ADHD: Naughty or Neurological?
Originally published October 2018
By Adam Stone
For K–12 teachers, children who exhibit the signs of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can present a significant classroom challenge.
While the symptoms of ADHD can vary widely, the inability to regulate executive function typically appears in two ways: through inattention, and through hyperactive or impulsive actions.
- As defined by the Mayo Clinic, inattention in ADHD may include a failure to pay close attention to details, trouble staying focused, or difficulty following through on instructions. ADHD kids have trouble getting organized and can be easily distracted.
- Hyperactivity and impulsivity may show up as fidgeting or tapping. Kids may have trouble staying seated or they may run around or climb in situations when it’s not appropriate. They may talk too much, blurt out answers, or interrupt.
Taken together, these behaviors can be a minor nuisance or a major problem. For a teacher whose attention is divided among a classroom full of kids, the ADHD student either may become the squeaky wheel, forever needing grease, or may be shunted off to the corner in a usually-fruitless effort to “control” the behaviour.
Over 6 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the A.D.D. Resource Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that five percent of all kids have ADHD. Experts point to a number of classroom strategies for working successfully with these kids.
Naughty or Neurological?
For many educators, the first step in teaching to ADHD will come with the realization that the children aren’t acting out on purpose—that they are not being “bad” in the conventional sense.
“When we see a behaviour that we don’t want in the classroom, we tend to assess it as naughty: he won’t listen to me, he doesn’t do his work. You need to ask: is this naughty or neurological?” says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CEO of the training resource ImpactADHD.
ADHD is marked by an inability to regulate executive function. That means these children aren’t acting this way on purpose, but rather are literally out of control. Understanding this, an educator can begin to strategize.
“If we start with the assumption that they can’t do it, or they can’t do it yet, then we can say: OK, what can he do now? You acknowledge that it is hard for them, you have compassion for that and then figure out what they can do,” Taylor-Klaus says. “These kids need a win. They already feel like nothing they do is ever good enough, so you need to give them a way to succeed, to see that they can do it and that it is possible for them.”
As an example, Taylor-Klaus points to the not-uncommon scenario of the student who is obstructive, difficult, perhaps distracting to others. Rather than go straight to discipline, she advocates a softer initial approach.
“You call the kid over to your desk and talk to them. Find out what’s going on. Listen to them. If they are stressed out, maybe pull back on your expectations for the day. Then you can diffuse the emotional dysregulation and allow everyone to get on with their work,” she says.
Some might see this as lowering the behavioral bar, but Taylor-Klaus describes it as a necessary and effective approach to the situation.
“If a child is triggered, you cannot just pretend that that trigger doesn’t exist and try to push past it, because they are not going to be open to learning. You need to meet them where they are and raise the bar from there,” she says.
Drilling deeper, some experts say that this basic approach can be reinforced by certain key elements of classroom organization.
At Understood, a non-profit resource created by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Senior Advisor Bob Cunningham offers three key ways in which a teacher can get oriented in order to help kids with ADHD to succeed.
- Physical space matters. “Make sure that student is sitting someplace where you can see him or her, and he or she can see you, so that you can use things like signals when they are not focusing. They can also signal you when they are having trouble siting still and they need a break,” he says.
- Break it down. A fundamental aspect of ADHD is the inability to maintain focus. With this in mind, it makes sense to organize lesson plans in manageable bites. “It is easier for them if you do things in shorter chunks, so maybe you move from activity to activity a little quicker, you switch up groups, you do things in different areas of the classroom. Any teacher can do that if they use good grouping strategies,” says Cunningham.
- Leverage technology. For some kids, a phone in the classroom is a distraction waiting to happen. With ADHD, it may actually be a valuable tool. “If you have a middle school or high school class, allow your kids to use their phones. Things like cameras and calendars and notes can be lifesaving for kids with ADHD,” he says. “It’s interactive, it gives them a way to be productively engaged. It also helps them to not miss stuff, if they can take a picture of what’s on the board or if they can record something that is being said.”
In addition to these specific strategies, Cunningham also offers guidance based on our emerging understand of ADHD. Researchers have watched the condition closely for more than a decade, and they are urging changes in the way K–12 views the situation. Bottom line: it’s best to get an early start.
“Ten years ago, we used to be told they would outgrow it,” he says. “While it’s true that the symptoms of ADHD can get better—your attention can improve, your impulse gratification can improve—the actual ADHD doesn’t go away. Those things still get in your way, they still impact your daily life,” he says.
That being the case, “the ‘wait and see’ approach is not an effective strategy anymore. We know that now,” he says. “That means kids need to develop their coping strategies early on. They are not just going to come about those naturally. That puts a greater pressure on every teacher to do all they can to assist those students.”
Many will find that setting these learners on a solid path begins with helping them to manage their most problematic behaviors.
The Behaviour Domain
There are a number of key steps teachers can take to help kids learn to manage on their own the ADHD symptoms that impact their classroom behaviors.
Daily routines are key, as are frequent breaks and the opportunity to get up and move around, says Marlyn Press, Assistant Professor at Touro College Graduate School of Education in New York City.
Organizational tools are a must. “Create a calendar for time management and continuously discuss assignments and due dates. Post rules of conduct along with consequences and review them periodically,” Press advises. These constant visual reminders help the student to stay ever mindful of expectations, without putting the teacher in the position of having to deliver constant reminders.
Engagement is another fundamental tool. “Give children with ADD/ADHD special jobs so they feel special and do not have time to get off track,” says Press. This holds particularly true when there’s a break in the routine, such as a fire drill or assembly. “Give plenty of advanced notice for special events. Transition time is a difficult time for all students and is especially challenging for students with attention issues. Give students reminders of what is coming next, what materials will be needed, and where to go.”
There’s another way of viewing the social dimension of ADHD. Rather than looking just at the student’s ability to get along or fit in, it’s important to consider—and to try to mitigate—the social consequences to students whose ADHD marks them as different.
“There are times when the student may cause a scene in the middle of the lesson, and then other students become nervous around that student or even laugh at that student. It is vital that we as teachers be proactive when it comes to social issues,” says Shannon Johnson, Senior Curriculum Designer at JumpStart, a developer of learning-based games for kids.
Johnson describes collaborative, technology-based games as one possible remedy for the social awkwardness that can develop around ADHD.
“Teachers can… pair up students with ADD or ADHD with a student who is calming and helpful so that they can play games together,” she says. Multiplayer games encourage students “to work together to solve problems and help one another. We have seen an increase in the sense of community in a classroom from playing collaborative games.”
While she’s a proponent of technology, Johnson supports the notion that the first course of action in teaching to ADHD is to get personal. ADHD is an idiosyncratic condition and students who fall into this category will learn best when teachers take a personal and nuanced approach.
“The beauty of teaching is that we get to spend so much time with our students, that it gives us an opportunity to get to know them,” Johnson says. “Teachers should focus on knowing what drives their students to want to achieve. Pay close attention to cues from students with attention issues and build relationships with them so they feel comfortable letting you know when they are having trouble.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, along the military, along with diverse other topics.