Kids and young adults with ADHD can be extremely bright, creative, and helpful. These are often the learners coming up with new invention ideas, filling up a journal with intricate comic book drawings, and eager to answer all of your questions in class. With that said, learners with ADHD can struggle in the classroom setting. They might be prone to forgetting assignments, struggling to focus during lessons, misunderstanding directions, shouting out during discussions, and having difficulty with social situations.
Given all the strengths and challenges for kids with ADHD, these kids need their time to shine! Setting up some accommodations and supports can go a long way to helping learners with ADHD succeed.
Here are over 25 strategies educators can try to help learners with ADHD:
Give extra opportunities for movement. A few years ago, I signed one of my students up for an extra gym class. Other years, we spent our homeroom time in the gym running and playing basketball. Other options include having your student help pass out papers or giving them items to deliver to other classrooms (sometimes this can be real items you need to get places, or just a task to get the student up and moving). It can also be extremely helpful to incorporate movement into your actual lessons. Even just moving from center to center can give a student the break they need to do their best.
Consider flexible seating. Wobble stools are definitely one of my favorites! They give kids and young adults a chance to wiggle and move while still staying seated. Other options include yoga balls, floor seats, scoop rockers, or even standing while working.
Set up a work station in each class. Kids with ADHD can often struggle with organization and remembering to bring materials. While the goal is always to have those learners become more independent and learn strategies to become more organized, it’s important they are not missing out on their education in the process. Set up a work station in each classroom with required books, paper, pencils, and other necessary resources that student may need. The idea is that those materials stay in the classroom and never leave, so that the student always has materials to get started on their work for the day.
Give clear verbal and written instructions. Kids with ADHD can struggle with following multi-step directions given all at once. Being concise and clear with your words can help kids understand exactly what they need to do. Further, providing directions in written AND verbal form can make sure students won’t forget that information. It can be helpful to keep directions in one place on the board at all times. This routine can help kids know exactly where they should be looking if they are lost.
Teach executive functioning skills. Learning how our brains work can be such a powerful tool, especially for kids who already struggle with organization, planning, attention, managing emotions, and more critical executive functioning skills. Be explicit in teaching executive functioning skills to help empower kids and young adults and give them the skills they need for success.
Use checklists. I love checklists because they can be used for anything and they teach a critical life skill. If your student is forgetful about bringing materials home at night, put an end of the day checklist in their locker. If your student struggles with transitioning from one activity to another, add a transition checklist on top of their desk. It’s important to note that students need to be taught how to use checklists and given lots of time to practice. Of course, the goal is that they will be able to use the checklist completely on their own!
Use a visual schedule. Kids with ADHD can have difficulty planning and understanding time. Using a visual schedule of what students will be doing can ease their minds and help them recognize what’s coming up next. It can also reduce off-task questions during a lesson about when lunch or gym time is!
Explicitly teach how to organize. Getting and staying organized is not intuitive to many kids with ADHD. Take the time to teach strategies and plans for getting organized, including how to organize your binder, what your desk should look like, how to organize homework assignments, and developing an organized work space at home.
Incorporate routines. As much as possible, add routines into your classroom. While extra time is needed to teach and practice routines, this will pay off tremendously in the end. Routines help kids with ADHD know exactly what they need to do at what times. It takes the guess work out of situations like morning work, transitions, and reading time.
Schedule an organizing check-in time. Once a week, schedule a chunk of time dedicated for organizing materials. Friday can be a good day to do this so that the student is tidying up everything from the week and getting ready for the next. During this time, have the student use a checklist to go through their binders and materials, putting papers where they need to go. Truly ALL students can benefit from a weekly organization time, but it could be critical for kids with ADHD.
Use a thought journal. For students who struggle with talking out a lot, help them share their thoughts in a positive and more private way with a thought journal. They can write to you in their thought journal and have a spot for questions they want to look up later.
Incorporate brain breaks. A brain break is a short activity that helps “reset” the brain between academic tasks. Students with ADHD are often using up lots of brain power to pay attention, stay organized, manage their time, and use self-control in academic settings. Giving a quick brain break can help students feel refreshed and ready to start a new task.
Consider a digital homework log. If the student has a tablet or other electronic device, sometimes it helps to store homework there instead of on paper or a notebook that can get lost.
Teach about ADHD. Learners should know and own their individual strengths and weaknesses. Learning about their own ADHD can help kids understand the challenges in front of them and be more willing to use supports and strategies to help. It’s important to not teach ADHD as an excuse for poor choices. Instead, focus more on self-awareness and the idea that we can improve when we know what challenges we are dealing with.
Give time for organization throughout the day. When switching from one task to another, kids are going to need a little bit extra time to put materials away in the right spot and take out what else they need. Moving along too fast, without stopping to get organized, can cause kids to just shove papers away mindlessly in their desks or books. This, of course, reinforces negative behaviors for disorganization. One simple solution is just taking a few extra minutes between transitions to help your student get situated and ready to go for the next task.
Use a timer. Help kids learn to recognize and understand the importance of time management and pacing with a timer. You can say, “We have 20 minutes to work on our writing prompts. During that time, we’ll need to take out our writing journals, plan out ideas on paper, and write at least 2 paragraphs. I’m going to set the timer for 20 minutes.” Visual timers are actually the best because they show how much time is left before they go off!
Focus on confidence-building. Many students with ADHD struggle with low self-esteem. Sometimes, this is hidden by silly attention-seeking behaviors, but don’t let that fool you. A number of students with ADHD struggle in school socially, emotionally, and academically. You can teach skills for success and build confidence at the same time! Give the student a special job in class that only they are responsible for. Let the student teach the class about something they are an expert in. Have the student keep a list of all of their positive qualities and refer back to it when they need. These are just a few small examples that can build up over time.
Give time warnings. Help students improve their time management skills by giving warnings when 10 or 5 minutes of a lesson are left. You can even get in the habit of ringing a bell when there are 5 minutes left of a working period. This gives students a chance to plan, organize, and be ready to transition to what’s next.
Practice social skills. It’s no secret that kids with ADHD often struggle socially. If your student doesn’t have a strong foundation of social skills, teach them! You can put together a small social skills group that targets skills they need. If your time is really limited and this isn’t an option for you, talk to your school social worker or school counselor and see if it’s an option for them. I have social skills resources for younger kids and lessons for older kids, too. Sometimes, kids have the foundation of social skills and still don’t apply them, though. In this case, it’s important to remember that the skills need constant practice, discussion, and reinforcement. Add some social skills task cards to your morning meeting time or between transitions to discuss social situations and how students should behave.
Incorporate behavior plans. Some students truly benefit from a structured behavior incentive plan. This is especially helpful for kids who just can’t see far into the future. Students need to know after they finish these 3 (or any number) tasks, they will earn their free time. When you develop your behavior plans, it’s extremely important to do it WITH your student. They are, of course, the whole reason for the plan! Not only does it help create buy-in, but your learner can give valuable information about what they’d like to earn most and what they think they can do to earn that reward. Keep in mind that behavior plans are not a “set it and forget it” intervention. Students with ADHD can often get “bored” of the reward and you might need to change things up frequently to help the student achieve success.
Reduce distractions. This one might seem obvious, but is sometimes overlooked. Be mindful about where you seat a student with ADHD. Right by the door, the pencil sharpener, the fan, or a window probably isn’t the best idea. While these seats might be moderately distracting for a student without ADHD, it can be unbearably difficult for kids with ADHD. Consider the layout of your classroom and develop a working space that works for your student. Other distractors might include artwork hanging from the ceiling or colorful bulletin boards. This isn’t to say you can’t have these things in your classroom, but it’s important to be mindful about them when you have a student with ADHD.
Give positive feedback. As much as possible, focus on positive and specific feedback for your student. Kids with ADHD are prone to hearing lots of negatives sometimes. This can be extremely challenging for them and even cause learned helplessness. When the student is starting their work, let them know by saying, “Nice job getting started on your writing right away, and look how much you got done because of it!”
Chunk long-term projects. Whether a project is due in 3 days or 2 weeks, kids with ADHD are likely to struggle with any type of long-term assignment without support and scaffolding. So often, these students have wonderful and robust ideas, but lack the ability to plan, organize, and manage their time well enough to see those ideas through. Create mini-deadlines along the way for each project to provide structure. Conference with the student and give them a schedule or timeline of the mini-deadlines. Each deadline should specify what needs to be completed by which date. Then, at each deadline, it’s important to truly check in with the student and hold them accountable for what is due. Give feedback and make a plan going forward to the next deadline. At first, it’s likely an adult will have to spell out many of these tasks for their students. With time and practice, you should work towards discussing, collaborating, and creating mini-deadlines together in a conference so that students will eventually be able to chunk long-term projects on their own.
Incorporate hands-on learning. Simply put, kids with ADHD learn best when they are doing! Try to add opportunities for kids to experience learning in a hands-on and interactive way. For example, after reading a novel, have students work together to act out a scene. If you are studying cells in science class, let your students create a model out of materials to present. Being creative with hands-on learning experience can make a huge difference for some learners with ADHD.
Offer choices. Giving students simple choices can be a win-win for both the student and teacher. You can offer choices on which work is to be completed and how work is completed. When studying different states in the United States, let your learner select which state to research on his or her own. If you are focusing on paragraph writing, ask if they want to write in pencil, pen, or with a gel pen. As silly as it sounds, small choices go a long way. They can make dull tasks fun, exciting, and personalized. Sometimes, this is just what a kid with ADHD needs to get and stay motivated!
Partner with families. Reach out to families early and always start with the positive! This sets the tone in a way paved for success. It’s important to also meet with the family early on to discuss strengths, challenges, and goals. Sometimes, it can be helpful to have a weekly progress check through phone or email just to let the parents know how your student is working towards those goals. Other times, a daily behavior log that needs to be signed by parents is best. Keep in mind that if your student needs incentives, home-based ones can often be very powerful. Discuss how you can work together to get the child what he or she wants while also progressing towards success in the classroom.
Schedule toughest academics early. If you can, schedule your student’s toughest academics in the morning. Students are more likely to be focused and on-task earlier in the day than in the afternoon. Sometimes, I know this just can’t be done, but if you can, it could make a big difference.
Use peer role models. Consider seating your learner next to a peer role model in the class who can model on-task behaviors and positive decision-making skills. It is important and healthy to switch students every so often so that one student doesn’t end up relying on another.
Teach positive self-talk. Kids and young adults with ADHD unfortunately hear a lot of negative feedback. It’s important to keep them confident and strong while working on their challenges. One simple way to do that is to teach them how to use positive self-talk, a strategy they can keep with them wherever they go.
Provide fidgets. Before using any fidgets, it’s most important to actually teach how to use them. Students should understand that they are tools and not just something to play with. It’s simple: If they are helping the student focus, they’re working! If they are more of a distraction, they should be put away. Stress balls, Velcro strips, and putty are a few easy-to-find fidgets you can try out in the classroom.
What other supports and strategies do you use for your learners with ADHD? I’d love to hear!
Vivian Black says
My favorite part of this article is your tip about giving positive feedback. My son was recently diagnosed with ADHD and it has been tough trying to adjust. We will be looking for a professional to help my son succeed, and your article will be helpful to me attempting to help.
Rick G says
This is a great article! Far too often teachers are recommending that students be put on medication because it’s a simple fix and it maintains order in the classrooms, thus making teaching easier. I’m not saying that teachers push this agenda but with big pharma, doctors and teachers pushing medication, the number of students looking like zombies in the classroom is multiplying exponentially. With electronics providing so much stimulation these days, this is going to be the growing norm. Finding new ways to teach and keep kids interested while not medicating them to death is something that’s lacking these days. Thanks for providing these tips and tools.
Clara Bridge says
Students with learning disabilities often need different approaches! Great article, good tips! Here are more helpful resources where you can find information about ADHD in the classroom, as well as informational support for parents: http://www.kpinst.org/links.html There is a lot of research and development of new pedagogical practices right now. I have an email subscription to ADDmagazine, they are constantly posting news first.