For Teachers

How Project-Based Instruction Can Ignite Your Child’s Love for Learning

Traditional classroom activities (like lectures, essays, or other snoozefests) don’t accomplish anything for most kids with ADHD. Instead, ask your child’s teacher to implement this inattention-friendly learning technique that’s more effective than a thousand worksheets.

A young child with ADHD engaged in project-based learning
Science tubes, green blue and yellow, kid in lab coat

The most difficult environment for kids diagnosed with ADHD is the traditional school classroom in which the teacher lectures, the students take notes, and substantial time is given over to writing papers, filling in workbooks, reading textbooks, and waiting for the next teacher instruction. The fact is that this isn’t a good learning environment for anyone, let alone kids identified as having ADHD. It’s just that the kids with the ADHD label are honest enough, or alive enough, or sensitive enough not to want (or be able) to go along with it!

Hands-On Benefits

Our greatest educational theorists agree that project-based learning is one of the most profound and impactful methods of education for all kids. Project-based learning is defined as experiential learning, not just reading about something. It means getting involved with real-life issues, such as ecology, politics, social change, the arts, science, asking probing questions, investigating timely problems, researching topics thoroughly, and then creating projects or outcomes that reflect the acquired learning.

A final outcome for a project could take the form of a video, a poster, a display, a map, a photo montage, a written work, a three-dimensional construction, a multimedia presentation, or it might manifest in some other way. Here are two examples of project-based learning at work in the classroom:

> Fourth-grade students in Hannibal, Missouri, received live caterpillars from the University of Kansas and raised them. They measured their growth, released them as Monarch butterflies, and sent them on their way to Mexico. They then created paper butterflies and sent them to students in Mexico. In the spring, when the butterflies returned, the class received replies from the Mexican students on those same paper butterflies.

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> High school students in Danville, California, tested the water quality of the run-off from three different parking lots, and discovered that the lots that had been designed to be the most ecologically friendly had the cleanest water.

Engage the ADHD Brain

I used Google to search the terms “ADHD” and “project-based learning.” I discovered that there is virtually nothing in Google Scholar (where research studies are indexed) on this topic. This tells me that researchers are focusing the least attention on the learning methods that ADHD-diagnosed kids enjoy the most. Fortunately, project-based learning is alive and well in many of our finest elementary and secondary schools, and kids are thriving at them.

Brown University students Jonathan Mooney and David Cole, who were both diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADHD, summed it up when they wrote: “Beyond the content or skills learned, we are profoundly affected by our experiences with project-based learning. These experiences changed who we are, and they changed our lives. How often can we say that about information given in a lecture? We lived those ideas and skills; we experienced them and integrated them into our lives.”

Here are a few ways you can bring project-based learning into your child’s or teen’s life:

  1. Encourage your school to incorporate project-based learning into its curriculum. One book you might recommend is the Buck Institute for Education’s Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction.

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  1. During holidays or summer vacation, when your child or teen might be looking for something to do, ask him what in the world he’d most like to find out. He may change topics a few times, and that’s OK. Topics might include your family history, outer space exploration, dinosaurs, a social issue (like feeding the poor), famous sports records, a historical event (like the Civil War), the life of an admired person, a foreign country, a political issue (like healthcare), creating a collection of bugs (or coins or stamps), learning how food is processed, or a favorite animal.
  1. Give your child or teen space somewhere in or around the house to serve as his project place, and provide (or point him toward) the resources he needs to explore his topic. Include a bulletin board, where he can post ideas, images, and articles to help him in his quest.
  1. Steer a middle path between leaving him completely on his own and taking over the project. Gently guide him in exploring his topic, let him take the lead, but offer your support and suggestions as needed.

The process of engaging in a project is more important than the final product. If he does a final project, don’t evaluate it with either praise or criticism; instead, ask questions about the content of the project. By pursuing a project that fills him with enthusiasm, he’ll develop his ability to plan, think critically, express himself creatively, communicate with others, and make decisions. Such a project is worth a thousand worksheets!

Excerpted with permission from The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, by THOMAS ARMSTRONG, Ph.D. © 2017 by Thomas Armstrong. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.