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ADHD Teaching Strategies: The Attention Dimension

James Paterson

Why Teachers are Key for ADHD Students – and Teaching Strategies for Helping 

Those often exasperating students with attention issues can benefit a great deal from extra-effort teaching strategies undertaken by their classroom teachers, experts say, and that patient work can pay off in a number of ways.

You, the other students in your classroom – and even the student with ADHD – often all are frustrated by the disruptive behavior and extra needed time and attention. British researchers estimate that teachers and classmates lose one hour of instruction a day because of behavior that is often caused by ADHD, and teachers know how one chronically off-task student can change the atmosphere in the class for one period – or the whole year. The disability also typically results in discouraging social and emotional struggles for that student, experts say. 

Meanwhile, about three students in each classroom are now diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Center for Disease Control, but only about half of them get treatment, and many still aren’t identified. About one-third of the students who don’t have a comprehensive plan for their ADHD drop out of school.

So what can educators do?

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“Teachers can learn the signs of ADHD to identify these students and then ensure they receive the right supports as early as possible,” says Michele Aweeky, a spokesperson for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which recently issued a new report on learning disabilities and particularly ADHD. “Students with ADHD are as smart as their peers and, with the right supports and services, can achieve at high levels.”

Teachers are in a key spot to identify these students and use teaching strategies to help them develop academic and executive function skills, she says.

“These kids with attention difficulties are challenging because their disabilities are invisible compared to many students with more obvious signs of learning difficulties, but good teachers can really help them,” says Kathleen Laundy, a therapist who has worked extensively on identifying learning disabilities in Connecticut schools and has written a book about school teams that benefit these students.

She says teachers need good information about ADHD, techniques for teaching these students and support as they work with them. And they need patience, she says.           

“New teachers especially work very hard to teach in a way they think is correct, so they can take it personally when a student does not respond well.”

Here are 12 tips for working with students with attention issues:

Teaching Strategies for Getting Help

1) Report your concerns. The signs of ADHD are generally pretty evident: Hyperactivity and fidgeting and low performance – an inability to focus, stay organized, complete work or pay attention when you are talking. When you spot it, talk to the student’s counselor or the school psychologist, an administrator, or other teachers about your concerns to raise awareness. Talk to parents early about issues, too, though it isn’t a teacher’s job to diagnose ADHD. “The first rule of thumb is consult,” Laundy says.

2) Collect data. Plans that help a students receive treatment and accommodations often require several steps, including the collection of data and classroom material from teachers. The more information you can supply – even if it’s just notes about concerns each day in class – the better the plan will be, especially after it is reviewed once it is implemented.

3) Follow up. No one knows better than teachers what busy places schools are, so don’t hesitate to follow up with your concerns if issues with a student aren’t addressed. Aweeky also says it is important for teachers to track the effectiveness of a plan and recommend changes. Often once the plan is in place it becomes stagnant, though it should be reviewed and adjusted. “The key,” says George DuPaul, an education professor at Lehigh University who co-authored a recent study on ADHD strategies, “Is consistently applying relevant strategies over time and across subject areas.”

Managing the Motion

4) Try techniques. There are dozens of recommended techniques to keep attention deficit students on task, but DuPaul’s report recommended that along with consulting and working with others, teachers should develop, explain and compassionately adhere to firm rules for these students. If an issue arises, offer them limited specific choices, the study says. The report also suggests that teachers provide rewards if ADHD students achieve certain goals, but also take away rights if they don’t follow rules. It also recommends increasing amounts of self-monitoring if behavior improves, and three times more positive comments than negative.

5) Consider seating.  CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) recommends seating these students away from distractions and not paired with another student who is distractible. The organization also suggests seating near the teacher or a responsible classmate, and other arrangements that may help in a class where attention issues arise.

6) Movement matters. Allow students with attention issues to walk around with permission, have them deliver things to other rooms if they need a break, and allow them some fidget objects and movement in their seat. But maintain firm rules with rewards and consequences and have them ask for permission. Mindful meditation, combined with controlled, “Thoughtful” movement, has shown some promise helping these students be less impulsive and more focused.

Getting Through

7) On Cue. Consider visuals when you are delivering a lecture or directions, CHADD suggests, and provide outlines and graphic organizers. Remember that transitions are difficult. Establish agreed-to prompts – such as a hand on the desk or repeating their name (ask student what works best) to get or keep attention. Try task cards.

8) Something new. Flipped classroom settings, where the lecture is delivered online at home, and the homework is done in school with individual support, can benefit a student with attention issues, research suggests. “These curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced computer assignments, and tasks that build specific skills,” says Cornell psychiatry professor Richard Friedman, writing in the New York Times. Peer mentoring can help, and differentiated learning can be critical.

9) Break it up. Try chunking or breaking big projects into separate smaller tasks. Repeat instructions where necessary and check for understanding. Allowing frequent breaks for students with attention issues is often a strategy found in their educational plans, and motor skills may be lacking, so long writing assignments can become real drudgery. When you give instruction, remember that the five directions or steps that you’ve explained together might just register as one – the first one – to the student with ADHD.

Keeping Order

10) A calendar is key. A planner for these students will help, though it may get lost, and, instead, some students find a daily sheet with assignments routinely placed in their binder is beneficial. Older students may find an app with reminders works. Any method for writing down assignments and due dates is helpful, although the key is actually getting information entered and remembering to check it, so sometimes teachers can set that up as part of the routine as a student enters and exits the classroom.

11) Backup work. Students with attention issues or their parents may need extra ways to get their assignments if they forget them or the information doesn’t come home, CHADD reports. A quick email or text to parents or the student or posting online can be a huge help for them when they are facing homework, a long-term project or upcoming test.

12) Teachable moments. Find time to teach these students basic organizational skills that they have never had an opportunity to try or practice. Using a planner is key. DuPaul says new research shows such times spent by teachers on these skills can pay off dramatically for students with attention issues, especially those in high school and middle school.