” The student gets the message that his behavior is inappropriate without a reprimand from the teacher. The student learns to label and correct his own behavior.

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Updated on August 8, 2018

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  1. I disagree strongly with #5- for my son with ADHD, his behaviors are quite often not a choice, and labeling them good or bad have been quite shaming experiences for him.

    1. I think the point is to have them think through their actions. My son can often recognize a good decision from a bad one and it opens for discussion on what a good decision would be. The sting isn’t always bad. I always reiterate that we ALL make bad decisions sometimes. As hard as it is to watch that is sometimes how our children learn.

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