By Ezra Werb, M.Ed., author of Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges
Classrooms are busy little ecosystems: 20 to 35 students buzzing around, whiteboards covered with notes and reminders, each individual desk littered with the day’s scraps, posters all over the walls with famous people and inspirational phrases and maybe even a cat reading a classic novel.
For students with ADHD and related learning challenges, this is a real test—trying to filter out unimportant stimuli to focus on what’s crucial. We see the results in their difficulty remaining attentive, their frequent missing of key ideas, and their confusion in tackling assignments. Of course, many executive functions are involved with these challenges, but students’ ability to process information visually, whether words, pictures, or symbols, could certainly be a factor.
In my years in the classroom as a one-to-one behavior specialist, a resource teacher, and an educational therapist, I’ve seen how effective simple strategies can be in making things clearer visually for students. I’m a big proponent of classroom technology for this purpose, but so much has already been written about it and there are still classrooms without extensive access to technology. So in this post, I’ll focus on three visual teaching strategies that don’t require computers or internet.
1. Reduce Visual Clutter
Let’s be like Marie Kondo and tidy up our classrooms! Okay, I’m not implying that we go around the room, hold up some old binders, and ask “Does this spark joy?” What I mean is that we can reduce visual clutter in our classrooms so that what is important will be clear. This can apply to a lot of academic elements.
- Classroom decor. We obviously want our learning spaces to be visually engaging, colorful, and stimulating, but we should be conscious of how much visual stimuli we’re putting around the room. I think students with ADHD can easily get overwhelmed with too much text on the walls, whether on posters or whiteboards. Personally, I get overloaded when I’m in a restaurant and there are so many dishes, with comprehensive descriptions of each, on the menu—too much to process! Harry Potter posters are awesome, so don’t get rid of those, but let’s try to limit the amount of eye-catching stuff in students’ view.
- Worksheets. It’s amazing to me how often I see math worksheets cluttered with problems, end to end, that don’t give students enough room to work out answers. We can imagine how daunting the task of having to do so many problems feels for students with attention challenges, but these worksheets are also visually overwhelming. Instead, let’s give students sheets with a limited number of problems and enough space to scratch out errors if needed or to draw pictures that relate to the problem. Also, why not make the numbers (or words in word problems) a larger font size? A 12-point font is standard for essays, sure, but let’s present the numbers in 16-, 18-, or 20-point font. If you don’t have the document on your computer, use a copy machine and increase the magnification.
- Whiteboards. When we’re in the midst of a lesson, jotting down notes and information we want students to know, the whiteboard often ends up looking like the jumbo version of a shopping list sticky note—loaded with info scrawled out in a rush. Was I supposed to buy flour and cranberries or flax seed and blueberries?! Let’s plan ahead about what to write on the board and how to present it. Use different colors for separate categories of information. Draw boxes around chunks of info to keep them distinct. For example, if you’re discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, box all the character qualities for Scout Finch and draw a circle around the book’s themes. Designate a section of your board that’s only for nightly homework, or at least erase all other scribbles before putting up the homework details.
2. Highlight Key Information
We love highlights, yeah? Highlights are the good stuff with the fluff cut out—the best plays from the game or the best moments from the TV show we might have missed. Students with ADHD miss a lot in our classrooms throughout a school day as they’re bombarded with textual information requiring language processing and sustained visual processing. To lighten this burden, we can highlight key pieces of information and help students focus on them. For students with attention challenges, highlighting key points is like holding up a giant magnifying glass so they can see the good stuff nice and large.
For older students, this technique applies to reading novels. Literature study can be extremely challenging for students with ADHD and other learning challenges for obvious reasons. To help students sift through the text and grasp the key character analyses, plot points, foreshadowing, and themes, teach them to highlight specific passages and phrases that signal these narrative elements. This doesn’t mean we tell them what to highlight; we can teach them to highlight things that stick out to them while they’re reading on their own.
Sometimes worksheets can have lengthy directions, which can be especially challenging for students still building their fluency and comprehension skills. Here, I use highlighters to make key directions or phrases pop out. If it’s a multistep task, I use different colors to make each step distinct. Simple enough, right? And adding this color component can make the directions easier for students to digest visually.
But of course you don’t always need an actual highlighter for this strategy. When there is a lot of text written on the whiteboard, you can simply underline or circle the main ideas or information you want students to focus on.
3. Use Graphic Organizers
I wrote about graphic organizers in a previous blog post about helping students remember information, and visual clarity is certainly related to that. Graphic organizers are visual charts or frameworks that help students make sense of information and show how different ideas relate to one another. Some examples are:
- Cause-effect charts
- Plot/story maps
- Venn diagrams
- Main idea/details charts
When students read information in these frameworks, it’s easier for them to grasp the implications of ideas and make connections. For students with attention challenges, this is extremely important. Graphic organizers can be used for various classroom activities, whether it’s to present new information, to use as a study guide for a test, to help students brainstorm their own thoughts on a novel or historical event, or to map out an essay.
Many of us take for granted how we can absorb a glut of visual information, text or otherwise, and focus on the key ideas. Students with attention challenges tend to struggle with this. So let’s clear out that visual clutter, roll that highlights reel, and hold up that giant magnifying glass on what they need to know . . . to help bring visual clarity to our students.
Ezra Werb, M.Ed., formerly a behavior interventionist and resource specialist teacher and currently an educational therapist, has been working with students with attention deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders in typical classroom settings, resource rooms, and one-on-one academic support scenarios for more than a dozen years. Ezra earned his master’s in special education with a concentration in educational therapy from Cal-State Northridge and is a member of the Association of Educational Therapists. He lives in Los Angeles, California, where he works in private practice with students with ADHD, spectrum disorders, dyslexia, anxiety, and other learning challenges.
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