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May 1, 2023

Navigating ADHD in the Classroom

When it comes to navigating ADHD in the classroom, there are no black-or-white answers, step-by-step guides, or magic pills. Because no two children with attention-deficit disorder face identical struggles, educators find themselves in a state of perpetual learning and strategizing.

Though each situation regarding ADHD remains unique, this resource aims to help educators help these students thrive. Success involves understanding the general attributes, filtering out myths about diagnosis, identifying the types of ADHD, and implementing teaching strategies for this nuanced learning difference.

ADHD: General Attributes

As with any learning difference, nebulousness is the only shared trait. But we feel as if the author Anna Whateley described ADHD most perfectly when she wrote, “My room is the safest place my body has. My mind doesn’t really have a safe place.”

Not every case is as severe or mild as the next, of course. But despite its erratic nature, there are three generally agreed-upon attributes in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

  • Inattention, which involves difficulty maintaining focus, trouble listening to others speak, frequent distraction and forgetfulness, and lackluster study and organizational skills
  • Impulsivity, which involves frequently interrupting teachers and classmates, answering before being called on, taking unnecessary risks, and general impatience with activities that require any waiting period
  • Hyperactivity, which involves frequent motion with no clear purpose, the propensity to leave an assigned seat, consistent fidgeting, excessive talking, discomfort during quiet classroom activities, forgetfulness, and the inability to remain focused on a given task

Of course, when it comes to creating a functional learning environment, those three qualities give rise to unpredictable behaviors and unique challenges to participating in classroom activities. Success, at least in part, hinges on filtering out myths regarding attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

ADHD: Separating Fact from Fiction

Not every impulsive, inattentive, or hyperactive behavior indicates a forthcoming ADHD diagnosis. Even the quietest mouse in class gets excited and blurts out an answer now and again. At the same time, the straight-A achiever might occasionally find themselves floating inside a deep daydreaming state. The tough kid might cry, the sweet-hearted kid might hurt someone’s feelings, and so on.

Behaviors like these lead to an ADHD diagnosis only when a student’s actions cause persistent disruption over a six-month timeframe. Even then, the distractions might not happen in light of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As outlined by the Child Mind Institute, behaviors mistaken for ADHD might happen for any of these reasons.

  • Chronic anxiety, which could stem from a cognitive condition or through an outside stimulus
  • Undiagnosed learning differences, which could deplete a student’s self-confidence and prompt them to give up trying
  • Personal trauma, which might happen at home in the wake of a parents’ divorce or because of bullying that’s occurring in secret at school

Types of Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder

So, what happens when a student in your classroom has received an official ADHD diagnosis?

Navigating ADHD in the classroom means pinpointing its category, which the child’s IEP will identify. While no kid neatly fits into one set of criteria, students with ADHD fall into one of three categories: the impulsive and hyperactive type, the inattentive and distractible type, and the combined type.

  • If you have a student diagnosed with impulsive/hyperactive ADHD, look for unexpected behaviors and disregard for long-established social protocols. The least common type of ADHD, impulsive/hyperactive cases might be categorized as an extreme lack of self-control or hyper-energy that distracts from learning.
  • If you have a student diagnosed with inattentive and distractible ADHD, disruptions usually happen within the confines of the individual’s own headspace, and don’t often impact learning for the rest of the class.
  • If you have a student with the combined type of ADHD, their behaviors are categorized by both sides of the equation. It’s worth noting that this category remains the most common, which may be one reason the learning difference is so tricky to diagnose.

Strategies for Teaching Children with ADHD

Even though ADHD traits vary widely, there are some helpful strategies for teaching the kids who have it. For instance, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control calls for a combination of behavioral classroom management strategies and operational training. The former calls for positive behavior intervention systems that happen in the form of reward programs or daily progress reports. The latter stresses the importance of teaching practical life skills, such as time management, planning, and organization.

Of course, most students who have ADHD receive special education services and accommodations that mitigate the workload for teachers with ever-multiplying responsibilities. These services often include custom-tailored assignments, extra time on tests, assistive technology, exercise breaks, and organizational assistance.

In the everyday trenches of classroom management, these services provide a lifeline; however, auxiliary tools might be scarce for some teachers. When it comes to teaching children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, it’s paramount to understand their often-heightened emotions and sensitivity to change in environment or routine. In the end, success likely hinges on two criteria: (1) streamlined assignments and tasks and (2) individual planning based on social and academic needs. That checklist is as follows.

  • Provide students with multiple options to show their mastery, as long as they meet your objectives. For example, if a student is strong in ELA, they could write an essay instead of taking a multiple-choice test.
  • Whenever possible, create shorter, non-repetitive assignments that maintain students’ attention.
  • Time permitting, allow for mid-work breaks that include physical movement.
  • Using the wealth of resources available through IEPs and advocacy communities, implement organizational tools that help kids keep track of their assignments.
  • Check in with these students, asking them or their caregivers what helps them keep focused.
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