How to Deal with ADHD Students

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is a common disability among children in schools today. I teach special education in an urban high school and many of my students are diagnosed with ADHD. Dealing with them on a daily basis in the classroom is challenging since their behaviors need constant monitoring and structure. But with training, collaboration and practice, classroom teachers can engage ADHD students in learning and effectively manage their behavior in class.

Symptoms of ADHD include hyperactive behavior, inattention and impulsivity. In the classroom students with ADHD cannot sit still, are disorganized, exhibit peer problems, become easily bored, are distracted, blurt out inappropriate words, and interrupt others. Hence, they fail in school because they do not finish school work, lose their papers, and cannot engage in activities that require concentration. Impulsive behavior at school gets them into trouble with teachers and authority figures, and many times they alienate peers. Hence students with ADHD become frustrated and act out.

As a classroom teacher, I structure the environment so that students feel safe and comfortable learning. This starts at the beginning of the school year making rules and establishing routines. Rules for the children involve treating each other with respect, which means speaking in a non-threatening tone, no teasing, no bullying, shouting, or name calling. Children practice speaking to each other and the teacher appropriately, through structured role playing and games. At first ADHD children resist participating in these games, but once they feel safe, students willingly participate.

Posting rules and routines and discussing them also helps ADHD students know what to expect and how to behave in the classroom. This goes for all age groups. In high school, the teacher should have the classroom rules posted clearly and discuss learning and behavior expectations at the beginning of each class. Elementary school teachers can post signs near areas where students line up, wash their hands, read, etc. Some teachers tape outlines of small feet to the floor so students know where to place their feet and monitor their own behavior.

To assist students with organization teachers need to designate an area for students’ materials in the classroom. In high school, each student should have a folder to keep inside the classroom and a folder to bring home for homework. Color coding the folders will help students remember which folder to take home and keep at school. The folders should be kept in the same area throughout the school year. Encourage the students to put their materials away before the end of the class and monitor their behavior to ensure the room and folders stay organized. Regularly encourage them to clean out backpacks, folders, etc. and throw old papers away.

Staying organized is very challenging for elementary school teachers as children are in the same room for longer periods of time. Each child should have a desk, cubby, bin, or other area in which to keep their materials. Color coded folders, trays book shelves, and bins should be used to assist children with keeping their materials organized. Routines for handling and storing school papers and projects need to be established at the beginning of the year. ADHD students like movement so teachers can give them specific organization and cleaning tasks daily or weekly. Students who are given responsibility for keeping materials and the classroom organized will increase their self-esteem and develop stronger organizational skills.

To keep students engaged, teachers need to modify classroom activities so ADHD students can learn. In traditional high schools, students move from class to class throughout the day and spend an hour to an hour and a half in each class. Hence, teachers have little time with each group to engage them in the lesson. ADHD students have a hard time going from a high level activity to a stagnant classroom where they are expected to sit, write and listen for an hour. So teachers need to develop appropriate activities for the students when they enter the classroom. Students with ADHD can help pass out materials, sharpen pencils, write on the board, read the class schedule for that day etc. Build some movement into the class each day and shorten lecture time so that ADHD students stay focused on the lesson.

At the beginning of each school year, I ask all of my students to complete a learning style inventory and interest inventory. A good inventory gives the teacher information about learning style, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. I use this information along with the students’ Individual Educational Plan (IEP) throughout the school year to help plan my lessons. Music, games, cooperative learning, athletic activities are all good ways to engage ADHD students in the classroom.

Finally, the teacher needs a good behavior management plan so that ADHD students can be treated fairly and not stigmatized. For students on medication this can be a real challenge especially if for some reason they come to school without taking it. Of course, some students and their families don’t believe in taking medication for ADHD. This is why the teacher needs to maintain close contact with the parents or guardians. Teachers can employ various behavior modification techniques in the classroom such as checklists, token economies, behavior contracts, rewards, etc. Teachers should also review students’ IEPs which contain behavior goals. The school psychologist or social worker can assist the teacher with implementing an appropriate plan for the student. Parents should also be involved with the plan as consistency at school and at home will help the student succeed.

All teachers need to know how to deal with ADHD students on a daily basis. Since my teaching career started twenty years ago, I have seen the number of ADHD students in my classroom rise steadily. Whereas ADHD used to be unique in the 1980’s, now it is quite common. Last year, half of the students on my caseload were diagnosed with ADHD. My colleagues find the same incidence in their classrooms. Teachers are legally and ethically bound to giving ADHD students and their peers an appropriate education as stated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Classrooms and students today are much different than they were twenty years ago. As educators we need to maintain best practices, keep up on current research, participate in frequent teacher training and maintain contact with parents so that we give children with ADHD a good education.