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10 Ways Schools and Parents Can Help Students with ADHD

Kevin, a bright, enthusiastic second-grader, has tremendous difficulties in school. He can’t seem to pay attention to his teacher’s instruction, gets distracted easily by activities around him, has trouble staying still in his seat, and often bothers his classmates by talking to them during work time or calling out without permission. As a result, Kevin gets very little work done and is getting increasingly further behind in math and reading. Kevin’s teacher and parents are very frustrated and blame each other for Kevin’s difficulties. Unfortunately, Kevin’s situation is very typical for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); a condition that affects between 5 to 10% of students in the US.

If you think about it, Kevin’s situation is far from ideal for a student struggling with ADHD. After all, students are expected to sit still, listen passively for much of the time, and complete work that involves sustained focus and effort. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that youth with ADHD experience long-term challenges in school and are at higher than average risk for dropping out before completing high school. Although medications like Adderall and Ritalin may provide short-term improvements in attention and impulse control, medication typically does not make up for lost instruction time due to misbehavior nor does it lead to large improvements in academic or social skills. Thus, it is critically important for teachers and parents to work together to help students with ADHD face multiple social and academic challenges throughout their school years.

Here are 10 ways schools and parents can help students with ADHD:

1. Go on the offense – Teachers and parents tend to be reactive when dealing with children’s behaviors; waiting for something to happen before acting (e.g., reprimanding student who calls out without permission).  However, it is much more effective to anticipate student behavior before it occurs and then do something to prevent it. For example, a student like Kevin typically has difficulty with staying in his seat and avoiding classroom disruptions when asked to complete an assignment. Teachers could modify assignments to make them more interesting or break assignments into smaller chunks of work to provide brief “attention breaks” between each piece of an assignment.

2. Emphasize the carrot, not the stick – Adults tend to manage children’s disruptions and negative behaviors with punishment that removes children from the immediate situation (e.g., time-out, detention, suspension). Although this may lead to temporary relief for adults, it only teaches children what not to do, rather than what adults want them to do. Instead, teachers and parents should use more effective strategies that involve rewarding students for following rules, getting their work done, and getting along with classmates and teachers. In other words, adults should “catch them being good.”

3. Address the function – All behavior has purpose, even when students aren’t aware of why they behave in a certain way. For example, some students with ADHD act like a class clown in order to get attention from their peers. This isn’t surprising given that children with ADHD frequently have difficulty making and keeping friends. In this case, teachers would want to use a strategy where students get attention from peers for doing what teachers want them to do (e.g., complete work). This might include peer tutoring where pairs of students work together and reward each other for practicing skills that the teacher has taught (e.g., sets of math equations or constructing an essay outline).

4. Strike at the point of performance – Youth with ADHD tend to “live in the now”; they mostly think about immediate rather than long-term payoffs for their behavior. Thus, interventions need to be implemented at the point of performance (i.e., in the “now”). If, for example, teachers are concerned about a student’s behavior in science class that occurs every day from 9 to 10 am, then an intervention needs to be implemented in science class daily between 9 and 10 am.  Intervening at the point of performance will be more effective than treatments delivered at remote times and places (e.g., talk therapy once per week in a counselor’s office).

5. Target challenges, not symptoms – Because teachers and parents are ultimately interested in students showing growth in academic and social functioning, we should measure intervention on key indicators of progress rather than reduction of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. For example, interventions should provide support for completion of classroom and homework assignments, as well as obtaining reading and math skills. If work completion and academic skills improve, behavior is likely to follow (i.e., it is difficult for a student to get work done and show educational progress while also misbehaving).

6. Don’t shoot in the dark – Rather than guessing what strategy might work for a specific student; teachers, parents, and other school personnel should use assessment data (e.g., observations in the classroom, parent and teacher interviews) to tailor interventions to meet the individual needs of the student. Similarly, data should be collected once strategies are up and running, so that changes can be made based on how the student is responding and/or making progress/meeting milestones.

7. Time is of the essence – As students progress to secondary school, there is increased emphasis on independent tracking of assignments and their due dates, studying for tests, as well as managing time in an effective fashion both in and out of school. Obviously, students with ADHD will require extra support in learning these skills. Coaching in time management and related skills (e.g., following a set schedule daily, creating an assignment chart, signing up for tutoring) can come from a variety of sources including teachers, parents, school psychologist, or even older peers.

8. Communicate and collaborate – In order to help children succeed in school, teachers naturally lead the way in guiding and managing student performance. However, teachers typically address many classroom needs daily and therefore may need extra help when dealing with students with ADHD. Thus, it is critical that teachers regularly communicate with parents regarding student progress so that parents can reinforce teacher efforts. In similar fashion, it is important for parents to let teachers know ahead of time about their child’s ADHD needs and typical behaviors. A daily behavior report card can be used at home to facilitate communication wherein parents reward students for achieving daily school goals. Here is a resource on how to establish a school-home daily report card.

9. Focus on small wins and gradual change – One of the biggest mistakes teachers and parents make is setting unrealistic goals for students with ADHD; specifically, expecting students to meet grade level expectations right away after trying an intervention strategy. A more successful tactic is to set short-term goals that are just beyond a student’s current level of performance. For example, if a student typically is able to complete only 10 out of 20 math problems, then our initial goal may be to complete 11 or 12 problems. As the student makes progress, this goal can be adjusted upward in a gradual fashion over time.

10. Know your rights – Students with ADHD may be eligible for support and specialized instruction. Parents and teachers should consider two possible options; one being special education support through an individualized education plan or IEP and the other being educational accommodations (e.g., preferential seating, reduced workload) through a Section 504 plan. Here is a resource regarding parent and student educational rights.

Other helpful resources:

Videos and tips for teachers from National Resource Center on ADHD

Tips and resources for parents of children with ADHD from National Resource Center on ADHD

Pfiffner, L. J. (2011). All about ADHD: The complete practical guide for classroom teachers (2nd Edition). New York: Scholastic.

Reid, R. & Johnson, J. (2012). Teacher’s guide to ADHD. New York: Guilford.

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