October is ADHD Awareness Month and, whether you’re new to education or have been working with students for years, you have probably encountered Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in your school. ADHD is a brain-based medical disorder that impairs the management system in one’s mind, affecting six key executive functions of the brain—activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory and action.
According to research from the University of Iowa, it is affecting more students than ever before. And while ADHD impacts all domains of life, perhaps the biggest challenge students with ADHD face is meeting teacher expectations in school.
This is (in part) because lagging skills due to ADHD can lead to unsolved problems in class, e.g., remaining on-task, completing homework, etc. However, because of ADHD, sometimes difficulty meeting expectations is outside a student’s control. Often, this results in frustration or failure, especially when misunderstood actions are punished or dismissed as misbehavior when can be in fact manifestations of ADHD symptoms.
And since this neurodevelopmental disorder is much more complex than previously thought—traditionally misassociated with wiggly young boys who can’t be quiet or still—it turns out a little understanding can go a long way.
Here are five difficulties students with ADHD have in school and possible ways educators can support them:
Difficulty 1: Staying Focused on Classwork
- What to Know: ADHD gets a bad wrap when it comes to the ‘attention deficit’ part. Despite the misconception that ADHD is the inability to focus, the condition often can show itself as hyperfocus. For neurotypical individuals, this is sometimes described as being engaged, in the zone or in a state of flow.
- What to Do: Remember—before you can be engaged, you must get engaged. Help students get engaged and be active participants in their work. Consider creating a private cue to help them self-recognize when their focus gets shifted and return gently to their work. Additionally, be aware of the stamina that your students will have at their age for paying attention for a set amount of time, and work in brain breaks—for everyone, including yourself.
Difficulty 2: Remembering What’s Expected
- What to Know: Short-term memory, in terms of both storage and retrieval, can be impacted by ADHD. The mind of a person with ADHD is often very active, and that can overload their memory – like a web browser with too many tabs open. Students with the disorder need help to utilize their working memory and access recall better in order to make learning “stick” for them.
- What to Do: In addition to the classic teaching technique of mnemonic devices, use external reminders and visual systems to unburden working memory. Unload the strain on the brain with visual cues to help remember things. It could be a desk sign asking, “What’s left to pack?” or a picture of what goes in their backpack near the cubbies. Routine structure is also key. Having a designated place for things in class and predictable cues for when things are going to happen (e.g., transitions, visual schedules, etc.) and graphic organizers are among some of the strongest ways to support students in this area.
Difficulty 3: Keeping Calm (and Carrying On)
- What to Know: ADHD makes it difficult to manage frustration and modulate emotion, especially when it comes to learning or success in school. This can be evident when students have difficulty persisting on challenging or tedious tasks, in the ways that they respond to social hardship, or how they view themselves with respect to their academic achievement. This is, in part, due to something known as rejection sensitivity, which is beginning to be better understood in the neurology of ADHD. Students with ADHD can have emotional hyperarousal when rejection happens—and similarly when it is perceived—and will do practically anything to avoid this, including irrational behavior. This can make things like feedback or quiz grades a particularly challenging experience to navigate.
- What to Do: Give students an out from the situation, first and foremost. Next, help students learn to name their emotions when they have them. Then, assist them in identifying what is difficult about a situation or task. Rephrase what you hear them say throughout your interaction, to confirm you’ve got it all straight. Finally, give them an opportunity to determine what’s best next. If they’re stuck, ask them if they’re open to a suggestion before proceeding to offer direct assistance to carry on from the situation. (Of course, priority is always first to keep students safe.)
Difficulty 4: Being Timely
- What to Know: ADHD distorts the body’s internal sense of time, so children with it need to develop a realistic sense of time and their own efficiency.
- What to Do: Make time visible using explicit timing. Witnessing the passage of time creates a sense of urgency and can help draw their attention to finishing the task at hand. Set a visual timer, such as an egg timer, to keep them on track. Point out when half the time is up, or two minutes remain, so they know where they stand.
Difficulty 5: Starting an Assignment
- What to Know: A challenge for students with ADHD is getting started on a task. Some view this as an issue of motivation, or a matter of willpower; however, it turns out that this is actually an issue of skillpower, because much of will is skill—and this skill is known as activation. Fortunately, neither action nor activation require motivation.
- What to Do: Taking the first step on a task helps you to start finishing it. But that requires knowing the first steps to take and doing them. Help your students develop this skill by working with them to figure out the first step to take with a task. Often, that can be as simple as getting all the materials out and in front of them and articulating what the task is.
In the end, ADHD is not a condition with simple fixes, but awareness is key. Ultimately, what you’ll probably realize in trying any of these strategies is that what would benefit a student with ADHD will actually be helpful to all students as well. Regardless of how you approach it, knowledge is power to inform the tactics you try. And equipping educators with the knowledge of how ADHD will impact school is essential to helping them support students with ADHD in the classroom and beyond.
Want to Know More?
In addition to utilizing the resources in your school, including talking with your school social worker, special education teacher, counselor, or psychologist, the following are some resources to take your learning deeper with ADHD:
- Download the ADHD Awareness Month Toolkit from ADDitude Magazine
- Learn more about ADHD from this half-hour video from Understood.org
- Explore the Executive Function Skills affected by ADHD
- Print a copy of the CHADD Strategies & Tips to Help Students With ADHD
- Discern the facts from myths about ADHD
- Address the stereotypes and science of ADHD with this Educational Leadership article
- Go inside the ADHD mind and understand the neurological backstory behind it
- Read one of the great books on ADHD by Dr. Ross Greene, Dr. Thomas Brown, Dr. Russell Barkley, or Dr. Edward Hallowell
- See how the symptoms can affect children while in school from Understood.org
- Watch the recording of a seminar on ADHD given by two of my colleagues and me
Gary G. Abud, Jr. is an educational consultant in private practice near Detroit who specializes in working with individuals who have ADHD. His services provide workshops and coaching to individuals in career, school and life. Previously, Gary has worked in schools as a teacher, principal and adjunct college professor. In 2014, he was selected Michigan Teacher of the Year. Gary is also the author of the children’s book Science With Scarlett. For more information, or to contact Gary, visit SagaEducators.org or follow Gary on Twitter at @mr_abud.