Top Teacher Tools for ADHD Students
One of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far has been getting to spend a year and a half working in a classroom chock full of students with ADHD and ASD. Every day was an adventure for sure. While there were certainly days full of chaos and frustration, there were also so many days full of laughter and fun. There are a lot of things that I have learned from my experience in that classroom, but if I had to pick one to share, it would be this: "ADHD children in the classroom really DO want to succeed, and when in the right environment with the right support, they can SHINE!"
Now, this school had a lot of resources that a typical school doesn't have. For example, there was a sensory room with low lighting, comfy seating, and plenty of fidgets to both calm the nerves and offer an outlet for pent up energy. Every student at that school had some kind of learning disability or disorder, and so no one felt shamed for being on a different level from their peers because integrated learning allowed for that to be the norm. Most importantly, the teachers took a lot of time to get to know their students, understand their needs, and create an environment in which the class learned how to cooperate as a whole. They understood how to deescalate a tense situation, and they even encouraged students to take care of their mental health needs so that they could return to learning.
I dream of a world where more schools exhibit these characteristics. In this world, neurodivergent students are provided with the tools needed to succeed, and students become more understanding of how neurodivergent people operate. In hopes of furthering that dream, I have put together a tool kit for teachers of neurodivergent students who are having trouble understanding their needs and knowing how to best support them.
1. Use fidgets
I'm not going to pretend like fidgets aren't toys, however, they aren't without purpose. They provide the extra stimulation that the student's brain needs in order to concentrate on your lesson. Even in the school I worked in, fidgets were confiscated when they stopped serving their intended purpose and became a distraction from the lesson. The teaching is still the most important part of class, and by allowing fidgets, you are giving neurodivergent students the opportunity to focus on you instead of whatever else might be grabbing their attention.
2. Learn how to redirect focus
Students with ADHD are going to lose focus. It is a part of the disorder. Yes, as a teacher, it is frustrating when a student just won't pay attention to your lesson. Understand that it is also frustrating for the student. They know that they need to listen or complete the assignment, but when everything is a distraction, you tend to be impulsive, you have low self-awareness, and you can't filter out stimuli... well, that can feel impossible.
As the teacher, if you notice that your neurodivergent students are losing focus, talk to them after class one day and develop a code or secret signal to point out to them that they aren't paying attention without calling them out to the entire class. Perhaps you might touch their shoulder as you walk past them. Maybe you will find a way to make eye contact with the student and touch your ear. You could say their name aloud in a story or as an example for a lesson. If all else fails, sending the student on an errand can get the student active and help refresh their brain after sitting in what can be a monotonous setting.
3. Use positive reinforcement
Research shows that positive reinforcement is the only strategy that really works for students with ADHD. The ADHD brain is deprived of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is released when a reward is anticipated. People with ADHD have a harder time anticipating long-term rewards, though. Short-term, though, are within sight. People with ADHD also have a tendency to be more sensitive to criticism and punishment, and these methods only serve to lower the self-esteem of the student.
So how do you use positive reinforcement? Easy, you reward good behavior when you see it. Maybe you will offer an extra reward for a student who finishes their work to completion before a timer goes off. You could point out when a student is working quietly and staying in their seat. Or maybe the students who get all of their time on a learning program get to pick from a candy bucket. My favorite is doing a secret reward that is given out to the whole class when they do something wonderful.
In the event that you do have a major classroom disruption, try discreetly talking to your student after class. Ask why they were behaving the way they did. Once you are on the same page, you can come to an agreement on what the appropriate behavior in the future would be and how to implement it.
4. Keep frustration to a minimum
Many people with ADHD have a low frustration tolerance. Things can become overwhelming to someone who is neurodivergent very easily. Find a way to allow the student to communicate this to you so you can work on a solution together. Maybe they don't understand something about the assignment or don't know where to begin and could use a little direction. Maybe they are feeling antsy and could really benefit from a walk to the bathroom and back to refresh.
In my experience, problem behavior usually stems from frustration. If you have the opportunity to step aside and talk to the student, take it. Help them calm down and communicate why they are upset. Frustration is fun for no one, and people with ADHD tend to experience it more often and more easily.
5. Provide extra reminders
Homework can be a bit of a mountain for ADHD children. Ensure that you leave enough time to allow students to write down assignments on the board. Read them aloud to draw attention to the fact that there is an assignment. Assign a row captain who checks to make sure each student in their row has written down today's homework. You may even want to allow students to take a picture of the board as they enter or leave class to ensure that they have it somewhere easily accessible.
For long-term projects in particular, you might find it better to break the assignment into separate graded parts. Provide extra reminders, give plenty of time for completion, and let parents know that there will be a project coming up. Use sticky notes to remind students to get papers signed and tape reminders to the student's desk.
6. Keep it bite sized
ADHD students can have a hard time knowing where to start when there are a lot of steps. The steps can become jumbled, and it is easy to get lost along the way. Ensure that you write down all of the steps where students can see them and review them. State directions clearly and don't leave room for interpretation.
7. Teach students how to stay organized
Having had the opportunity to talk to students with ADHD, I find that often, these students don't really know where to begin with organization. Break down the process for students and offer different systems to follow. Show students how to alphabetize and categorize items into groups that make sense. Most importantly, from the beginning, help students ensure that everything has a home. Require students to have an assignment folder where they keep everything that either has to be done or has to be turned in.
8. PBIS World - tools for behavior management
A behavior management website that allows you to click on the problem behavior and view different interventions to try out at different levels of intensity. Follow the link and play around, taking note of different intervention methods for different problem behaviors from interrupting to being unmotivated. It also includes descriptions of what students who exhibit different behaviors may look like and different tiers of intervention for different intensities of behavior.
9. Create a set of rules and routines for the classroom
ADHD children thrive on structure, but they aren't great at creating it themselves. Set clear classroom rules that are in an easily visible place in the classroom so that students can be reminded of them at all times. This sets specific expectations and gives direction for how students should be behaving.