Educating Students with ADHD

Students with ADHD pose unique challenges to parents and educational professionals. Their sensitivity and awareness of multiple activities, rather than to environmental stimuli, negatively affects their ability to learn. The common definition of ADHD is heightened awareness of or sensitivity to environmental stimuli, which results in limited alertness to the educational environment. In this article we will learn to recognize the symptoms, explore the causes, and strategies improve the teaching of children with ADHD.

ADHD manifests itself in four main symptoms:

  1. short attention span
  2. impulsiveness
  3. hyperactivity
  4. and lack of self-awareness

Short attention span involves frequent shifts from one uncompleted activity to another, particularly during tedious long-term tasks due to the inability to concentrate during long work periods. Impulsiveness is displayed through lack of self-restraint, inability to think before acting or speaking, and difficulty waiting for one’s turn in conversation. Hyperactivity exhibits constant motion including, but not limited to, racing thoughts, constant talking without ceasing, and easily becoming fidgety and restless. Finally lack of self-awareness includes difficulty in time management, difficulty remembering to do things, and following a plan.

Often society blames the child for his/her actions; however, a child with ADHD should not be blamed for this medical condition.  Issues to consider are the developmental psychological framework of the individual. There are multiple causes that affect a child’s ability to learn. Genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of this disorder. Genetic factors are uncontrollable and will be more prevalent in some families than other. Environmental factors vary extensively. These include alcohol consumption during pregnancy, exposure to toxins through contaminated foods, and brain injury. More often than not, the causes are a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Educators must not blame the child him/herself for his/her actions; accusations demoralize and inhibit students with ADHD from focusing on success.

Currently, the most convenient method to control ADHD is through medication. The desired outcome is to increase concentration, improve social relations with peers and teachers by controlling outbursts, and completion of assigned tasks. However, these medications come with side effects; loss of appetite, dizziness, and nausea are most often cited. Two medications that are used for AHDH control are psycho-stimulants and antidepressants. Psychostimulants stimulate the under aroused central nervous system of individuals with ADHD, thereby increasing the amount/efficiency of neurotransmitters needed for attention, concentration, and planning. Antidepressants are used when stimulants have caused side effects or proved to be ineffective. Although convenient, medication should be used sparingly. In a classroom setting, educators should follow a regular regimen.

Since medicating students is beyond the scope of educators, we must develop and incorporate strategies to mitigate the effects of this disorder. Incorporate fun and exciting activities, novelty, use of technological and visual aids, and incorporate activities that involve physical movement.

Create a set of clear signal cues and simple class rules. Signal cues redirect the attention back towards you and the material. Such cues can resemble having students clap a certain rhythm after you do. Other cues can be visual – creating a green, yellow, and red lighting scheme: green indicates students can freely talk, yellow indicates students should be quiet and can only whisper, and red indicates students need to be very quiet and, if they have questions, need to raise their hands.  Class rules need to be simple and easy to understand, open to discussion about expected behaviors, frequently reminded, and consistently reinforced.  Class rules provide the common ground where educators and students understand explicitly what is to be expected from each other. This understanding ensures students know why they are receiving certain punishments, preventing disorganization and allowing time management.

Time management optimizes the students’ learning experience. Establish routines. Provide an overview of the day’s activities and topics of studies at the beginning of the day. Reviewing the day’s past activities and preview of the next day serves to reinforce material learned and create a positive classroom environment.

Classroom/environment organization creates a structure that students can rely on, especially ADHD students who are easily distracted. Seating students with ADHD near the teacher might help them focus on information, but never do so as a punishment. In addition, educators can create a place in the room for quiet activities to help students sustain attention for certain tasks. Everyone in the class will know where and when certain behaviors will not be tolerated.

System of positive reinforcement focuses on the positive aspects of behavior, rather than negative reinforcement. Focusing on something positive is more effective at modeling behavior than focusing on something negative. Such systems may include provisioning snacks as a privilege or receiving a coin/token for good behaviors. While rewarding/praising their progress, advise them on how to continually improve upon their accomplishments – what they could do better next time instead of what they did wrong.

Give timeout as a form of meditation. Timeout is not simply a form of punishment. It can be turned into a form of education. Using timeout is also a beneficial way to teach students the basic tenants of meditation and relaxation. Direct the timeout. During the timeout, shift the students’ focus. Ask the students to focus on calming their emotions and reflecting on one’s behaviors.

As an educator, you must practice what you preach. You need to follow the same guidelines as the ones you gave to your students. Five points to consider are:

  1. Ensure immediate and frequent feedback: whether behavior is good or bad.
  2. Provide instructions: include clear and visible cues.
  3. Prioritize: not all problems at once, but start with one or two important issues.
  4. Understanding: keep in mind that ADHD is not intentional.
  5. Don’t personalize the blame: blame the behaviors, not the student.

Understanding and developing a framework with which to work simplifies the difficulties in dealing with ADHD. You must be dynamic; the best approach in dealing with children with ADHD is a multi-faceted one. Furthermore, focus on the consistency and positive reinforcement, both in the implementation of interventions and across the various contexts of a child’s life. As an educator, you are directly involved with forming a child’s future and a child’s life is directly related with how they are treated as a youth.

About the Author

Samuel Wu has significant first hand experience working with students with learning differences.  He has formerly tutored numerous middle and high school students with General Academic and trained young adults and adults at the YMCA.  He graduated from Rice University in 2011 with a BA in Sports Medicine.  As of this article’s publication, he is currently pursuing a graduate degree in physical therapy.

Further Reading

ADHD Diagnosis Faces New Scrutiny

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