Having ADHD does not mean that children need to have support with their learning in the curriculum unless they have an accompanying learning difficulty. They may require support to put strategies into place that help them to fit into the traditional classroom setting. Better yet, given that the traditional classroom setting does not work for most children with additional needs- change the setting.
Patience & Understanding
It sounds very simple doesn’t it? But when we have a lesson to get through, 30+ children to organise and someone is not doing what they have been asked to do repeatedly, it is quite common to hear teachers become increasingly exasperated with the child who “just won’t listen” and is “constantly disrupting.”
No matter how well you know this child and no matter how many years of experience you have as a teacher, this is often not a choice that is designed to annoy you or upset you. When a child with ADHD has an impulsive urge to do something- there is not very much that can stop that urge unless they possess the self-control to do so. Given that they are children and that ADHD comes with accompanying Executive Function issues, it is not reasonable to expect them to exercise perfect self-control after a few tellings off and some phone calls home.
Understanding ADHD and how it affects the child then enables you to help them come up with a strategy to stop and listen with the class. This could be; a gentle hand placed on the shoulder to remind them you are there, a count down then pause, a tap to a percussion instrument, a jingle, praising pupils who are ready to listen- whatever works for you and gets the child’s attention.
Unless you travel abroad to a country where you do not speak the language or visit a country which uses a different alphabet system, then you may not be conscious of how much you actually rely on environmental symbols. For children with literacy difficulties this is particularly pertinent but you do not have
“I recently moved schools and couldn’t find the toilets because there were no symbols or signs on any of the doors.” (L, a teacher)
The further up a Primary school you go and into secondary, the more likely you are to find teachers who claim their children are too old for visual symbols, but children tell us a different story.
Whether children are neurodiverse, have anxiety disorders or not- they all like to know what is going on throughout their school day. Walking into a classroom with an accurate visual timetable with cards displaying words and symbols for each activity that day can help children feel more secure, it also stops 30+ children asking you what you are doing that day when you are trying to take the register.
For children with ADHD (ASC and other neurodiverse conditions), having their own version of this timetable on their desks can help them to focus on their task and also allows for movement/brain breaks to be built into their day.
If a whole day timetable is too hard to focus on, then a “Now, Next, Then” visual timetable can be very effective and children can often learn to manage this themselves over time with initial adult input and reminders.
Structure & Routine
Structure and routine is important for everyone, not just children, to maintain healthy stress levels.
Schools are environments that do change, there are trips, visitors, special celebration days, teachers away on courses and other experiences which are fantastic and vital to the whole education of the child. These changes aside, it is important that the class has structures and routines so that a child can feel secure in knowing what is expected of them.
This is particularly important for children with ADHD as they have to work extra hard to create structure and routines for themselves and find it easier to focus when they are clear about expectations.
What do your class do in the morning when they enter the room? Do they wander about and talk until you want their attention or is there a starter activity on the smart board? Do they have a mental maths workbook or puzzle book in their tray to take out and work on while you organise notes and take messages from children? Is there a routine for entering the class after break and lunch? Are warnings and count downs given for transitions?
Think about these important routines as “what we do” in our class and they will become natural to the children quickly.
The Physical Classroom Environment
You only need to attend a CPD session in another teacher’s classroom to watch your colleagues or those from other schools spending the first 15 to 20 minutes in the room looking around the room to see how they have arranged their literacy displays, what is on their maths wall and how they display their books. Eyes wander to the washing lines of work across the room and it takes some time after the CPD course has started to settle all of the teachers in the room (we run training courses every week in schools throughout the UK and have yet to run a course where this does not happen).
Modern classrooms are often really uncomfortable to visit with sensory processing nightmares the norm:
- Stuffy classrooms which have heating systems that are controlled remotely and cannot be adjusted in the room.
- Florescent strip lighting and the “buzzing” noise that often accompanies it.
- The sun streaming through windows into the eyes of children (as schools are not built with the position of the sun in mind) which causes a glare on the smart board. The only preventative measure being to pull the blinds down fully to prevent all natural light entering the room and florescent strips to rule.
- Countless laminates items on the wall which glare in the sun and are unreadable at certain angles even in fake lighting.
- An untidy environment with items dropped on the floor, books piled up, libraries of books strewn all over the place and disorganised resources.
Even worse is that it was decided at some point, no one knows who by, that explosions of colour and environments with excessive levels of sensory stimulation were good for children, they would apparently enjoy being in pretty rainbow classrooms, but we cannot find the research behind this and would encourage anyone who can to contact us. This has created a toxic sensory environment in our classrooms that shows no signs of decline as teachers actively compete to outdo each other.
We have all seen the classrooms online that look like you have just stepped onto the Titanic or entered Hogwarts. Whilst they are beautiful examples of classroom interior design and showcase the dedication and creativity of teachers who spend a great deal of their own time and expense to create these masterpieces, they are a sensory processing nightmare for a great deal of children with neurodiverse conditions.
Do you wonder why you class is not looking at you when you ask them to? Do you wonder why your class is looking around the room when you would rather they were working? Have you put lots of beautiful things up for them to look at?
Stripping away the museum masterpieces, hanging up the washing lines and retiring the rainbow explosions in favour of neutral colours found in the natural environment with hessian, brown paper or natural fibre wall coverings. Replacing the multicoloured baskets with white or natural fibres. Removing the assault of gloss laminate from the walls and replacing it with examples of children’s work on muted pastel or natural backgrounds. Stripping all visuals from the wall behind the smart board so that children are not distracted by them. Removing the excessive stimulation and adopting a more natural approach that our Early Years environments have understood to be good practice for years can produce a tangible calmness and peace upon a classroom that no rule can.
We recommend looking at the Reggio Emlia approach for inspiration.
We cannot expect our children to be organised unless we are organised.
- If there are piles of papers and books around the room unorganised- why would the child organise their desk?
- If your resource trays are unlabelled or have items in them that are different from their labels- how can the class find the resources they need?
- If the floor is covered in pencils, pens, wrappers or bits of paper- when will the child that you can find objects more easily if the environment is tidy?
If you work well in a messy environment that is your prerogative as a professional, but you are not modelling good organisation to neurodiverse pupils (and the rest) and cannot expect them to be organised if you do not model it.
At the most basic level, parents are often frustrated that letters and forms do not make it home in the school bag because teachers hand them out to children, allow them to put them in their trays and say no more about it. “They should be responsible enough to remember to take home letters!” Teachers say- forgetting that they were not responsible enough to remind the child to take it home…
Get into a routine where letters and important information never goes into the tray, always the bag. If this means giving them out at the end of the day, as they arrive in class or multiple times a day e.g. just before break, just before lunch and at the end of the day- then so be it. Find a routine that works for you and your class.
Tidy out trays once a week, ideally 5 minutes before Golden Time or choosing time so that it is a swift activity and they cannot start the activity until you or your TA approve the tray. Encourage organisation and pride in their learning space if you want to promote focus, concentration and organisation and lead by example.
Montessori schools are known for their excellent levels of classroom organisation and systems that foster children’s independence as they collect resources, tidy them away and maintain order in their learning environments. This system is particularly effective for neurodiverse children as their environment is effectively organised and they are taught the skills to continue that organisation.
Fidgeting and doodling is common for neurodiverse individuals, not just those with ADHD, and does not necessarily mean that they are not listening.
Looking around most teacher CPD courses you will see someone doodling on a notepad, colouring in words on the handout or playing with a ball of blu tac in their hands.
Just as many people do their studying with the tv on in the background or check their social media intermittently whilst marking books, children need opportunities to fidget or doodle when learning too.
You do not need to spend money on fancy fidget toys for this, a lump of blu tac can be rolled, pulled, stretched and manipulated by the hands or an elastic band around the wrist can be pulled at, stretched, twisted, moved round and pinged against the wrist- as long as it is not pinged across the classroom!
To prevent a lesson turning into a fidget focus, it is ok to have rules about their use.
Clearly explain the purpose of fidgets and that they are for the child, if they show them to a classmate during a lesson they become a toy. If fidgets distract other children because of noise, waving them about, hitting them off of other children or asking other children to engage with them during a lesson, they become a distraction. That does not mean they should be banned, but clear boundaries put in place for their use followed by their temporary removal if not adhering to these boundaries will encourage children to use them appropriately.
Interest Based Learning
This could be a thesis, but all children perform better academically when they are actually interested in what they are learning.
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence is a skills based curriculum and the best practice examples of it allow for child led learning. The teacher provides the experiences and outcomes and the children choose the context of learning. One class may study the Greeks and their stage partners may study the Egyptians and that is ok because it is the skills in the experiences and outcomes that are being developed and assessed.
This works particularly well for children with ADHD (and ASC) who may not be motivated by the class topic but may be motivated by something else e.g. cars. Can they complete the same piece of writing or same topic work based on the same experiences and outcomes in their own context? Can all the children in the class do that and teach each other about their chosen area of study? Imagine the rich and varied learning in that classroom where everyone is truly interested in their learning!
Is it worth being stubborn and claiming that it is part of life to do what you are told and unhappily follow instructions? That is not part of normal life, by the way. We think children being engaged with their work and producing something is better than them being miserable and producing nothing.
ADHD minds never stop thinking, you may be talking about one thing and this can trigger an unstoppable bubble gun of ideas in the mind which can take the child on creative tangents, deep lines of thinking or wild tangents. This in not because they are not concentrating, but because they are concentrating and feel incredibly inspired.
All of these ideas can take over the brain and the child may not want to forget them, they may also want to share them with you which often results in hands up during a lesson which can be interrupted with an off topic subject that other children find amusing and the teacher finds disruptive.
We cannot change the way ADHD minds think- and nor do we want to- so we need to give children the tools to be able to “brain dump” this information when they get inspired, excited and overwhelmed to help them record it, clear their mind and refocus.
This could be a notebook where they can write words or draw pictures. The book is for them, spelling and sentence structure is unimportant- no matter what your teacher training says- as it is to help their conscious flow undisturbed and help them to clear their minds and focus again. If they really want you to know something they can show you it in their book- without correction.
Explain the purpose of the ‘brain dump’ to the child and remind them to use it if they are interrupting with off topic ideas, but it should be used when the child needs to use it without regulation, unless it is becoming a constant distraction to their school work.
Time blindness can be an issue for children and adults with ADHD in that they do not always have an accurate perception of the passage of time and can take too long to complete a task or think they have finished when there is a lot of time left.
All teachers work on telling the time with their class already and encourage children to wear watches, but there are other classroom strategies that can help:
- A use of a small clock or watch on the childs table so that the time is more obvious to them and they do not have to check the wall or their wrist.
- Wearing their watch on their writing hand- this seems to be an uncommon practice in the UK but it makes time more obvious to an engrossed child.
- Sand timers, digital timers or stopwatches set for activities and placed on the desk.
- Regular reminders and countdowns of time warnings e.g. 15 minute, 10 minute, 5 minute and 2 minute warnings verbally.
- playing a familiar song which has a set length and children should finish a task by the end of the song.
There are additional strategies that children can work on themselves to help with ADHD related time issues but this is a long journey that may not be learnt at the same rate as their peers and your patience and understanding here will be valuable.