How ADHD impacts on a pupil’s daily functioning and what teachers can do to help.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is thought to affect up to five per cent of children. In people with ADHD the brain works differently. The three main characteristics of ADHD are hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattentiveness. Some children have all three, some have inattentiveness only – known as ADHD inattentive subtype – and some have hyperactivity and impulsivity.
People with ADHD also have problems with executive functions. Blood flow to the frontal lobe of the brain can be reduced in people with ADHD; this then affects the executive functions – the skills we need to get through the day. These functions are vital for success in everything we do, so it is understandable that when they are affected and children and young people “fail” and become frustrated with themselves and others, their self-esteem and behaviour often suffer and their outcomes may not be as positive as for their peers.
What are executive functions?
People with ADHD can face difficulties with many of the main executive functions, as outlined below:
Time management: being on time, managing deadlines, understanding the concept of minutes/hours/days.
Flexibility: often associated with autistic spectrum disorders, this can also affect people with ADHD and there is a need for structure and routine and pre-warning of any changes to the school day.
Planning, organisation and task initiation: planning and organisation of tasks, thinking ahead, prioritising, estimating how long tasks take, selective focusing and getting started.
Goal-directed persistence: sticking to a task until it’s finished and staying focused.
Self-regulation: managing emotions, feeling overwhelmed by situations and having a short fuse.
Response inhibition: acting first, thinking later – being verbally and/or physically impulsive.
Working memory: while people with ADHD can have excellent long-term memory, they often struggle to retain recent information.
Metacognition: the ability to observe, self-monitor and evaluate, the ability to read facial expressions and body language, and awareness of the effects of actions on others.
Once we understand how ADHD can affect a pupil’s daily functioning it becomes easier to see beyond mere “bad behaviour” and “not listening” in class. We can then look at the many strategies that can be put in place to support children with ADHD at school.
Start the day positively:
- meet and greet the pupil and check their emotional wellbeing; this provides an opportunity for any changes in the day to be explained ahead of time, for any concerns and worries to be aired by the child to a trusted adult, and for the day to start off on a good footing
- consider operating a breakfast club – a healthy diet is important for any child and especially for children with ADHD to help with concentration
- provide a calm environment; it might be that the playground is too noisy and presents too much of a risk of problems with other children; some children with ADHD also have sensory processing issues and noise and crowds can cause anxiety and discomfort.
In the classroom:
- consider seating arrangements; this can be so important in avoiding conflicts with other pupils, and distractions from inside and outside classroom, like displays and models, and people coming in and out of doors to other rooms
- sit the child near to the teacher or teaching assistant to provide focus and reassurance; some children need to be near the teacher to ensure they are concentrating, while others prefer not to have too much attention on them; it is important to find the best place for any child with ADHD in the classroom
- children with ADHD function much more effectively without constant anxiety about what lies ahead, so use visual timelines, which are a great way to ensure the child knows what is happening during the day, whether this is a plan of the day on the board in the morning or timetables and lesson structures
- ensure they have the correct equipment ready; problems with organisation may mean children misplace and forget things that they need throughout the day; although this can be disruptive at the start of a lesson, if spares are readily available this can reduce the possibility of arguments.
- ask the child to identify areas where they feel they need support; this promotes a sense of ownership and responsibility
- due to the reduced blood flow to the frontal lobe which can be a characteristic of ADHD, concentration is a problem; by fiddling with concentration aids or fidget toys the blood flow is stimulated and this then helps the child to concentrate; if they are always fiddling with things that they shouldn’t be, give them a legitimate object to play with
- use different approaches to learning, such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic methods, to appeal to different learning styles and help keep students motivated; many children with ADHD are very hands-on and practical, and learn well this way
- due to a lack of concentration skills children may struggle to complete tasks, so chunking up work into more manageable amounts is really important for pupils with ADHD
- it can be useful to do some brain gym exercises or include movement breaks to refocus attention
- timers can be really effective in helping pupils with ADHD understand what is expected of them
- children with ADHD often shout out, as they are impulsive; to help with that they could have a white board to write their answers on, as often they only call out because they are concerned they will forget the answer
- varying between hands up and hands down, and telling the answer to a partner, can help children with ADHD give an answer without calling out
- it important to have some pre-agreed prompts for pupils which are mainly non-verbal, either for the pupil to communicate something to the teacher or for the teacher to remind or prompt them to do, or stop doing, something
- as children with ADHD often don’t sit still for long periods of time, giving them an errand to do gives them a legitimate reason to get out of their chair
- provide clear choices but not too many instructions at once
- if possible, provide a quiet study area and a calm space
- provide a calm box for pupils to help them reduce anxiety or calm themselves down after an outburst; this should include things they can fiddle with, touch and play with, and thing they respond well to.
It is important not to overwhelm pupils, so start to encourage their independence in small steps. If parents are also disorganised, they may not have help at home to organise their own bags and they may not yet have developed the skills they need to organise themselves in the classroom. One in three children with ADHD will have a parent who also has ADHD.
Children with ADHD can be challenging to teach but they tend to have many positive qualities – such as creativity, energy and enthusiasm – and finding strategies that work well with them will raise their self-esteem and help them achieve better outcomes in the future.
Jo Alesbrook has worked as an Asperger’s mentor, a secondary teacher, an SEN learning support assistant and a parent partnership officer. She is currently an ADHD specialist coach at ADHD Solutions CIC: