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I still remember the feeling I used to get when looking at the paperwork for my students who had ADHD, the forms listing the accommodations I would need to make for them—usually extended time on tests and maybe preferential seating.
The feeling could be best described as uncertain. I understood what these small changes looked like in practice—seat this student near the front of the room and give him more time to work on tests. But I knew almost nothing about the mechanics behind why the changes were supposed to make a difference. I signed the papers, returned them to the office, and made a mental note that if any of these students ever showed signs of struggle, it was probably because of the ADHD.
And they did struggle. The preferential seating and extra time wasn’t often enough to help them turn in completed work on time, keep track of their things, and stay focused on class activities. Knowing as little as I did about ADHD, I figured that was the best we were going to get.
As uncomfortable as it makes me to say this, I will also admit that part of me wondered why these students couldn’t just power through, find the motivation, try harder. Disorganization got the better of me sometimes too, and when that happened, I would just tidy things up, declutter, reset my priorities, and get back on track. It wasn’t that hard. I also wondered whether parents were to blame, if a lack of structure, too much TV or video games, or some other oversight at home might be the true cause of students’ difficulties.
Suffice it to say I really, REALLY didn’t understand ADHD.
It turns out my lack of knowledge wasn’t unique. A number of studies have shown that many teachers don’t know enough to effectively meet the needs of students with ADHD (Alkahtani, 2013, Poznanski et al., 2018). While a growing number of teachers can recognize behaviors that might suggest ADHD in a child, knowledge drops off significantly when it comes to treatments and interventions that can help—the less training and knowledge a teacher has about ADHD, the less confident they feel about working with students who have it (Flanigan & Climie, 2018). This may explain the heartbreaking statistic that teachers tend to form fewer close relationships with students who have ADHD (Ewe, 2019).
Regardless of the subject area or age you teach, you’re likely to have at least a few students with ADHD in your classroom every school year, so a good working knowledge of it should be part of any teacher’s professional training. In the nine years I have been sharing resources on this website, I have only ever done one piece on ADHD, a 2017 interview with Seth Perler, who shared a great set of systems that help students who struggle with executive function. But that’s it, so it’s time to dig a little deeper.
A Solid Place to Start: Russell Barkley
Setting out to find good resources, I kept landing on the name Russell Barkley, an ADHD researcher who has been called a pioneer, a leading expert, and the gold standard in ADHD research. In all the places where his work appears—speaking on YouTube, as a guest on multiple podcasts, and as the author of many articles and books on ADHD—what is most striking are the number of comments from adults with ADHD who are relieved to finally find some validation, to hear clear explanations for why their brains work the way they do.
Although Barkley has been criticized for sounding negative and bleak when he speaks about the condition, using language that many would characterize as deficit thinking, his work has helped many people understand the workings of ADHD, how it affects those who have it, and how to best manage it. With that in mind, he seems like a good place to start; for suggestions on where to keep learning, I’ll provide a list of resources at the end of this post.
Most of Barkley’s work is directed at parents of children with ADHD and adults who also carry the diagnosis, but he has also written the highest-rated book for teachers on the subject, Managing ADHD in School: The Best Evidence-Based Methods for Teachers (Bookshop.org | Amazon).
This slim book is not meant to be comprehensive or in-depth. Barkley states outright that he’s not going to spend time on narrative prose and extensive research citations; his goal is to simply explain ADHD so that busy teachers can understand it, and tell them what they can do to help students who have it. His message is “Trust me, I know this stuff. Do this, not that.” And while this obviously leaves him open to criticism, the book certainly delivers on its promises, and it’s a great starting point for any teacher who wants a crash course on ADHD.
As Barkley is fully retired now, he declined to be interviewed here, so this is basically my own personal book report: I learned so many things from the book that would have helped immensely in my own work with students with ADHD, so I’m going to summarize what I think are the most important takeaways here. I strongly suggest you get a copy for yourself.
Although I’m doing my best to share this information accurately, there’s a chance I’ll get something wrong; if you see something that needs correcting, please let us know in the comments.
What do teachers need to understand about ADHD?
Before we get into classroom practices, I’m going to summarize a few key facts about ADHD that every teacher should know. Most of these happen to be things I personally didn’t know—in fact, some are the exact opposite of beliefs I held—so I can only assume other teachers might also need this overview.
- ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts a person’s executive function. This shows up as a difficulty with persisting toward goals and resisting distractions, holding information in working memory, and planning and problem solving. It also increases impulsivity, making immediate consequences more valuable than long-term ones, and interferes with inhibition, which results in quicker displays of emotion and other conduct that is generally discouraged in social settings. Unfortunately, all of these are often categorized as misbehavior or “poor choices” in the classroom, and if teachers don’t understand how ADHD works, they can spend years responding in ways that will do little to address the underlying causes.
- The cause of ADHD is largely genetic. In the book, Barkley asserts that “no compelling evidence indicates that social factors, such as parenting or educational environment, have been found to cause ADHD.” Research has also ruled out diet, TV or media consumption, or videogame play as contributing factors (p. 15-16). With this information in mind, we can stop looking for outside factors to blame and get down to the business of helping these students do better in school. Knowing this should also put an end to attempts to “motivate” students with ADHD by giving them pep talks, angry reprimands, or guilt trips.
- Roughly ten percent of your students are likely to have ADHD. Numbers for this are hard to pin down exactly: The National Institute of Mental Health puts the total number of children and adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at about 11%, the CDC at 9.4%, and Barkley at 5 to 8%. Regardless of the source, the numbers continue to rise every year, and boys have a higher rate of diagnosis than girls. More important than an exact number is this: Every year, you should expect to have at least a few students in your classroom who have ADHD.
- Rates of diagnosis do not necessarily reflect the actual number of students with ADHD. Barkley says diagnoses tend to occur more in communities with more resources, and overdiagnosis is more frequent “in upper income neighborhoods where a premium is placed on academic excellence or acceleration” (p. 8). By contrast, students may be underdiagnosed in communities with fewer resources for diagnosis and treatment. Apart from just being good general knowledge to have, this may inform the research and action you take depending on the community where you teach: Perhaps more of your students actually need to be referred for diagnosis and treatment; by contrast, you may be working with students who are receiving treatment for a misdiagnosis.
- ADHD is linked to a host of serious problems. People with ADHD have a greater risk of relationship problems (including social problems in school and both personal and professional adult relationships), employment issues, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, auto accidents, and suicide. These statistics shocked me, and they underscore how important it is for educators, who work with these students for hours every day, to learn as much as we can about how to better support them in school.
- Medication can help. Although public opinion on medication is mixed, much of the research shows that ADHD medication, when combined with interventions and supports like the ones listed below, has a high rate of success for improving academic performance. It has also been shown to lower other risk factors, like suicide (Liang et al., 2018), addiction (Sherman, 2022), and auto accidents (Chang et al., 2017).
- Research continues to evolve. What was known about ADHD twenty or even ten years ago has been enriched by a growing body of research on diagnosis, causes, interventions, and medication. So when you come across information that doesn’t quite fit with your current understanding of ADHD, keep an open mind.
8 Principles for Helping Students with ADHD Succeed in the Classroom
Barkley packs tons of strategies and advice into his book; here I’ve attempted to condense them into eight general principles. Just like with so many strategies designed to help specific populations, these are also likely to help many of your students be more successful, regardless of whether they have identified difficulties with executive function.
1. Be proactive (rather than reactive).
Throughout the book, Barkley urges teachers to plan ahead with systems and strategies that can solve common ADHD-related challenges. Instead of waiting for problems to arise and then dealing with them, which is more likely to be done under duress, it’s far more effective to anticipate challenges and set up a plan for preventing them.
For example, students with ADHD often struggle with transitions, so one strategy is to always pause a few minutes before a transition to verbally remind students of the procedures and rules around the upcoming transition.
2. Make the internal external.
Because ADHD affects working memory, a person with ADHD has a harder time keeping things like instructions for a task in their mind. “Even if they try to hold such information in mind … any distractions will disrupt and degrade this special type of memory. The mental chalkboard of working memory is wiped clean by the distraction. …having gone ‘off-task,’ the child is far less likely to reengage the original and now uncompleted goal or task” (p. 3-4).
Working memory can be boosted when we make the internal external: taking information that might typically be a mental process (like remembering the steps for turning in an assignment) and making it visible. Here are some examples:
- Color-coded folders help students keep materials organized and find what they need more easily.
- Visual timers that students can easily see keep them aware of how much time is left for a task.
- Written rules and instructions posted close to where a task is going to be completed (Barkley calls this the “point of performance”) offer support right when students need it.
- Daily behavior report cards can work well to remind students of expectations and get immediate feedback on how well they are meeting them.
- Notetaking helps students record what they are learning to make it more concrete.
3. Break large tasks into smaller ones.
Because ADHD makes it harder for students to manage long, complex tasks, it helps if teachers can guide students in breaking these tasks into smaller steps.
4. Maximize the effectiveness of incentives.
Author’s note: If you listen to the podcast version of this post, you’ll notice that this item is somewhat different from that version. The original primarily used the term “consequences” and came across very punishment-heavy; this did not accurately represent Barkley’s recommendations. The written version is the more updated one and is the best representation of this principle.
Internal motivation is harder to sustain for students with ADHD due to reduced working memory and increased impulsivity, so external incentives are a powerful tool for sustaining motivation. He recommends these guidelines:
- Positive reinforcements must significantly outweigh negative ones. In fact, Barkley recommends that any program of reinforcements have only powerful, positive incentives for 1 to 2 weeks before ever introducing negative ones.
- Incentives need to be delivered with more immediacy and frequency than for students without ADHD.
- Incentives may need to be “richer” than what you might typically use for other students. If a consequence (positive or negative) doesn’t seem to be motivating a student with ADHD, it’s probably because it doesn’t mean much to the student and should be replaced with something the student values more.
- With the above in mind, incentives also need to be varied or rotated more often for students with ADHD, as they lose their potency more quickly over time.
In the book, Barkley regularly uses the word “punishment” to describe negative consequences for undesirable behavior. Although he doesn’t advocate for anything harsh, the term is still troubling to me after the book so clearly establishes that the behavior of someone with ADHD is caused by the way their brain is wired, not bad choices. So I would advise teachers reading his book to extract the valuable information he shares about consequences, while keeping in mind that we are not trying to cause shame or pain to students for their behavior; the goal is to create a system of incentives and reinforcements that prompt students to refocus and make adjustments.
5. Prepare for restlessness.
To work with—rather than against—these students’ greater need for movement, keep a supply of stress balls, fidget toys, balance balls, or wobble chairs for them to use. You can also provide standing desks and other seating options so that student can to choose what works best for them, and plan frequent physical exercise breaks to give all students a chance to stretch and burn off some energy between activities that require more stillness.
6. Alternate low-appeal with high-appeal activities.
“Too many boring topics or activities back to back can lead a child with ADHD to lose focus,” Barkley says (p. 37). This loss of focus can lead to the student becoming distracted and possibly disruptive to the class, so mix the more engaging, high-interest activities in between those that require more effort to maintain focus.
7. Use technology as a support.
Technology has been shown to be especially effective for students who have ADHD. Barkley cites research showing that students with ADHD “pay more attention to computer software learning programs and learn more from the practice with them than they do when working on worksheets” (p. 36).
He also recommends teaching these students keyboarding skills as early as possible. “Students with ADHD have a high occurrence of fine motor coordination problems…give them alternative means of expressing themselves in print” (p. 38).
8. Monitor and modify interventions regularly.
“One common scenario,” Barkley writes, “is that a student responds initially to a well-tailored program, but then over time, the response deteriorates” (p. 28). This doesn’t mean the interventions didn’t work; it might mean they need to be modified or the implementation needs to be checked for fidelity.
A Lingering Question: Public Accountability?
As much as I want to wholeheartedly recommend the book, one repeated suggestion concerned me. In a few places, Barkley advocates for “public accountability” for student behavior (p. 28, p. 61), but at other times offers more discreet methods of accountability for older students (p. 62).
Public behavior charts and systems have gotten a lot of pushback in the teaching world over the past 5 to 10 years, and I agree with the criticism: The shame these can cause is not worth any benefit they may offer. I worry that some readers will come away from this book thinking that public shaming is an effective strategy for supporting students with ADHD, even though Barkley doesn’t necessarily advocate for this. My best guess is that the recommendation should be interpreted to mean that the accountability system should be visible to the student, but not necessarily on display for the whole class to see.
With this in mind, a good rule of thumb for any time you see a recommendation in an education book, or on a website like mine, that feels off in some way or seems to go against your better judgment, listen to your gut.
I’ll end this piece as I began it, with an admission of bare minimum knowledge on the subject of ADHD. As much as I have tried to accurately represent the recommendations and knowledge Barkley shares, there’s a very good chance I got some stuff wrong, and this book is just a starting point, but it would have been incredibly helpful to me as a teacher, so I hope it helps you as well. If you have personal experience with ADHD, professional expertise, or links to other good resources, I urge you to share these in the comments below so we can build on what’s here.
This piece only scratches the surface of what the medical and educational communities are learning about ADHD. It is meant to serve as a jumping-off point so that teachers can be equipped with strategies that will be the most helpful to students with ADHD. To continue learning, try the resources listed below:
- CHADD.org, or Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by ADHD. Their website houses loads of fantastic resources, plus an online teacher training course if you want to go in depth.
- How to ADHD is a website and YouTube channel run by Jessica McCabe, full of high-energy, educational videos about ADHD. (Thank you for the recommendation, Charlotte!)
- Want more from Russell Barkley? Listen to this recent interview from the Ologies podcast, where he provides an in-depth overview of ADHD and how it impacts those who have it.
- The work of Edward Hallowell is worth considering for a more asset-based view of ADHD. Learn about his advocacy for replacing the term ADHD with the more neutral term VAST and this summary of his public “debate” with Russell Barkley. And for short bursts of learning, follow him on TikTok.
- While you’re on TikTok, also check out Sasha Hamdani, a psychiatrist and ADHD specialist whose following has grown exponentially in the last year for her helpful and humorous videos. You can also find her on Instagram.
One other resource, ADDitude magazine, was previously on this list, but a reader brought to our attention that it has received criticism in some ADHD forums and was given mixed reviews by the Media Bias/Fact Check website. Although readers can probably still find lots of value on the site, it would be wise to go in knowing what the criticisms are.
Alkahtani, K. D. F. (2013). Teachers’ Knowledge and Misconceptions of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychology, 04(12), 963–969. https://doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.412139
Barkley, R. (2016). Managing ADHD in School: The Best Evidence-Based Methods for Teachers. Pesi Publishing & Media.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 23). Data and statistics about ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html
Chang, Z., Quinn, P. D., Hur, K., Gibbons, R. D., Sjölander, A., Larsson, H., & D’Onofrio, B. M. (2017). Association Between Medication Use for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Risk of Motor Vehicle Crashes. JAMA Psychiatry, 74(6), 597. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0659
Ewe, L. P. (2019). ADHD symptoms and the teacher–student relationship: a systematic literature review. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 24(2), 136–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632752.2019.1597562
Flanigan, L., & Climie, E. (2018). Teachers’ Knowledge of ADHD: Review and Recommendations. Emerging Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Graduate Research in Education and Psychology, 2(1), 1–13. https://jmss.org/index.php/ep/article/view/42922
Liang, S. H.-Y., Yang, Y.-H., Kuo, T.-Y., Liao, Y.-T., Lin, T.-C., Lee, Y., McIntyre, R. S., Kelsen, B. A., Wang, T.-N., & Chen, V. C.-H. (2018). Suicide risk reduction in youths with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder prescribed methylphenidate: A Taiwan nationwide population-based cohort study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 72, 96–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2017.10.023
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). NIMH» Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd
Poznanski, B., Hart, K. C., & Cramer, E. (2018). Are Teachers Ready? Preservice Teacher Knowledge of Classroom Management and ADHD. School Mental Health, 10(3), 301–313. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-018-9259-2
Sherman, C. (2022, March 31). The Truth About ADHD and Addiction. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/the-truth-about-adhd-and-addiction/
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A couple of quick notes from a preservice teacher who has ADHD.
First, PLEASE be mindful of how you incentivize your kids with ADHD. If you’re offering a reward, is the behavior you’re rewarding reasonably attainable for a student with ADHD? If you’re enforcing negative consequences, what behavior are you trying to change, why, and are you setting this child up for failure?
For example, you’re trying to encourage quiet focus during SSR time. You can either implement negative consequences or offer a reward as an incentive for being still, quiet, and on-task. In either case, the end result for the student with ADHD is to be punished for being ADHD: They’re either missing a reward because they need to fidget or pace, or they’re being penalized outright.
It’s akin to offering rewards to students who only use their right hands to work and eat that day (or to punish students caught using their left hands), then withholding that reward from (or actively punishing) left-handed students for failing a task they could never accomplish.
On a related note, it’s essential to let your ADHD students fidget and move around and *provide them with ways to do that* that aren’t disruptive to other students. Wiggling in their seat, tapping their foot, clicking a pen, doodling on the worksheet, and staring off into space aren’t taking away from their ability to focus in class; they’re helping this child pay closer attention to the task at hand.
Finally, ADHD can come with behaviors that cause social rejection and increase the risk of being involved in bullying (as both bully and target). Additionally, among adults and children with ADHD, having additional psychiatric, learning, or neurodevelopmental disorders (called “complex ADHD”) is the rule, not the exception. When you consider these facts and the emotional dysregulation associated with ADHD, what you find is a population with a significantly increased risk for suicidal or self-harming behaviors. We must ground our work in love for all of our students, especially students in social-emotional danger. If you’re trying to design an intervention for these kids – academic, behavioral, or both – be mindful of the emotional consequences and the example you’re setting for their peers.
Thank you for this thoughtful and nuanced reply. You’ve quite beautifully captured the crux of addressing classroom behaviors of neurodivergent children– we must be focused on providing support and guidance rather than “correcting” behaviors. This can take the form of modifications and accommodations such as timers, planned breaks, flexible seating, repeated directions, and segmenting of tasks. The more strategies in our repertoire, the more successful our students can be. Please feel free to further engage with any relevant links you might have on hand, and thank you once more for your input.
Jenn, thank you so much for this. I didn’t get my diagnosis until age 47. Understanding my self as a learner has helped me to help my students in ways I never thought possible. I can’t change the past for myself, but I can change student outcomes.
I’ve read so many books and understand that so many with ADHD are misdiagnosed as bipolar, are more likely to be arrested (hence the school-to-prison pipeline), and – while we’ll never be able to identify a singular root cause – is certainly a contributing factor to disengagement and chronic absenteeism.
Katharine, we’re so glad the post has found readers like yourself who have received ADHD diagnoses as adults. It’s important to reflect on how we approach students who appear to be facing challenges in their education, regardless of diagnosis- what we may find is that some small adjustments can have a big impact! Thank you for sharing!
Dani Donovan, a graphic illustrator with ADHD, has created a series of comics to show what ADHD feels like on the inside. They have been very helpful for me to understand where my students are coming from.
Her website is https://www.adhddd.com/
Thanks so much for sharing this amazing resource!
Where is the acknowledgement of childhood trauma in this book? As an educator of 24 years, and a rigorous student of how trauma affects the human body and mind, it has been made clear to me that so many children who have experienced trauma are misdiagnosed as having ADHD. If teachers knew this, I think their approach, mindset, and levels of compassion and patience would change drastically. Anyone who writes a book on ADHD without addressing this issue is, in my opinion, no expert.
In looking back over the book, I’m not seeing anywhere that Barkley mentions this issue, but as I mention in my post, it’s a very brief book and Barkley is very up front about the fact that he’s offering something intentionally condensed in order to give busy teachers practical tools they can use right away. I am not able to find other resources where Barkley addresses this misdiagnosis, but it’s possible he’s done so in his many books and videos.
I appreciate you bringing this angle to our attention. Although I don’t quite understand how teachers’ levels of compassion and patience would change as a result of having this information—any student exhibiting this behavior deserves compassion and patience—I agree that teachers should be aware of it in order to have a more complete understanding of all the possible causes of behavior that may ultimately be ADHD. This article from the Atlantic offers an overview of this issue. If you have other resources you’d like to share, please do so here so other teachers can benefit from it.
Thanks for the great post! I am an adult diagnosed with ADHD only a few years ago, and this all sounds very much on track. I would just add that even though boys tend to be diagnosed more often, there is growing evidence that girls may be equally affected and just not diagnosed in childhood because they’re symptoms tend to present differently. For example, I am female, was generally very successful in school (and now have my PhD), but had weird stumbles that the adults around me didn’t really seem to get. If I was bored by a subject, I couldn’t bring myself to try very hard, and it was only fear of disappointing my parents that motivated me to go through the motions. I was also loud and had a hard time making friends because I was blunt and couldn’t really filter myself as girls are supposed to do. I would highly encourage educators to also look into resources on what ADHD looks like in girls so that those girls don’t have to wait until they’re adults to figure out why they are weird and could never really live up to their potential <3.
Anya, we’re so happy that you found this post relatable. It’s true that many students with ADHD or other disabilities are capable of doing more than what we may be seeing from them in the classroom, and it’s our job to help them unlock their potential. While I personally wouldn’t characterize my students as weird, (not that weird is bad) I do agree that symptoms can vary from person to person so it’s important to be on the look out for strategies that work for all types of learners. Thanks for raising this point!
As a 34-year veteran of a public school, small town classroom, I didn’t understand ADHD either. UNTIL my youngest son was born with it. Almost from birth, he was hardwired for motion. I had to learn QUICKLY how to deal with this. It made me hyper-vigilant in my classroom as well to make sure that these kids have the same access to success as those without a diagnosis.
My son is now on the verge of high school and has learned that this is just “his thing” similar to those who wear glasses or whatnot.
Thank you for being so candid and honest with your post.
It’s wonderful to hear that you have been such an active advocate for students with ADHD, both at home and in your classroom. Jenn will be glad to know that her post resonated with you!
Thanks for addressing this important topic. The YouTube channel How to ADHD is another great resource, with topical videos aimed at people with ADHD. The videos are engaging, grounded in the current science, and more positive than typical resources directed at parents and educators, so they may be helpful for sharing directly with your students who have ADHD, especially if you work with older students. Here’s a good example: https://youtu.be/OM0Xv0eVGtY
Thanks for sharing, Joie. This was really helpful!
Thank you for this great post!
A couple of tips for working with students with ADHD:
First, if you teach very young students, thank you. The hard conversations you are having with families right now are what eventually lead to support and intervention along the way. Early support and intervention can have life-changing outcomes for students with ADD/ADHD.
Some students with ADHD do better with “match the picture” versus following a checklist of twenty-five verbal directions. This can be a photograph they took of their room when it was clean. Or a picture of what a well-formatted paper looks like. An example of a well-written paragraph. It could be a photograph of the supplies they need when they enter the classroom. Encourage them to try to match the picture. And if even that is a difficult task, break the picture into smaller parts! For older kids with phones and devices, encourage them to take photographs of multi-step directions, supplies they need, etc., and annotate on top of them to support their working memory!
Incentives for the student who is trying to change behavior shouldn’t be arbitrary, unhealthy, or expensive. Often what they would like most would surprise you. Younger students would love 10 minutes to talk to you about their passionate interests. For example, a kid who loves to take apart (destroy?) things could earn time to tinker. Sometimes it’s lunch with a friend in your classroom to discuss ___ TV show, dinosaurs, Minecraft, soccer. Older students appreciate a positive note home that maybe (if you’re working with family) unlocks some incentives for how they use their free time. These are relationship-building incentives – so it doubles the reward (for you and the student).
For older students, immediate feedback can be as simple as handing a piece of work back with a note that says… “Even though you just turned this in, I’m giving it back for a do-over. I want you to revise for a and b to show me that you know…”. This works better for the student with ADHD than hoping that seeing a “D” in two weeks will teach them to do better next time… It won’t; at that point, the work is not even a distant memory for students with ADHD. The natural consequence they learn with immediate feedback is that if I don’t follow the directions, or check my work, I create more work for myself.
One analogy that middle and high school-age students with ADHD tend to always relate to is “time-blindness.” They are constantly overestimating or underestimating time, which is why nothing gets turned in on time. Some research points to people with ADHD having a more binary sense of time, meaning “now” or “later” and anything in between is difficult for them to conceptualize, which makes planning ahead, anticipating, etc. very difficult. So we work on skills for “seeing” time with visual timers, “calendarizing,” etc…
When you are thinking about an accountability system, think about two things described already in this post! (1) Making the goal visible to the child – but not public to everyone- and (2) more immediate feedback. One example: I worked with a second-grade teacher who gave a student with ADHD a special small pad of paper to keep in his desk. Whenever he blurted out during math he gave him a little nonverbal signal and the student would discreetly add a tally to his notebook and the teacher would add one to his. At the end of the week, they would count the tallies from each math class and graph them, a downward trend or a low flat line meant the student would earn small incentives. It combined learning math, with immediate feedback, but most of all it created a ritual for that student and the teacher to track progress together. It was a time they could talk together about the distracting behavior and what helped the student or didn’t help him in an off-week. There were still road bumps, but things definitely got better over time!
Another resource: One of the things I think a lot about is Katie Novak’s line of thought about how kids don’t have deficits/ disabilities, but learning environments often do. This rings very true for students with ADHD. Most schools were not designed with them in mind. In a different environment, one that didn’t involve sitting all day, listening to an adult talk, etc. the “deficit” goes away. (If you don’t believe me, think about your students with ADHD at summer camp, or when you do a car wash for charity or do a service-learning project that’s hands on… their energy is often infectious or they quickly become the MVP of the experience.) For that reason, I would always recommend more Universal Design for Learning and Katie Novak and George Couros speak so eloquently about that side of being innovative and adaptive in your teaching.
Most importantly I want to say give yourself some grace… If you have a student with ADHD who is really struggling, working as a team with a learning specialist, special ed teacher, counselor, co-teacher, office assistant – whoever you have a collaborative relationship with – can be a game-changer. We can only serve these kids well and the 25 other kids in our class if we have help. It is healthier for everyone’s relationships and learning when there is a team approach. Sometimes the colleagues I turn to for help are the ones that I know struggled themselves in school. They have great empathy and great ideas for helping these students when I’m still stuck on “why does this kid STILL not do well with the system I came up with?” I am limited in my perspective taking because I don’t have ADHD. I am a linear, very verbal, straight-A kind of thinker. More teachers become teachers because they loved school, we need more teachers who hated it, because they could teach us things about how to make it better for more students!
Hi Sarah! Teachers of students with ADHD often need concrete, actionable strategies that they can implement without much preparation- and these are great. I especially like the “match the picture” idea! Thanks so much for sharing!
As a male teacher, diagnosed with ADHD, I find this topic of a particular interest.
One foundational issue that we have in public education is that our male students are not traditionally taught lessons with their needs in mind. The world of pedagogy has traditionally been predominately governed by females, and I know that this principle may run counterculture to some of the “woke” principles being propagated in our society, but the male student/brain is different than that of a female student. The inability to multi-task effectively in male students is a consideration not often considered when we design and provide instruction, and subsequently, we see the effects in statistics related to male students in an abundance of categories.
I encourage you to do an observation of two males speaking to one another. One speaks, one listens. And then the other speaks, and one listens. If one male interrupts the other male, one will stop speaking in order to listen. A male cannot effectively listen and speak at the same time. A female can do that and more. I encourage you to observe a group of ladies talking at the teacher’s lounge, or a group of female students in the cafeteria. Females can talk AND listen AND respond AND think at the same time. (Just the thought of it exhausts me). Females have the ability to do such communication effectively, and so it seems effortless to them to engage in this type of dialogue. These same female teachers go back into the classroom and begin to give instructions to their students. Such as, “Alright class, I’d like for everyone to take out a piece of paper, write your name/date/class period at the top, title it Cells Vocabulary at the top, and number 1-25 on the left hand side.” (Unless a procedure has been implemented to prevent the following), in most scenarios, as soon as the teacher says, “I’d like for everyone to take out a piece of paper, ” the entire class begins to open their binder and look for paper. Most of the female students can follow the stated directions perfectly. The majority of the males students are able to locate the paper, and put their name on it…but as far as remembering to put the title and number 1-25 on the left hand side…forget about it! Their brains heard take out a piece of notebook paper, and the second they started looking for paper, their ears turned off. There are obviously some exceptions to the scenario I have described above, and I have observed those in my classroom also. But the general information presented above is fairly accurate from class to class and year to year. If we, as teachers, are not cognizant of the differences in the male and female student’s brain, then how can we plan for those differences effectively? How can we deliver instruction in a way that reaches all learners? I know many female teachers who complain about some of the same male students that perform really well in my class. The difference is I know how to speak their language. I know how their minds work. I’m intentional about structuring my lessons for both male and female students cognitive abilities.
If the idea of males/females being different is too traditional of a thought for you, then at least consider the theory and principles of multiple intelligences presented by Dr. Howard Gardner. While there are some general characterizations that can be observed, each brain is unique, and as teachers, we must be intentional about allowing for those unique abilities to flourish in our classrooms.
I know this article is about ADHD, and I’ve worked primarily in an affluent area where I’ve observed it significantly over-diagnosed (in my opinion) in my males students. And you know what, the medication works for most male students. It gives him the ability to stop fidgeting and narrows his focus on a single person/task while muting the external distractions and stimuli, but I’ve often wondered if that same student could be reached without medication if we considered the design of his brain and his method of learning information when we are designing our instruction. I know this article is about ADHD, and I am personally aware of its challenges. But far too often we default to the ADHD label instead of understanding our male students.
Perhaps, it is our brains that need to revisit the principles of pedagogy and how we design/present instruction in our classrooms.
Hi Team –
I had a quick comment on “public accountability” mentioned in the ADHD episode. I cannot guarantee this is aligned with Barkley’s initial intent – although I am very familiar with his work. I’m also pretty sure Barkley would disagree with shaming approaches.
The consensus in behavior modification is that “natural” consequences are often more powerful and sustainable than artificially created and delivered ones. I use the term “consequence” because of the general misuse of the term punishment. In technical term, a consequence is punishing if (and only if) it decreases the probability of a behavior regardless of whether it’s subjectively considered “good” or “bad”. The (natural) social consequences following desired or disruptive behavior may be richer in learning opportunity and more effective than arbitrary consequences because it’s likely to occur in multiple settings even when unplanned. So my reading of the “public accountability” in Barkley’s work is that providing external accountability to the behavior (with higher frequency to desired behaviors) increases the salience of natural consequences the individual will encounter outside the classroom.
Thanks for sharing this insight, Sarah!
As an educator with ADHD, I want to make a few points:
1. I suggest removing ADDitude from the list of reputable resources. Ass discussed on the ADHD subreddit, “They have demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy and that they, despite soliciting donations from people with ADHD to fund their operation, prioritize profit and advertising dollars over our best interests.” Further, Media Bias / Fact Check has marked them as a “moderate” source of pseudoscience (https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/additude-magazine/) with mixed factual reporting. Overall, MBFC rates “ADDitude Magazine a moderate Pseudoscience website based on promoting unproven nature treatments and cures,” stating, “there is good information here, but these claims ruin it.”
2. Instead of ADDitude, I recommend checking out HowToADHD on YouTube! Jessica McCabe is an individual with ADHD who shares accessible information for others with and without ADHD to better understand the condition, as well as coping mechanisms to work with our brains instead of against them.
3. I’m not sure if this is Barkley’s original intention, but accountability can be as simple as check-ins or “body-doubling.” Think about how much more likely you are to start a new habit (e.g., going to the gym) if you have an accountability buddy! There are plenty of ways to implement these that are dependent on your situation. For example, if you are in a project-based learning classroom with a far-off deadline, set mini-deadlines for the student to check in, telling them where they should be in the process of the project. Often, people with ADHD procrastinate, and we don’t do something until there’s a fire under our butts (and that has to do with dopamine). Setting up check-ins or accountability buddies moves those deadlines forward so we don’t do all the work the night before.
I just remembered another point!
As you noted in this episode, many symptoms of ADHD are things everyone struggles with at some point: disorganization, boredom, impulsivity, procrastinating, etc. The impact of this is two-fold:
1. As you indicated, this can lead to a lack of empathy for individuals with ADHD. After all, everyone deals with this stuff sometimes, and they should just try harder. Additionally, many people can go undiagnosed because the problems don’t appear “bad enough” or don’t resemble what we typically associate with ADHD. This is a particular issue for gifted students. These issues can cause individuals with ADHD to feel a lot of shame, guilt, and self-hatred for “not being good enough” despite trying really, really hard.
2. On a more optimistic note, strategies educators implement to help students with ADHD will help most, if not all, of your students!
Hi Charlotte ~ Thanks so much for all of these insights. When I wrote the post, these are exactly the kinds of contributions I was hoping to get from readers who know more about ADHD than I do! I appreciate knowing more about ADDitude. I will make an adjustment to the recommendations soon.
While listening to your summary of the author’s 8 points I was imagining a class where all these things are done well (might as well consider the ideal as we strive to build it) and I was struck with how wonderful it would feel to be a student there – visible reminders, varied tasks to break up some of the monotony, color coding to help stay organized, varied and interesting motivation, opportunities to move around or fidget in a way that won’t disrupt others, etc.
A lot of students have found success in school despite the challenges presented by the “traditional” approach to teaching, It does not mean that they like it. It is remarkable what many of us can get used to and even begin to take comfort in.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Greg. I agree – a classroom where all of these things are done well would feel wonderful!
Yes I agree with your post.
I am excited to work with these ideas in the upcoming school year.
This post is informative and provides actual strategies I can take back to my classroom. I look forward to sharing this with the teaching assistant I work with. Thank you!
We’re so glad you found it helpful!
Thank you for the great information. I will use these strategies and ideas in my upcoming school year.
I work in a public school where we are seeing more and more needs for students each year.
When you said we can identify some needs but need to know how to work with the individual needs that was a key point for me!
Thanks for commenting, Nancy! Jenn will be glad to know that the post was helpful for you.
Thank you so much for this excellent post. The descriptions of those with ADHD really reminded me of many students I have taught; even those without a diagnosis!
As someone who is in the classroom during the current COVID pandemic, I have found students in general have had a very difficult time focusing and many of the suggestions given in the post are ones I have found helpful for all students. Frequent movement breaks, breaking material down to from larger concepts into smaller, more specific ones and incentives have all been very helpful this year.
One thing I have never tried is the idea of a daily behaviour report card. I am wondering if anyone here has any insight into its effectiveness?
Thank you again for a fantastic post.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kristen! I agree – many of the strategies outlined in the post are helpful for all students. Jenn will be glad to hear that the post resonated with you!
I would specifically recommend the ADDitude magazine podcast, where highly qualified experts are regularly interviewed. I can’t speak to the quality of the whole website, but my guess is that some of the concerns about pseudoscience are related to families who are afraid of medicine and want to try other treatment methods. To those families, I would say from my own experience that ADHD medication when properly prescribed (and it can take some work to get the right dosage and medicine types) works like the perfect amount of coffee that lasts all day. On my meds, I can focus better, not be overwhelmed by decision making, manage my emotional responses throughout the day, and generally deal with stuff in a way that brings down my anxiety in all sorts of situations requiring executive function.
I agree with a lot of the strategies that were mentioned here. It’s super critical to recognize what’s actually within the student’s choice and when they need supports for managing their work, their focus, and their energy!
ADDitude Website has this free resource on building executive functioning. It is a good resource. I am working on building EF with my 1st graders and sharing the resources with my families. It is very helpful for students to be aware and actively work on these skills. Here is the link to it : https://www.additudemag.com/download/executive-function-adhd-school-guide/?src=embed_link
Thanks for sharing this resource!
Your post is extremely thorough and should be shared with every teacher! It is so important that we are inclusive to all children and advocate for every single one of them. Every teacher would gain so much knowledge from your post, which is so important since so many teachers are simply just not aware of ADHD and all it entails.
Thanks for this, Sara! Jenn will be so glad to know that you find the post valuable.