12 Teacher Strategies to Inspire Listening, Learning and Self-Control
Detention doesn’t work. Neither does criticism. Or yelling. In fact, they may actually aggravate and encourage a child’s defiance. What does work? These strategies for managing negative ADHD behavior in the classroom — and teaching students better skills for the long run.
Let’s start with the bad news: Teachers can’t actually control their students’ behavior. That’s because the only behavior a person can control is his or her own. And when teachers try to directly restrict what students say or do, they’re usually left feeling frustrated and helpless.
The good news? Teachers can apply some evidence-based strategies to help students take charge of their own behavior and learn how to interact with their environment in a positive way.
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Why Do Kids Misbehave?
Behavior is a form of communication. For kids with ADHD, poor behavior usually blossoms from a skill deficit. A child who’s unable to express his frustration verbally may instead throw his pencil across the room; a child who feels socially ostracized may respond by pushing a classmate on the playground. The only way to prevent these undesirable outcomes is for teachers to identify the root causes of bad behavior — and set up systems that promote greater self-awareness and self-control.
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What Can Teachers Do?
Of course, this is easier said than done because each child and situation is unique. But children with ADHD do tend to exhibit certain behavior patterns that stem from common triggers. To avoid these, teachers can use these 12 strategies to create structure, reduce boredom, and help children with ADHD connect causes to effects.
Kids feel more in control when they know exactly what’s expected of them, which is why teachers should begin each new school year by establishing clear behavioral expectations. Begin by asking the class to help you devise a list of rules to keep everyone’s attention focused on learning. Be sure to state the rules in a positive way whenever possible to give children positive behavioral goals. “Raise your hand and wait to be called on before speaking” is better than “Don’t speak unless you’re called on.”
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2. Have a predictable daily schedule.
Kids also feel in control when teachers post a clear, easy-to-follow schedule for everyone to see. For younger kids, the schedule may include pictures — an image of a book to represent quiet reading time, for instance. For older kids, it may include homework specifics and main objectives of the day’s lessons. Teachers should check off or erase items as the day progresses to help kids with ADHD learn to manage their time and prepare for upcoming transitions — a common trigger for bad behavior.
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3. Explicitly teach routines.
Daily, repeated tasks like lining up for recess, sitting through roll call, or copying down homework assignments don’t always come naturally to students with ADHD. Teachers may interpret the child’s forgetfulness or confusion as defiance, when it’s really just a product of underdeveloped executive functions.
To prevent schedule slip-ups — and the problem behaviors that often come with them — a teacher may need to work one-on-one with some students to explicitly teach the daily routine. If a child repeatedly acts out at certain times of day, for instance, a “cue card” designed especially for those trigger situations can be helpful. An example: If a student struggles to settle into quiet reading time after recess — and instead provokes other children or moves around the room — he may benefit from a small card that spells out all the steps he needs to follow the moment he returns from recess. On days when he successfully completes all the steps, a small reward can help reinforce the correct routine.
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4. Be consistent.
When kids with ADHD don’t follow directions, it’s sometimes due to defiance — but more often it’s because they failed to understand or pay attention to each step. Teachers can avoid this by establishing an auditory or visual cue that alerts the entire class that you’re about to give a direction — clapping your hands twice, for instance, or standing in the same spot every time you impart an instruction. Once students become accustomed to the cue, you’ll be amazed at how much better they tune in!
Kids are better able to follow the instructions of teachers who do the following:
Make eye contact. Of course, you can’t hold eye contact with 25 children at once while you speak. But you can do a quick scan of the room to make sure every child is looking at you before you begin speaking, and make eye contact with the few who are struggling to maintain attention.
Break tasks into steps. Chunking large amounts of information into smaller pieces makes it easier for children to digest. Writing each step on the board as you go is also a good idea for children who process information visually.
Ask kids to restate. Check for comprehension by asking a few children to repeat back what’s expected of them. Rephrasing instructions in their own words makes it more likely children will understand — and follow — them.
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6. Teach emotional regulation.
Kids with ADHD feel emotions more intensely than do their peers. This makes it tough to put on the brakes when a situation triggers feelings of anger or excitement, which can result in aggressive or inappropriate behavior. And since emotions are abstract, many children can’t identify what they’re feeling — and don’t know what they need to do to calm down again.
Teachers can help students regain emotional control by helping them recognize physical signs of strong emotions, and offering strategies for reacting appropriately. There are many different ways to do this, including a structured program called The Zones of Regulation. Teachers can learn more at zonesofregulation.com.
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7. Create external structure in the classroom environment.
Structure is more than a daily routine. It’s also possible to arrange the classroom’s physical environment in ways that make it less likely students will act out. This can be done by positioning the desks in a specific way — a U-shape helps children manage their behavior since they’re all easily accessible by the teacher — or by setting up “stations” around the room for different activities. Group work, for instance, might always take place in the corners of the room, so kids with ADHD are less likely to get distracted or involved in what other groups are doing.
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8. Make consequences immediate.
When children do misbehave, consequences should follow swiftly. Kids with ADHD struggle to connect delayed punishments — like after-school detention — to negative behavior during the day. If the child is able to directly associate the punishment with the undesired behavior, she’ll be more likely to change that behavior in the future.
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9. Make better behavior a class-wide goal.
Singling out children who act out can backfire and lead to more bad behavior. Instead, set up a systematic behavior management framework — like a token system — that the whole class adheres to, so no one child feels the teacher is fixating specifically on him. If you prefer a more high-tech approach, apps like ClassDojo (for younger kids) or RedCritter Teacher (for older kids) can help you measure and track the behavior of your entire class.
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10. Provide students with options.
One way to avoid oppositional behavior — and help children feel they can control frustrating situations — is to present them with a choice. For instance, if a child is refusing to work on an assignment, ask her, “What would help you get this done: working with a partner or going to a quiet room to finish on your own?” When the scenario is presented this way, completing the assignment isn’t optional — but the student retains some control over exactly how it gets done.
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11. Make good behavior a game.
Boredom is a common trigger for kids with ADHD. When the ADHD brain is bored, it seeks stimulation — sometimes in the form of disruptive behavior. Teachers can provide some novelty to a restless brain by turning good behavior into a game. A straightforward point system — where earned points can be exchanged for rewards each day or each week — is an easy way for teachers to encourage good behavior.
Other teachers choose to split students into teams that compete to obtain a desired behavior — which team can read quietly for the longest amount of time? Or who can organize their desks the fastest? A quick behavior game will break up the long school day and plays to the ADHD desire for novelty and competition, while clearly modeling the expected behavior.
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12. Allow movement.
Decades of research directly link physical movement to mental stamina, improved cognitive ability, and better behavior. All children — but especially those with ADHD — learn and conduct themselves better when they’re given frequent opportunities to move throughout the day. Having children march in place while reciting math facts, for instance, won’t just help them with memorization. It will also burn off excess energy and reduce the chance of outbursts later. And remember: recess should never be taken away as a punishment — doing so only increases the chance that a child will redirect his unused energy in a negative way.
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Teachers Can't Fix Everything
These rules aren’t exhaustive. The goal of each is to teach better behavior over the long-term AND design a classroom environment where students are more likely to behave. But children will still act out. It’s important to remember that, as a teacher, sometimes a child’s behavior will be beyond your ability to correct. If a child is repeatedly engaging in behavior that’s dangerous to himself or others, seek additional help — from a qualified behavioral psychologist, the student’s IEP team, or the child’s parents.