7 Enlightened Methods for Teaching Students with ADHD and LD
Teaching methods and ideologies matter — a lot. For students with ADHD or learning disabilities, who learn outside the box, it can make all the difference in the world to have an enlightened educator who understands that process trumps outcome, that anxiety impedes learning, that every child has innate strengths, and these four additional educational truths.
What teaching methods and classroom qualities work best for students with ADHD and learning disabilities? The answer varies, of course, with every child and every learning environment, however I have found that some universal rules do apply.
The teaching methods for ADHD and LD kids recommended here are based on current research — and enriched by my years of experience with ADHD students, parents, and some talented and effective teachers and administrators. It’s my hope that this article might serve as a reminder for educators, a checklist for parents trying to make decisions about their child’s education, or a guide for parents as they support the work of their kids’ teachers.
The successful teacher of students with ADHD or LD knows the following:
1. Emotion and learning share a close relationship.
Emotional reactions and negative behaviors may be coping mechanisms generated by frustration and fear of failure. The best teacher understands that many negative emotions and troubling behaviors go away when students feel competent. A lot of children with ADHD or learning disabilities have had years of negative experience with reading, writing, or math. I call this the “cumulative toxicity of failure.” If kids do not fully understand why and how their condition has made learning difficult, they attribute failure to themselves — saying “I’m stupid,” “I stink at math,” or “I am not a writer!”
Part of the teacher’s job is to make sure students have a good understanding of the condition that makes school difficult, and that they know how to work around or strengthen the skill deficit. In this teacher’s classroom, you’ll hear, “You and I know that this might be challenging for you. You also know that positive self-talk can help you get over these tough spots. What’s your brain telling you? If you’re getting an ‘I can’t’ message, practice what you’ve learned to turn it around.”
2. Students learn in different ways.
The successful educator says, “I need this student to understand that certain tasks may be difficult for her, but that she has the skills — or I am going to teach her the skills — to handle this task.” Her students are encouraged to “use what you’ve learned about your learning style and find the best way to master this material.”
If a task requires sustained attention, the skillful teacher will ask the student, “How long do you think you can stay with this task?” Then, she will de-brief with the student, asking, “How accurate was your estimate? Was that long enough to do the task well? To demonstrate your abilities?” To help the student focus on his strengths, the teacher can point out: “You seem to be able to focus on this type of math problem for about 15 minutes before you run out of steam. Do you think you can extend your time on task by five minutes on the next assignment? That will be a good start to increasing your stamina, which is one of your goals.”
3. The learner comes first, the curriculum second.
The helpful teacher knows that creating a positive mindset will increase success. A student with a history of failure and frustration approaches new challenges with anxiety that gets in the way of learning. In class, you’ll hear the enlightened teacher say, “Before you start on this new material, ask yourself: What have I done successfully in the past that’s kind of like this task?” She knows how to set a “competence anchor” that allows the student to step into new territory with more confidence.
The task of the teacher is to “neutralize” the anxiety by helping the student believe that he or she will be able to do this task. The teacher can show the student a reading passage that he has previously read and was able to comprehend well. She can ask the student to compare the new passage with the “old” one and ask him to state whether the new passage is at an “easier, harder, or about the same” difficulty level. This kind of pre-assessment can put a student in an “I can do this” mindset and improve his chances of meeting the challenge.
4. Students can demonstrate knowledge and skills in many ways.
Informed teachers create activities that capture the attention of the student with ADHD, which increases the student’s connection to the concept being taught. A teacher can ask a student, “How does this problem relate to your life?” Or a teacher can ask a student with poor attention to find a music video that addresses the topic being explored. A student with dyslexia needs intensive, specialized instruction to read more effectively, but content can be delivered in ways that do not rely primarily on reading skill. (Think YouTube, recorded books, computer-based instruction, videos.) The skilled teacher says, “This material is important. Think about how you might learn it best.”
5. Process matters more than the final product.
The enlightened teacher asks kids, “What’s going to make it challenging for you to learn this material?” and “What skills and attitudes do you bring to this task that make it more likely that you’ll do well?” This teacher praises the process that students use as often as the product. “You did well on that because you stayed with it, even though it was challenging” or “because you took all the distracting things off your desk.”
6. A predictable and emotionally safe environment maximizes chances for success.
In the ideal classroom, teachers display homework assignments in the same place, using the same color marker, well before the chaotic end of the school day. In this classroom, rules, expectations, and guidelines are prominently displayed and consistently followed. A teacher notes that a student gets anxious when working in a group because she worries that others will see her mistakes. An effective strategy is to make sure that the student has the opportunity to work alone on a task, check the answer or responses with the teacher or an answer key, and then join the group to share what she knows is a correct answer.
7. Success is not about having kids work harder, but smarter.
Effective teachers ask kids about strategies they have used in the past to be successful in any kind of learning (in school or outside of school), and help to translate that skill to recreate that positive learning experience in the classroom. The enlightened teacher has the kids evaluate their strengths (“What are you really good at?”) and encourages them to use these skillsets on the challenging task ahead. I have witnessed a top teacher use this strategy when he talked to a student who doubted her ability to do a writing task: “We both know that you are good at using songs to convey your knowledge and feelings about a topic. If you write a song about this material that conveys your understanding and your passion, you’ll bypass the anxiety and create something really great.”
Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., is a pediatric clinical neuropsychologist and the author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (#CommissionsEarned).
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