Teaching Children With ADHD: Classroom Strategies To Engage The Easily Distracted

May 23rd, 2013 31 Comments Features

student with adhd

There seems to be one in almost every classroom. That student that just can’t get it together. Maybe it’s the homework that never gets turned in or the desk that resembles a pigpen. Possibly the student is disruptive, blurting out inappropriate remarks or just can’t stop tapping her pencil even when you have asked her a million times to stop.

As teachers, we know its normal for students to forget their homework or daydream and get fidgety from time to time. But how do we distinguish between “normal” kid behavior and ADHD behavior? Are we too quick to diagnose and medicate in hopes that these behaviors simply disappear? Is ADHD being over diagnosed when kids are just really being kids? And if it really is ADHD, how do we accommodate these students so they succeed in our classroom?

The 3 Sub-Types of ADHD

Here are a few facts to consider about ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

  • ADHD is the most commonly studied and diagnosed psychiatric disorder in children. It is considered a neurobehavioral developmental disorder.
  • ADHD affects approximately 3-7% of all children globally with symptoms typically presenting before the age of 7.
  • Boys are 2 to 4 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Scientists are not sure exactly what causes ADHD, although many studies suggest that genetics and brain chemistry play a large role. It is thought that ADHD may result from a combination of factors including genetics, brain injuries, nutrition, environmental factors and/or social influences. (NIMH, National Institute of Mental Health).

To make the disorder even more confounding, ADHD has three subtypes according to the DSM-IV. A child who is diagnosed with ADHD will fall into one of the following categories:

ADHD- Predominantly Inattentive (also known as ADD)

A child with this diagnoses presents symptoms that are more inattentive in nature. They are easily distracted, forgetful, have trouble with organizing and completing a task, become bored easily, struggle to follow directions, have difficulty focusing on one thing, daydream and/or have trouble completing or turning in homework assignments. Children with this subtype are less likely to act out or have difficulties getting along with other children. In fact, they tend to be very quiet and are often overlooked. Parents and teachers may not notice that he or she has ADHD.

ADHD- Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive

Students who are diagnosed with this type of ADHD may display symptoms such as talking nonstop, fidgeting and squirming in their seats, having difficulty doing quiet tasks, are very impatient, blurt out inappropriate comments and act without regard for consequences.

ADHD- Combined Hyperactive-Impulsive and Inattentive

These students have the symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. Most children who are diagnosed with ADHD fall into this category.

Diagnosing ADHD Is Not a Simple, Single Event

ADHD, and other mental illnesses, do not allow for a blood test to provide a definitive diagnoses. Instead, diagnosing the disorder is based upon the observations of the student by parents, teachers and other caregivers.

Questionnaires regarding behaviors in the classroom and at home help a mental health professional or doctor determine if a child is indeed suffering from the disorder. Professionals also look at how long the symptoms have been present and whether the behaviors are excessive or not age appropriate.

What To Do As Teachers and Parents If We Suspect ADHD?

Erin’s son, Matt, started having trouble once he began Kindergarten. He was placed on a behavior chart for inattentive behaviors. Every year, Erin would get the same email from his teacher. “Matt has trouble focusing, so we are going to start him on a behavior chart.” Erin became so sick of the smiley face, frown face chart, as they just didn’t seem to work.

Matt’s 3rd grade teacher realized that his inattentive behaviors were something that Matt couldn’t help, so she asked if she could have him observed by the Vice Principal. From there, Erin and Matt saw his pediatrician who suggested a psychologist for a diagnosis as well.

Once Matt was officially diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive type, Erin and the school professionals wrote a 504 Plan. Erin honestly didn’t think it worked well, if at all, because the teacher didn’t follow it. She was not a good communicator and didn’t check Matt’s backpack like what was written in the plan.

At home, Erin tried a no sugar diet and found that didn’t help either. What does help is making sure to check Matt’s backpack every night and talking to him about school, pointing out the positives. Erin also has Matt repeat back to her directions given at home.

After about 10 months and no success using the 504 Plan, Erin decided to start Matt on ADHD medicine. Matt began on a low dose and the teacher reported seeing a difference right away, much more participation, attention and interest in math. Matt takes a low dose in the morning with the school nurse on the days he is at school. There has been a real positive change in Matt since beginning the medicine.

Is ADHD Over Diagnosed?

Are we too quick to label a student as ADHD just because he can’t sit still or because a student’s grades are slipping? A recent study conducted by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) showed that 11% of school-age children in the United States have received a diagnosis of ADHD.

What has alarmed many is that in which the rate has climbed. According to the study, the rate has skyrocketed 16% since 2007. The rise was most dramatic among boys, with an estimated 1 in 5 boys of high school age diagnosed with ADHD.

Like most mental health disorders, ADHD is not black and white.

Like most mental health disorders, ADHD is not black and white. It is a perplexing condition that can affect the academic and social lives of affected children, possibly into adulthood. A few points to consider about the rising rates of ADHD: Family doctors, who aren’t always adequately trained in providing the detailed evaluation that a reliable diagnosis requires, are diagnosing many children with ADHD when there really may be another condition going on, or in fact, nothing at all.

This problem may lie in the detail that doctors are required to sort out a very complex condition in a short amount of time. Just because a child is showing a few symptoms does not necessarily point to a positive diagnosis. The symptoms must be present every day for a long period of time and must lead to an impairment on the child’s life.

20 Ways To Support Students With ADHD

Regardless of the how’s and why’s of ADHD, as teachers it is vital that we support our students on their academic journey. How do we support parents and students who are affected by ADHD?

  1. Learn about which subtype of ADHD the student has been diagnosed with. Get to know the individual student and be mindful of his or her uniqueness.
  2. Seat the student away from doors and windows that may distract him or her. The student may work best closest to the teacher.
  3. Allow physical activity breaks (stretching) and incorporate movement activities into a lesson. If possible, allow for outdoor instruction time.
  4. When possible, provide academic instruction to these students with ADHD in the morning. Evidence suggests that on-task behaviors of a student with ADHD worsen over the course of a day.
  5. Write important information down where the student can easily reference it, most likely at their desk.
  6. Divide large assignments into small segments. Write these segments down. Have the student cross the items off as they are completed.
  7. Provide frequent breaks for the student to get a drink or walk around the room.
  8. Allow the student with ADHD to run errands for you (take a note to the office) or have them be in charge of sharpening the classroom pencils.
  9. Provide the student with a stress ball or other object for the student to play with discreetly at their seat, especially when they need a break.
  10. Write the schedule of the day on the student’s desk and allow him or her to cross off each item as it is completed.
  11. Recognize and praise aloud all good behaviors. Be specific in what the student is doing correctly.
  12. Provide an assignment book for the student to keep track of homework and daily work. Encourage this book to be signed by parents so parents know what is going on in the classroom. Communicate with the parent as much as possible.
  13. Form small groups for students with ADHD to work in so as not to get distracted and lost in a large group.
  14. Allow the student with ADHD to work in a quiet zone within the classroom. This should be a place in the room that is quiet and free from visual stimulation.
  15. Establish a secret signal with the student to use as a reminder when he or she is off task.
  16. When giving directions, make eye contact with the student and be as brief as possible.
  17. Use visuals. Highlight words in colored chalk or bright ink. Underline and circle important things to remember.
  18. Use auditory cues. Set a timer and encourage the student to work uninterrupted until the timer goes off. Allow the student a break following the work period.
  19. Provide specific, well-defined rules to the student with ADHD. Write these rules down and tape them to the student’s desk. These rules should have clear consequences.
  20. Most importantly, students need guidance, compassion and understanding from their parents and teachers as they navigate the path of dealing with ADHD. It isn’t their fault that they have been diagnosed with ADHD.


Laura Reynolds is a former fourth grade teacher with a Masters degree in Education from Drake University and a BA degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. She currently works as an education consultant and curriculum writer. You can find her on @laurareynolds75 and Google+.

31 Responses

  1. Alex Morris says:

    A great read, thanks Laura. The excellent thing is ADHD is now recognised and something can be done to help the children, whereas in the past it would have been a “problem child” situation. I recently read Keith Moon’s biography and he was extremely hyperactive in class, and it’s likely he had a bad case of ADHD. One of his teachers actually wrote he was “artistically retarded and idiotic in other respects” on his school report! In later life many people commented and his incredible wit and intelligence, so it’s a shame previous generations weren’t able to benefit from practices such as these. And, of course, it’s a tragedy for Moon as it could have altered the course of his life for the better.

  2. Laura Reynolds says:

    Thanks, Alex. I couldn’t agree more. As a teacher I find that it is essential to have compassion for these students, even when they are driving you crazy (which they will)! As I said, it isn’t their fault they have this disorder. I will have to add Keith Moon’s biography to my reading list.

  3. A shame not to see Dr. Naoise O’Reilly’s copywritten and legally protected work prior to this article online and released by a U.S. Publisher not credited in this piece.

  4. Todd says:

    If a person is bored in a play, it’s a bad play. If a person is bored in a school system that hasn’t changed much in 100 years, they have a “mental health disorder.”

    Makes sense.

    • Laura Reynolds says:

      I appreciate your comment but no doubt about it- we are definitely talking about a lot more than boredom. The students that are truly ADHD are bouncing off the wall (the hyperactive type) even when the activity is unstructured and ‘fun’. I disagree- the school system HAS changed over the last 100 years. Have you been in a classroom lately? Students are given time on computers, ipads, electronic devices at the high school level, free reading time, lessons via YouTube, small group instruction, just to name a few changes that have happened within the last 10 years. Students are given much more freedom and are provided with more resources today than when I was in school 25 years ago. Yes, I believe the education system has lots of room for improvement, but it has come a long way!

  5. Todd says:

    Hi Laura,

    Yep… I’ve spent time in the classroom. I’ve been a middle school teacher for 16 years and work collaboratively with over 30 teachers, 200 kids and in all subjects. If it’s truly the kids’ issue, answer me this; are they “bouncing off the walls” when playing their favorite strategy or video game, watching their favorite show/movie, reading their favorite book(s), participating in their favorite activity or talking about their favorite topics? My experience tells me, in most cases, no.

    Using a computer as a glorified word processor is hardly progress. I’d love your feedback regarding this: http://toddmarrone.com/2013/04/15/the-necessity-for-metamorphosis-in-the-american-education-system/

    Thanks for chatting, Todd

    • Jamie says:

      Todd, part of ADHD is “hyperfocus,” and tends to get overlooked/forgotten in discussions about ADHD. Here’s an article about it: http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/612.html

      By your assessment, it would suggest that every teacher is “bad,” and every school system the same, because every teacher has had students with ADHD in their classes. It would also suggest that the student is never able to be successful, which is simply not true. Do none of your students have ADHD due to your dynamic classroom environment?

    • Stef says:

      I’m sorry, did you say you have ADHD, or someone you love does? Until you have do walked a mile in someone’s shoes, don’t make crass judgements about which activities require concentration. Different activities require different exeuative brain functions. There’s definitely a lot of different processes going on while doing math or language work than playing a simple video game or even playing a sport.
      The reason ADHD kids can function and concentrate on those activities is simple, it is much easier for the brain to do such simple tasks than to do the higher functioning activities of everyday school work!

    • Isabelle says:

      Wow, you have no idea. Your poor students….I think you’re the one stuck in the 1900’s.

  6. Jamie says:

    Also, the author here is advocating what the TEACHER can do to be helpful, including working in breaks, opportunities for the student to move, etc. You’ll notice these are all behavioral/cognitive, not “the teacher should administer medication.” I agree with much of your article, Todd, but I think your treatment of ADHD is reductive at best. I think my classroom is actually pretty ADHD-friendly; it’s highly interactive, with lots of opportunities for students to interact with their peers, to move around, etc. Full disclosure, my husband has ADHD, which wasn’t diagnosed until he was 33; I suggested he might see a psych just to check it out because he was in a constant state of depression over feeling like he couldn’t do anything right at work (as a teacher), no matter how he tried. The organizational aspects were completely overwhelming to him. He was medicated for a while, happens not to be any longer, but I certainly wouldn’t want to deny someone something that helps them be more successful out of a misplaced sense of what is “right” in my mind. If medication is used correctly and the diagnosis is correct, it doesn’t turn anyone into “zombies,” as people like to say all the time. Obviously, CBT for coping skills, and explicit instruction about organization, time management, etc, should be a first resort, but I can’t imagine as a parent letting my child continue to have debilitating problems in school that could be helped, much like I wouldn’t tell them just to squint harder if they needed glasses.

    All that said, I do definitely wish we had greater diversity in what qualified as — particularly secondary — education. There is entirely too much square-peg-in-round-hole policies coming down from on high, like the advanced math requirements you mentioned. A cultural overhaul in which a great variety of talents/skills/abilities is equally valued would be more than welcome.

  7. Jamie says:

    (Sorry I didn’t get all of this into one comment.)

    The theatre analogy is a bit of a straw man. To my view, it assumes the following, none of which is true:
    (1) Teaching is, at its essence, a one-sided performance.
    (2) Students are passive audience members.
    Either: (3) A majority of students have ADHD,
    Or: (4) One or two audience members’ being bored makes something a bad play.

  8. Todd Marrone says:

    Jamie, I’m not blaming teachers. I am one. I’m blaming the calendar. We’re attempting to teach the latest model of humans, information that is largely irrelevant to them, using the information transfer methods of the 1800s.

    You and I have similar silhouettes, perhaps we’re related.

  9. Laura Reynolds says:

    I read through your link and website, Todd. First and foremost, I admire your passion and fire for education. You have some amazing ideas and thoughts that are provoking to say the least. I appreciate that. However, you can’t convince me that ADHD does not exist. I have encountered way too many students and adults who have struggled with this issue in school, the workplace and within relationships. Is it a product of our education system? Maybe. But regardless, we are not doing our students any favors by ignoring it and/or blaming it on the current affairs of our education system. I am an advocate (and I think most teachers are) of bending to meet a student’s needs by implementing and using many of the strategies that I included in the above piece.

  10. Marcelle says:

    There is much to be learned here, for parents as well as teachers.

  11. Sharlet says:

    Thank you for this article. My son was diagnosed as ADD- Predominantly inattentive- about a year ago. While he struggled in school from the beginning, it kept being dismissed as if he were just ‘lazy’ and ‘didn’t care’. Because he didn’t show hyperactive behavior, that seemd to be the automatic assumption. Along with- as soon as finding out that I’m a single parent- the assumption that I wasn’t paying attention. He is almost 13, so it took almost 12 years to get to the bottom of his struggles.

    We’ve worked on many things: no sugar; high protein diet; fish oil & other supplements; regular exercise & outdoor time; minimal media & computer time; regimented sleep & meal schedules; daily organizational calendars; a variety of plans w/ a variety of teachers, etc. While these have all been good for him, no one thing has been the answer. So much against my preferences, we are now trying medication. It is still too early to tell as it’s only been a little over a week. I see some improvements, but I also see some mood changes that concern me. Time will tell.

    What I have struggled with the most in the public school system, is the attitude that more than 50% of the teachers have. It has ranged from “he needs to be held accountable” in a way that assumes I don’t hold him accountable to “what am I supposed to do, write reminders on the back of his hand?” Yes- one teacher actually said this in a conference with other staff who stared with open mouths! Another frequent response is “we have too many students to pay this kind of attention to one student”. And while I’m sure it’s difficult- and some classrooms are legitimately overloaded- I find this to be a pathetic response. As someone who runs a business, I don’t ever tell my clients that I have too many clients to give them the attention they need!

    It’s a long journey, and I wish more teachers would get on board. And I believe that in time we will begin to see that this is not just a “psychiatric disorder”. Rather, that it is a different way that some people’s brains develop, and that it has a positive side as well. The world need energetic & creative people. My son is particularly adept at learning while in motion; something that the world of sitting at computers just doesn’t support. His skill as an artist & woodcarver, however, is amazing at his age. As is his dedication to any physical task he takes on- including working on a cattle ranch and building canoes. The world needs many different types of people, and I do believe that most public schools are still missing the boat in their overall ‘teaching to the test’ curriculum, rather than teaching children how to learn & love learning.

    • Laura Reynolds says:

      Sharlet, Thanks for sharing your son’s story on the ADHD journey. I am sure that it will be helpful to another family struggling with this issue. I am hopeful that you both find an answer as to what works best for him as a means of coping with ADHD.

    • Miranda says:

      Thank you Sharlet for sharing your experience. My son has also been diagnosed with ADHD and we are still trying everything ie. diet, supplements, behaviour modification, exercise (no meds yet) and not really seeing that any one thing or even a combination of strategies are helping. My fear of medicating him is that I will lose the wonderful creative, unique person he is. The thought of that terrifies me and it would only be to make his teacher’s life easier and, hopefully improve his printing (he is 6 years old). Your post was dated May 2013. I am wondering how your son is doing with his medication? Have you found it has been worth any of the side effects? thanks for sharing your story. I really helped me tonight as I search and search and search for help 🙂

  12. […] more ideas/information, read this […]

  13. […] [Click here to find out more about engaging students with ADHD.] […]

  14. John says:

    Thanks all for your thoughts and commentaries. I’m most troubled by the statistics on boys being diagnosed 2-4x more than girls. I’m curious as to the relationship between this stat, and the fact that the vast majority of elementary teachers, grades K-5, are women. Understanding this potential gender gap is critical in gaining a better assessment as to how we can lower diagnosis in younger boys. Although as 20% of high school aged boys are now diagnosed, it’s also clear that the idea boys could be ADHD/ADD grows as they grow.

    I appreciate the tips provided and practice many in my own teaching. Yet, I’ll be the first to admit that giving kids with ADHD tasks and setting up a low visual quiet zone are somewhat discordant with the goals of keeping an ADHD student on task. Harness the student’s energy and interests first and foremost. I loathe the diagnoses that focus on taking computers out of the hands of kids really interested in them. Lots of excellent resources and tools like Khan Academy, noredink.com, online reading logs and blogs like reading-rewards.com, google docs, grammar games galore and prezi.com. These tools work, but I’ve had some major headaches trying to employ them…mainly from parents.

    In a sense, I completely agree with Todd except for the fact that ADHD is very real for some. However, the greater problem for adults is how to balance the education we believe the kids need based on the schooling we had and the education they want and will utilize most in their lives. The appropriate balance of traditional learning and 21st century skill sets is most vital to assisting kids likely to be misdiagnosed or too quickly diagnosed as ADHD. This is also the greatest curriculum conflict in schools at this point in time IMO.

  15. Simon Hensby says:

    Excellent article Laura and twenty very useful strategies for engaging students. Many thanks, I shall add a link to it from our website for our readers.

  16. Mary says:

    My son was diagnosed with ADD during his Freshman year in college. Any tips/suggestions etc. for that age group? So much of what I read is for children. I worry about a career choice, jobs, relationships etc.??

  17. tiffany says:

    Currently my child is in a class with 25 children five of whom that have ADD or ADHD and may or may not be on meds at all times with one teacher should this be of a concern for me as a parent?

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  19. Caz says:

    I’m a female that was not diagnosed until in my 20s and have been on Ritalin since. Now in my 50’s I watch the debate go on about the medications by so called know it all people who don’t have this medical condition. These people don’t live in the world that an ADD or ADHD person lives in or feel the shame of this diagnose as well. I would love to be able to stimulate what it feels like to be in my world of disorganisation. None of the diets really work as this is a dopimin problem like Autism and bi polar disorder. I work in a large Australian high school and I see those children that are adhd and others that have other disorders with one destination between them and that the high intelligence factor that needs to be unlocked. I think as a parent don’t think about the stats of how many have it and just think about and care for the best outcome for your child. The use of medication even for a short time while your hold learns about coping skills is better than nothing. Also after 30 years on Ritalin I have no heart problem and I still putting on menopause weight, so if it works……….

  20. […] Teaching Children With ADHD: Classroom Strategies To … – A great read, thanks Laura. The excellent thing is ADHD is now recognised and something can be done to help the children, whereas in the past it would have been a … […]

  21. Melanie Richards says:

    My son has problems in his first period class and cant stop talking. He takes 2 different medications within an hour before school starts. He has gotten sent out to the hallway many times. Im frustrated as of what to do because increasing or decreasing his meds seems to do nothing.

    • Amy says:

      Thank you, your post is very informative. I am a Middle School teacher and I am currently working with a 13 year old boy who has ADHD. I have trialled some of your support ideas in the classroom and have found seating my student close to me helps him pay attention, as does frequent small breaks where he can move around and stretch.

  22. This is wonderful information. My grandson is eight and a above average student with a very sharp and retentive memory. He does well in Mathematics, English and culural studies.
    He however has problems with school tasks and he missed his end of month exam for March, 2016. His mother has since discussed with her teach this morning so as to map a wayfoward for continually engaing him.
    Is there a possibilty that he might be having any disorder and the need for assessment by a developmental psychologist.
    Please reply me at this email addrees . Desparate Granny.

  23. Swati khanna says:

    Educating children with ADHD or ADD is really a challenging task not only for the schools & teachers but the parents aswell. Thus schools and teachers is of highest value in developing the minds of the children affected from ADD/ADHD. Children affected from ADD/ADHD find it extremely difficult to do well in school or any other field and thus are left behind.Here comes the true roles of schools & teachers in managing them well. You can read more about how schools and teachers can help ADD/ADHD students by reading this blog here: https://kleverkid.in/blog/role-of-schools-and-teachers-to-help-out-students-with-ld-adhd-and-slow-learners-by-anupama-sethi-267

  24. When I was reading, I started crying because, I used to be one of the best student at school in my early secondary school. Today the characteristics of an ADD patient, infact absolutely figure me. And now, I see why I am one of the worse student at the high school.
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