ADHD In The Classroom

ADHD is a life-long disorder that can be frustrating for children, and those around them at home, school and play. It often contributes to poor academic and social learning because of the reduction in a child’s ability to plug into the environment consistently and effectively.

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ADHD in the classroom

Children with attentional difficulties require more than normal teaching. Working through issues related to teaching these students will provide a teacher with some of the most rewarding teaching experiences. At the same time students at the severe end of the continuum continue to have multiple continue to have problems that can cause a teacher to question their teaching ability. It is important to remember that the external behavioural expressions of the disorder are not calculated by the student to make teachers crazy. Despite how it feels at times, these students are not out to ‘get’ teachers. They do have genuine internal processing difficulties that make life like a distorted, out of sync jigsaw.

Competent students adapt to different physical and learning environments and teaching styles, or they adapt them appropriately to meet their needs. Students with ADHD tend to inappropriately adapt physical or learning environments to get their needs met. They tend to act out or withdraw. They tend to bring problems to the classroom that need to be carefully planned for in an attempt to reduce negative outcomes. These students perform better in environments that are preventative rather than reactive; environments that are safe.

Problems can be situational, often worse in high demand situations that highlight a student’s problem areas. For example, close physical environments can be extremely restricting for very active students.

A student with attentional difficulties can be at risk in situations when:

  • The task is too difficult
  • Work is required for extended periods
  • There is little supervision
  • There has been little or no preparation for the task
  • The teaching is presented in lecture format with little or no interaction
  • Learning tasks take sudden jumps
  • Output demands suddenly increase
  • Transition times are not structured and planned

Pinpointing potential problems provides a functional approach for designing preventions. Adapting physical environments and learning programmes can remove triggers of unwanted behaviours. When there is as close a match as possible between a student with ADHD, the physical and learning programme, learning outcomes increase and behavioural difficulties decrease.

Students with ADHD have exaggerated needs for physical environments and learning programmes that are predictable and orderly; where things tend not to be random, and changes in routine are planned. At the same time theyu require learning to be stimulating and novel.
Underpinning this disorder is a fundamental difficulty with processing information. Efficient information processing results in learning. Attention is critical to the learning process.

Attention & Learning

Attention involves:

  • Selecting the correct thing to focus on from multiple stimuli
  • Coming to focus on that thing
  • Sustaining attention long enough to process the information or to complete the task

The first step towards successful learning involves inputting information through sensory pathways; eyes, ears, touch. Students with ADHD can have difficulty sorting out what is relevant from the array of stimuli bombarding their senses. They often focus on and process irrelevant information while missing the main point. They find it difficult to resist distractions. They are pulled by thought in their head or stimuli that enter the sensory pathways.

Information is inputted through the sensory pathways into the short term memory. Some information is acted on immediately and discarded. Most information needs to be worked on or rehearsed for long term learning. In the working part of the short term memory, information is broken down, grouped and matched with relevant prior knowledge. On and off attention patterns can result in poorly organised, patchy information with considerable loss of meaning. Children with ADHD are often too impulsive, and information is mis-sequenced or not processed reliably. Passive children tend not to sustain attention long enough before drifting off, resulting in patchy processing. Difficulties with sorting relevant from irrelevant information can result in memory overload. Often information is not meaningfully organised; they see patchy or odd patterns, or no patterns at all.

Learned information is stored systematically in long term memory. It is organised, categorised and stored for later retrieval. Students with attentional difficulties tend to have difficulty storing information logically, making retrieval difficult. They often learn information as whole units, and do not match to old or look for additional information.

The expression of learning is seen when information is outputted. Information is retrieved and integrated before expression through demonstration, speech, writing, or action. Students with attentional difficulties have trouble retrieving and integrating information, often compounded by short term memory difficulties. They do not always reflect on past events easily. Attention wanders and they lose the flow of information. The more integrated the task, the more difficult it can be for children with attentional difficulties. For example, while writing they lose the flow of information and have difficulty interrelating ideas with the subskills of spelling, planning and writing. They find it difficult to hold one idea while working with another.

Consider the complexity of learning processes, compound it by attentional problems and in some cases Specific Learning Difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why students with ADHD can find learning difficult. They tend not to:

  • Consistently employ learning strategies on their own because they are often disrupted by more interesting stimuli.
  • Organise or plan information and or physical space
  • Monitor actions efficiently without systematic training and consistent routines
  • Sift and sort information logically
  • See how information relates to form main ideas
  • Reflect on structures inherent in verbal and/or written information
  • Produce consistent work; performance can vary within a day from day to day

There are no magic strategies that work for all students with attentional difficulties. There are, however, important factors that will lead to more effective learning if taken into consideration when planning interventions.

Planning Interventions

The aim of any academic or social programme is to ensure learning. When planning programmes or interventions for students for students with attentional difficulties, consider the following:

  • Avoid setting unreasonable goals. Goals that are difficult to reach become self-defeating.
  • Limit the potential for students to become off task.
  • Build in a developmentally appropriate process for moving from highly structured and teacher directed levels of learning to independent learning.
  • Design programmes that attempt to support or correct the blocks or weaknesses in the processing system
  • Consider fairness and equity. How much more effort is required by these students in comparison with others, to produce the same work.
  • Use technology as one way of equalling out the odds, and to provide motivation

Academic Learning Programmes

For successful learning to occur a teacher needs to get and maintain the student’s attention. This is no mean feat, considering the nature of the disorder. Programmes that are stimulating and novel, tend to work best. These students need to be actively involved in the learning. The quieter student may require directed effective questions to encourage involvement. Students can be engaged by allowing for the sharing of ideas in a structured way. Present, review, and practise activities, using a variety of techniques such as computers, games, tapes and music. Use colour and pitch to highlight key information.

Programmes need to:

  • Be well planned
  • Be paced to suit the learning style of the individual
  • Tap into learning strengths
  • Be multisensory
  • Support weaker areas through modification of requirements, e.g. complete half a maths sheet
  • Be predictable but not overly repetitive, while allowing for over-learning
  • Involve short instruction times, followed by activity
  • Have structured activities with out put expectations matched to the individual
  • Have new knowledge linked to prior knowledge
  • Have clear outcomes
  • Have clear and concise instructions
  • Alternate low and high interest tasks
  • Provide for immediate corrective feedback
  • Actively involve the teacher
  • Be interactive
  • Build necessary vocabulary, rather than rely on previous knowledge
  • Use structured overviews

The Physical Environment

Many school environments are not ideal for students with attentional difficulties, especially those students who are very active. Classrooms can be altered to closer meet the needs of students with attentional difficulties; making it safer for students and giving the teacher more control. Consider the difficulties of the student and look at environmental changes that could be made to prevent problem behaviours occurring. Overall spatial options, personal space, transition and movement patterns need to be examined and adjusted.

Transitional times make up 15% of a school day and are high risk times for students with attentional difficulties. These times must be structured. Instructions need toi be clear and concise. They need to be recorded in writing. Make use of signals, e.g. stop signs. Providing feedback on how the task is being executed helps on-task behaviour. Award points if there is a class system. At transition times, a teacher needs to set up and manage routines.

Students with attentional difficulties tend to be poorly organised, physically and mentally. To help develop organisational skills, teachers need to work with students to develop systems for storage of work and belongings. Homework is often an issue. Clear procedures can be negotiated with students and parents. Diaries are critical. Organization within the classroom can be helped by writing up and verbalising instructions. Warning a student that a change is coming provides time for them to disengage from a task.

Behaviour Management

The behaviour of students with ADHD can be difficult to manage. Preventative measures could include:

  • Provision of clear communications and expectations rather than rigid rules
  • Making consequences clear and immediate
  • Teacher modelling of appropriate behaviour
  • Negotiating procedures for difficult times with the students
  • A clear warning system
  • Explanation and display of non-negotiable rules
  • Negotiable rules reviewed and adjusted regularly
  • Clearly outlined expectations
  • Negotiated rules and expectations for specific purposes, e.g. group work, independent work, paired activity.
  • A classroom or individual point system
  • Being well prepared for lessons; control is more difficult when you are unprepared.

Try to catch students before they get into trouble, and re-direct them to another task or activity. The purpose of any management system is to avoid behaviours, not to entrap students.

Children who are very disruptive and aggressive may need a plan that is implemented across the whole school. It is important to intervene early. Do not wait until the student is out of control. Involve parents, principals, other staff, and psychologists if necessary. If interventions don’t work, evaluate objectively and try again.

Some Critical Points

  • Close communication between home and school is important. A good working relationship with parents involves regular contact and collaboration over goals
  • Structure and clarity are important factors in creating positive environments. Students respond more appropriately in structured settings where the purpose is clear. The structure need not be traditional or rigid. Colourful, creative, active classrooms can be structured through clear communication, expectations, rules and consequences.
  • Design creative, engaging, and interactive teaching strategies that keep the students involved and interacting with the learning process, their teachers, and peers.
  • It is important for staff to support each other through the sharing of ideas and listening when colleagues are not handling difficult situations.
  • Administrative support is critical. Administrators need to be aware of strategies for effective management of students with attentional difficulties in order to support teachers.
  • It is critical that we respect student privacy. These students are very sensitive, and it is important to negotiate programme modifications privately. Treat medication issues sensitively.
  • Modify work output expectations. These students often need help following schedules, storing their gear and organising a study skills.
  • Foster self esteem. These students often have fragile self esteem and perceive themselves as failures.
  • Value students’ differences and help bring out their strengths. Provide opportunities for them to succeed in front of their peers.
  • Believe in them. Avoid giving up with frustration when plans fail. If it is frustrating for you, imagine what it is like for the child.

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