Supporting Students with ADHD

By Tom McIntyre, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges

Supporting Students with ADHDResearch shows that certain classroom characteristics promote success for students with ADHD. Predictability, structure, short working periods, a small teacher-to-pupil ratio, individualized instruction, an interesting curriculum, and lots of positive reinforcement are all important to student progress. Researchers have also identified optimal teacher characteristics. They include positive academic expectations, personal warmth, patience, humor, consistency, firmness, frequent monitoring of student work, and knowledge of behavior management strategies.

Here are some specific strategies for working with students with ADHD:

Create the Appropriate Mindset for Effective Practice

  • Recognize ADHD as a disorder that requires empathy, understanding, and differentiation in practice.
  • Identify and manage your own emotions. Primary feelings like frustration can often transform into anger (and unfortunate actions can emanate from it).
  • Use cognitive behavioral thinking. Realize that the emotions that develop within us are dependent on how we size up a situation. If we view a student’s behavior as being intentionally disruptive, we may feel negative emotions. When we view a student’s actions as being a manifestation of a disorder that the student did not choose to have, we are likely to feel empathy and compassion for—along with a desire to support and assist—that student.
  • Don’t take it personally. That “irritating” behavior is not an insult directed at you; it is a symptom of a neurological disorder. Separate the action from the student. Work to eliminate the behavior, but remain supportive of the student.
  • Recognize that knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. Does the student know the steps involved in completing the task you want accomplished? Has he practiced those steps with you under the circumstances when the action is supposed to be displayed?

Design the Learning Environment

  • Implement room design elements that help organize materials and manage movement and attention.
  • Assign the student to a seat that best allows her to observe you while avoiding distractions. For instance, seat her away from doors, windows, pencil sharpeners, or group activity tables.
  • Eliminate excessive noise.
  • Minimize visual distractions. Avoid having interesting activities or clutter within eyesight of distractible students.
  • Employ study carrels, seat the student in the area of the classroom that has the fewest distractions, or face a student’s desk toward the wall. However, do not isolate the student for long periods of time. Allow the student to engage in group work, too.
  • Seat the student near appropriate role models for behavior.

Behavior Management Strategies

  • Develop good rapport with the student. It is human nature to strive to please those whom we like, admire, and respect. Students with ADHD are more likely to respond to emotional connections than contingent consequences.
  • Implement a comprehensive, class-wide behavior management system.
  • Rules, routines, and assignments should be posted and delineated.
  • Ingrain classroom expectations, rules, and routines through role play, discussion, and identifying examples of cooperation.
  • If a student frequently refuses to follow directions, review how often you point out what the student is doing wrong instead of identifying the desired behavior. Kids who hear too many negatives and commands will eventually refuse to cooperate. Remain positive and supportive, encourage the youngster, and focus on progress (however small).
  • Prompt the correct behavior and verbally reinforce it frequently.
  • Address inappropriate behavior in a patient, professional, and respectful manner.
  • Develop a silent signal. Devise nonverbal signals to indicate ideas such as, “I’ve seen your hand and will get there as soon as I’m able,” or, “Self-check your actions and correct them.”
  • The minds of most kids with ADHD are more focused when they are able to move. Allow the student to squeeze a squishy ball, sit (and wobble) on an inflatable donut ring, or place feet on a strip of inner tube or bungee cord that is stretched low to the floor between the front supports of a desk.
  • Assign two seats to an overactive student. Then, when he simply can’t stay in that first seat any longer, he is allowed to stand up and walk to the other nearby seat. There, he will work until the urge to move again is overwhelming and he goes back to the first seat.
  • During independent work, allow the student to move around in a designated area of the classroom while writing on a clipboard. This privilege is allowed only if the student remains on task. The student is directed to return to the desk at the second warning (but can earn back the privilege by focusing for a minute or two at the desk). Make certain that the student understands that you decide when she can leave the seat again.
  • Provide opportunities for physical movement such as erasing the board, running errands with another student, or distributing and collecting materials. Build physical activities into the daily schedule.
  • Encourage parents to build physical activity into the student’s out-of-school schedule.
  • If social rewards and reinforcement are insufficient in bringing about the desired behavior, pair social recognition with earned activities or tangible reinforcers.
  • Use colorful progress charts and other visual records of appropriate behavior in order to provide feedback, open discussion, and encourage more appropriate behavior. Make use of colorful charts and cards to motivate the child and recognize effort.
  • Move nearer to the student when he becomes restless. Offer verbal encouragement or positive touch. When misbehavior occurs (or threatens to occur), move closer and soften your voice.
  • Assign a capable “study buddy” who can remind and assist the active or disorganized student.
  • Assign duties that require self-control such as line leader or materials distributor. Prepare the student for the duty, encourage her, and reinforce her appropriate behavior during and after that task.
  • Teach self-management of behavior via self-monitoring.
  • Engage the student in social skills training.
  • Use language that guides and supports students and that avoids conflict to solve the problem.

To learn more about these ideas and many others, check out this page on my website.

Thomas McIntyre, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Hunter College of the City University of New York. A popular workshop presenter and keynote speaker, he hosts the award-winning website

Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior ChallengesDr. Mac is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids with Behavior Challenges: How to Make Good Choices and Stay Out of Trouble.

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3 Responses to Supporting Students with ADHD

  1. Lorene Saenz says:

    I love these ideas, I can’t wait to implementing these!

  2. Pingback: 30 Must-Know ADHD Teaching Resources | Special Needs Resource Blog

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