By Katherine Quie, Ph.D., L.P.
As a child psychologist, I have years of experience working with children and adolescents with ADHD who struggle to cope with frustration. My therapy and testing referrals often have behaviors like:
- skipping classes
- throwing desks and chairs at school
- punching holes in walls
- swearing at teachers
When I first started practicing, I felt intimidated by these behaviors. I’d only seen a few physical fights in my life. I didn’t even have brothers to roughhouse with growing up. Who was I to try to teach angry kids how to control their frustration?
Then I had my first child. I was 30, a doctoral student in clinical psychology with a specialization in child development, and I was ready to apply these skills to my own parenting.
But things weren’t that simple. Our son Will barely slept, and he craved constant stimulation and motion. It didn’t help that my friends’ babies slept through dinner parties and let them stand still. I persevered and did the best I could.
The fact that Will’s kindergarten teacher couldn’t keep up with his demands felt validating and heart-wrenching. The validating part was that she was only in her mid-20s, and my son still exhausted even her. The heart-wrenching part was that according to her, Will’s behavior was way outside the norm. While my son wasn’t quick to anger, he was impulsive and hard to manage in the classroom, and thus became well-acquainted with the school principal.
Over the years, I’ve learned that most kids with ADHD and poor coping skills cooperate very well if they have the right supports. One thing I try to keep in mind when I’m working with temperamental children or adolescents is that ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that impacts chemical and structural parts of the brain responsible for emotion regulation.
Many kids with ADHD have smaller frontal lobes than neurotypical kids do (Voeller, 2004). And many have lower levels of certain neurotransmitters, or chemicals in the brain, like dopamine (Swanson, 2000). Since the frontal lobe regulates higher-order cognitive functions (like decision-making, planning, and coping with frustration) and dopamine regulates emotions, physical differences in these areas can impact kids’ abilities to manage frustration positively.
Here are 10 strategies I use to help students with ADHD (and their teachers) manage frustration:
1. Develop a strong relationship with the student from day one—from minute one, actually. Success rates in school for kids with ADHD are highly linked to teacher-student rapport (Rogers & Meek, 2015). How does one go about developing this relationship? Ask the student to take on a special classroom responsibility, engage the student’s passions, and show understanding of the student’s needs, such as for extra movement breaks.
As a parent, I always felt relieved when my son’s teachers embraced his quirkiness and focused on his strengths. I made a point of showing my gratitude to his teachers too. They were part of our team, and their patience with Will was a great gift.
2. Make sure you are teaching at the student’s academic level. Since approximately 50–70 percent of kids with ADHD have learning disabilities, teachers can assume that many students with ADHD have uneven learning. As a psychologist, during testing I purposefully start students several grade levels below their age to get an estimate of their academic skill level. This helps them build confidence and remain calm. Otherwise, if the work is too hard, students often refuse to continue or complain of boredom.
As a parent, I sought tutoring for Will when he was in the lowest reading group in first grade. He had already repeated kindergarten, and dyslexia ran in our family. Tutoring reduced his frustration in school, gave him an ally who believed in him, and let his teachers know that we were doing our best to address his learning differences.
3. Consider the use of technology in the classroom for students with ADHD who have anger problems. Since students with ADHD often have learning disabilities, particularly in writing, they may get agitated when doing written work. That’s why removing the physical act of writing tends to reduce frustration and acting out. Diction programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking are ideal, since students can simply dictate written assignments.
4. Don’t get sucked into power struggles. I’ve had to learn this the hard way. In the past, when kids refused to do the work, I pressed my agenda too hard. Over time I learned that I’m better off giving the child my pitch (“If you try your best today, I can help make school and life easier for you”) and then backing off. Teachers are in a similar position. Instead of trying to strong-arm a student into completing work, a teacher’s effort is better spent trying to identify why the student is refusing to work. And this comes with patience and setting aside your agenda. Kids share their truths when they sense you care.
As a mother, I’ve had to advocate for my son many times when his teachers misunderstood his behavior (for example, viewed his tendency to blurt out answers in class as a purposeful disregard for the rules as opposed to a symptom of undertreated ADHD). Advocating for Will required a willingness on my part to validate the teacher’s point of view (“I realize Will’s behavior is disruptive and it must be hard to teach”), which helped us negotiate a better plan.
5. Remember that praise and rewards work way better than punishments do, but don’t go overboard. Research has shown that if you punish kids with ADHD (give them detention, keep them in for recess), their behavior doesn’t improve (Barkley, 2008). Instead, students with ADHD respond better to sincere compliments (“Nice handwriting. I can tell you slowed down and focused while you wrote that sentence”) and connected rewards (“If you type three sentences in five minutes, you can earn added computer time”).
6. Avoid direct commands. Since the frontal lobe helps us think flexibly and cope with frustration, it makes sense that kids with ADHD respond poorly to direct commands (“Take off your hat now”). Instead, when teachers are more respectful (“Please take off your hat”), kids feel respected and thus rebel less. I think this is true for most people. It just makes sense that we all like to be treated well.
7. Allow students frequent opportunities for movement. This is a big one. One of the things that teachers (or anyone really) often struggle to understand is the intense frustration and stress kids with ADHD experience when they can’t release pent-up energy. I’ve found that active students benefit from supports like:
- chewing gum
- listening to music with earbuds during work time
- completing a puzzle at the back of the room once they finish classwork
- using a wiggle seat (for younger grades)
- using weighted vests, stuffed animals, or lap blankets (for younger grades)
- running errands for the teacher
- helping in the classroom (for example, handing out papers)
As a parent, I found that the teachers who offered to let Will stand in the back of the classroom, chew gum, run errands, or you name it had the best success with him because they didn’t dismiss his intense need to move.
8. Keep feedback neutral. Instead of embarrassing students (“Julie, I’ve asked you to stop talking three times. Stop disrespecting me and your classmates”), keep feedback neutral (“Julie, please be quiet. You’ll have to change seats if I have to ask you again”).
As parents, my husband and I worked on this regularly. It was easy to have a negative tone with our son when we’d repeatedly asked him to do something and he didn’t change his behavior. However, when we reminded ourselves that ADHD is neurological and that most likely Will was doing his best, it changed our perspective and we became much more understanding.
9. Keep classroom rules simple, minimal, and consistent. As a psychologist, I only enforce a few rules in my office, such as no violence and no threats. While teachers have to enforce a few more rules in school, given the nature of their jobs, long lists of rules can cause kids with ADHD to feel stifled, anxious, and targeted. For one, given their memory difficulties, kids with ADHD often can’t retain long lists of rules. This can cause teachers to think that a student with ADHD is purposefully being disrespectful when, in fact, many times the student has simply forgotten the rules.
10. Provide daily incentives and rewards. Kids with ADHD often cope better with a reward in mind. They also tend to live in the moment. As such, working toward daily rewards tends to work much better than working toward a reward at the end of the week.
In fact, when my son was little, the teachers who had a morning and an afternoon reward had the most success with him. That way, if he had a terrible morning, he still felt hopeful and motivated to turn his behavior around.
Katherine Quie, Ph.D., L.P., recently founded ADHD&U as an outlet for her passion in supporting young people and families impacted by ADHD. She is a licensed psychologist and author of the memoir Raising Will: Surviving the Brilliance and Blues of ADHD. She is a mother of two and lives in Saint Paul with her husband. Check out her blog, resource page, and podcast at ADHD&U for more information about how to support young people and families impacted by ADHD.
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Barkley, R.A. (2008). “Classroom Accommodations for Children with ADHD.” The ADHD Report: Vol. 16, School Management: 7–10.
Rogers, M., and F. Meek (2015). “Relationships Matter: Motivating Students with ADHD Through the Teacher-Student Relationship.” Perspectives on Language and Literacy 41: 21–24.
Swanson, J.M. (2000). “Dopamine Transporter Density in Patients with ADHD.” Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Journal of Child Neurology 355(9213): 1461.
Voeller, K.K.S (2004). “Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).” Journal of Child Neurology 19(10): 798–814.
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Thank you for this. My son was recently diagnosed with ADHD and your article really helps a lot.