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“What Kids with ADHD Need to Learn: A Recipe from a Mom Who Is Also a School Superintendent”

One-size-fits-all education is really one-size-fits-no-one. How to personalize your child’s experience for success in the classroom.

My daughter is a powerful, beautiful tornado. In hindsight, her impulsivity started at birth. I was induced with full-term twins, and, within an hour, my sweet baby girl crowned, much to the dismay of the doctor, who planned for a delivery in the OR. “Wow, she doesn’t wait for anything,” the doctor quipped.

Six years later, she is unstoppable, creative, and imaginative, but struggles with impulsivity and emotional control. At home, some days are better than others; medication has been a saving grace, But at school, she is thriving because her teachers are committed to putting students in the driver’s seat. She has choices every day that allow her to personalize her learning, and it brings out the best she has to offer the world. As a mom and educator, I couldn’t hope for more.

Choice is at the foundation of what it means to be a learner, especially when learning requires attention and commitment. When our kids struggle with attention and impulsivity, and they are required to sit passively and learn something that doesn’t engage them, it’s a recipe for a disaster. This scenario is all too familiar because teaching has been a one-size-fits-all pursuit. Think back to the classrooms of your childhood—straight rows, hard-backed chairs, lectures, reading aloud in front of peers, and worksheets. In this kind of classroom, my daughter could transform into a funnel cloud and bring the classroom, with everything in it, to the Land of Oz.

[Free Handout: Solving Challenges in the Classroom]

On the other hand, think about the learning experiences you enjoyed: how to bake an apple pie, ride a bike, play the violin—when the learning was on your terms suddenly everything changed. It wasn’t magic. It was personalization, and today, teaching and learning should be personalized, so my kids, and your kids, can all be successful together. So what should personalized learning look like?

Student Passion Is Embraced

All of our kids have passion. Imagine if they could bring that passion into the classroom. With personalized learning, they can. Students are encouraged to set meaningful goals that inspire them to meet challenges head-on. As an assistant superintendent, I have the opportunity to spend a lot of time in classrooms, PK-12, and student passion is at the forefront of many lessons. In a recent fifth-grade class, a student who loves Nerf guns was studying a unit on space. When asked what would be the most interesting aspect of space study, he didn’t hesitate to choose a Nerf gun war with aliens. His teachers and I embraced the idea, but mentioned that he would have to complete some research first. How far could a Nerf arrow shoot in space? Would the Styrofoam stand up? Suddenly, his interest level skyrocketed.

In a secondary-school math class, students were encouraged to set goals for items they wanted to buy. The teacher provided students with access to their phones, ads from Target and Wal-Mart and auto and real estate magazines. Once the teacher got students hooked, they had to research the item, find the best price, and use the slope intercept formula to determine how long it will take to save up and buy it. In a high school ELA class, students went on a literary voyage to a place in the world they would love to visit and they explored the literature of the region, as well as the food and culture, and planned their future travel. These personalized assessments, because they tie into student passions, are a far cry from the book reports and worksheets we used to complete.

Flexible Seating Is the Norm

As I write this article, I am cozied up in front of the fireplace on a leather chair. While our nation’s classrooms aren’t outfitted in plush leather chairs, flexible seating has become the norm in our district. In many classes, students can choose from rocking chairs, exercise balls, beach chairs, stools, standing desks, wiggle seats, or they can sit on the floor. At the beginning of the year, all students get to try the alternative seats, reflect, and determine which ones work best. Students are empowered to self-direct and choose seats that allow them to be successful. As a parent of a child with ADHD or impulsively issues, I am sure you can appreciate how flexible seating would be a huge asset in your student’s classroom.

[The Best Seat in the House]

Self-Regulation Provides a Foundation for Success

Commitment requires self-regulating, or coping, with challenges. In personalized learning, all students have the option to take frequent breaks using multiple tools. Many classrooms have designated quiet areas for all students to read silently, take deep breaths, or work quietly. Fidget tools, like stress balls, resistance bands, and motion stools encourage frequent movement for all students. My daughter often comes home jazzed about GoNoodle and brain breaks, which are the norm in her classroom. When I asked her why she likes them, she said, “Because, um, you get to do fun things like dancing and stuff and don’t have to keep sitting down.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if you knew that your kids had frequent movement breaks and “brain breaks” throughout the day without you having to advocate for them?

Student-Driven Teaching Methods

There are lots of ways to learn. Some students learn best when they watch videos, others prefer to read traditional text, work with classmates, listen to a lecture, or just “figure it out” using their own resources. In traditional education, the teacher usually chooses the methods, but not anymore. In personalized learning classrooms, there are stations, collaborative learning, and choices and options embedded on Google Classroom. When given this “menu” of options, students can decide which learning strategies work best for them.

In a fourth-grade English/language arts class, students get to choose a “just right” book that interests them. They have the option to read aloud with a peer, read on a device, listen to an audiobook, or listen to the teacher read. In a seventh-grade math class, the teacher presents a short mini-lesson at the beginning of each class, but she records it and posts it online, so if students need to review, or they are better able to focus at home, it’s available to them (How much would you pay for every teacher to have the same option?!). After the mini-lesson, the students continue to explore the concept under study, but they can bop around the room and do a little reading in their text, watch a video on Khan Academy, and/or talk with classmates while cozying up in bean bag chairs, all while interacting with and comprehending meaningful information. As students choose their stations, the teacher checks in with each student, one on one, to discuss their strategies, provide feedback, and promote self-assessment. Movement, collaboration, and personalization are the norm.

[How Teachers Can Help Every Student Shine]

Personalized Assessments

One of the most meaningful aspects of personalized education is when students are empowered to personalize their assessments. Traditional assessments require a lot of rule following and organization, and don’t always do the best job of measuring a student’s knowledge or skills. With personalized assessments, our kids have many options for how to share what they know: art exhibits with written rationales, poems, podcasts, simulations, mock interviews, blogs, skits, presentations, debates, and so forth. Not only do these assessments connect to student passions, but they also promote creativity and innovation, and they give students the opportunity to get up, move around, and be actively involved in their learning. This is critical for their future success, since being a rule-follower and compliant is better suited for robots. Our kids, on the other hand, will thrive when they learn to embrace the human elements of learning—creativity, innovation, and passion.

All of these choices allow my daughter, my three sons, and their peers, to flourish. I haven’t had to fight for an individualized education for her, because “one-size-fits-all” is “one-size-fits-no one.” As a parent, if this sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Federal legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, endorses a framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is built on the belief that all students need options and choices in order to access and engage in learning. As a parent, know that the legislation is on your side, so explore personalized education through the framework of UDL and advocate for more personalization for your kids in school. My hope is that if we come together, all kids can have the same opportunity to flourish as my little lady.

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  1. In our school district, these creative ways of learning are only available to children that accel in standardized testing. These select few children are able to attend “TAG” or “Project Explorer”. The rest of the children are trapped in the traditional classroom. How do we advocate for this type of learning for ALL children? My son is really struggling. He feels like a failure because he consistently does not meet the expectations of his teachers.

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