“My ADHD Teaching Strategies That Benefit All Students.”
After my son’s diagnosis, I made it my mission to learn everything I could about ADHD. In the process of helping my son, I totally revolutionized the way I teach my own students — both the neurotypical and the atypical ones. Here are some small but critical changes I made that don’t require an IEP or 504 Plan, yet make a real, measurable difference.
I was an educator for nearly 15 years before I realized that I gravely misunderstood the needs of a large portion of my students. It wasn’t until I learned that my own son has ADHD — and began reading research, participating in webinars, and networking with professionals and other parents of kids with ADHD — that I realized that I wasn’t the only teacher who lacked foundation knowledge of the condition, its symptoms, and effective strategies.
I have since found that, whether diagnosed or just showing ADHD-like traits, atypical students can benefit from some simple classroom additions and teaching strategies. These learning strategies do not require formal documentation, and they will likely help all types of learners!
1. Focus on short-term goals.
When teaching children with ADHD, keep in mind that long-term goals are often overwhelming. Waiting until the report card to come home each 10 or 12 weeks is a daunting prospect for a child who needs frequent accolades and affirmations. Such a long wait time typically makes the child grow frustrated and lose interest or give up on their goals. Children with ADHD benefit from short-term learning goals. Some can focus only on completing assigned tasks one day at a time. Others may benefit from a half-day goal that breaks up their day with more than one sense of accomplishment and feeling of success.
Goals should also be visible — spelled out in a goal chart upon which the student, parent, and teacher all agree. The goal chart should include a specific, targeted goal, the time frame for the goal, and an acknowledgement of goal completion. While the intent is to support students with attention difficulties, the teacher can implement a goal chart for the whole class. For example, “This morning, all students will complete their assignments following teacher-given instructions.”
Setting student-specific or class short-term goals can be customizable. For example, if students’ hyperactivity worsens and becomes distracting in the afternoon, the goal may be: “This afternoon, all students will utilize classroom resources to expend energy appropriately.” In this case, the class reward may be a few minutes of free time at the end of the day. The key is to focus on short-term goals, make them visible and known, and follow through with acknowledgement of success in meeting the goal.
2. Rewards work.
The ADHD brain reacts more positively to rewards than does the neurotypical brain. In the classroom, rewards are often used sparingly because teachers feel they need to instill a sense of intrinsic motivation, and that their students should feel a sense of pride when they have worked hard. They are right, but this only applies to most of the population – not all. This mindset leaves behind approximately 10% or more of their students whose brains are wired differently.
Students with ADHD often exert additional mental and emotional energy to comply with classroom learning and behavioral expectations. In the process, they are unable to focus on the implicit goals that the teacher has set. However, their brains are hardwired to focus on rewards, and teachers can use this to help the student meet some of the in-class expectations.
Setting goals alone will not motivate students with ADHD in the long run, but celebrating their successes with simple rewards will make a positive difference. Rewards can include stickers, high fives, class cheers, borrowing a special book, reading to the class, a specific compliment, or a special helper job. When teachers focus on the needs for rewards for their students with ADHD, they will see positive improvements in their classroom.
3. Play music.
Music promotes focus in the ADHD brain. Why? The ADHD brain doesn’t struggle to attend to stimuli; it struggles to prioritize stimuli and attend only to the important ones. When music is played, the ADHD brain has a rhythmic pattern to following, which allows for clearer focus on the critical work at hand. Music has patterns that provide a reliable and predictable structure, creating a dependable support for the ADHD mind. When a child with ADHD is asked to complete a classroom assignment, his brain is bombarded with hundreds of other thoughts, noises, and distractors. He is focusing on all of those at once, causing him difficulty in completing the assignment. When music is played, however, the same student with ADHD is able to focus most of the chaos in their mind on the rhythm and pattern of the music. This allows the other distractors to diminish, so that the student can focus on their task.
4. Teach students about the brain.
Knowledge about the brain should be included in human anatomy and basic science courses. Now, students learn that the brain thinks and controls the rest of the body, but there is so much more to learn! It is empowering for all students, especially those with ADHD, to know which parts of the brain are responsible for which functions. For example, when a child with ADHD is having a strong emotional reaction to a situation, they should be aware that their amygdala is highly reactive at that moment, and they should know strategies like deep breathing to help regulate its response. Yes, teaching a child to breathe deeply when upset is a great strategy, but empowering them to know why is even more beneficial. This applies to all ages. When a child with ADHD knows about his brain, he can better advocate for himself when he may be struggling.
5. Allow them time to calm down.
Children with ADHD might display impulsive behaviors within the classroom, such as hitting another student, that must be addressed. While these situations look behavioral, what’s happening is actually a neurological response to what is occurring inside the ADHD brain. Teachers have traditionally responded to impulsive behaviors with consequences, which includes a teacher-to-child dialogue of some sort. These methods are not always helpful for a child with ADHD.
When a child with ADHD becomes emotionally dysregulated, their brain is flooded with emotions and cannot process the conversation they are expected to have about an incident. Beginning a dialogue with them in this moment would be counterproductive, more than likely making the situation worse. Not only would it further frustrate the child, but it would add to their feelings of inadequacy, as they once again are unable to meet an expectation. It is much more beneficial to redirect the behavior quickly and calmly in the moment, but save the conversation for a later time. Give the child at least 15 minutes to utilize some calming strategies, to focus on something else as a mental break from whatever caused overstimulation, and to prepare to discuss the incident.
6. Include mindfulness activities.
No one has ever calmed down because someone told them, “Hey, calm down.” In fact, it can make someone who is upset even more angry and frustrated. Similarly, telling someone to “just focus,” doesn’t suddenly help someone concentrate. Instead, empowering all students, especially those with ADHD, to use mindful meditation will greatly improve their autonomy to control their emotions and their focus. There are many great mindfulness apps and programs out there for classroom use, but simply including a time for teacher-directed mindfulness will greatly improve mental self-regulation in the classroom.
Teaching a classroom of 25 unique minds can be challenging, but my teaching strategies can add a wealth of benefit to students of all learning types, especially those with ADHD.