Sunday, October 16, 2011

Working with Children with ADHD in the classroom

     One of the questions I get asked frequently is how to help children who have been diagnosed (or should be diagnosed) with ADHD. Since ADHD is label for children who have a set of behaviors that all related to executive functioning, my suggestions focus on helping children to develop new skills (rather than just cope). Here are some strategies to try:

Impulse Control Strategies
  • Use a timer to keep the child on task for very short stretches of time. After the timer goes off, the child gets a quick break, then back to work. Gradually help the child extend the time in between breaks. Teach the child how to take appropriate breaks.
  • Instead of asking individual children to respond to questions, use Think-Pair-Share so that more children are involved rather than just sitting and waiting to speak (all children will benefit!)
  • Devise a special, private hand signal to let him know he’s just starting to go off track
  • Use self-talk cards with short positive sayings: “I can finish my work” “I can wait for a break”
  • Provide fidget toys to keep the child’s hand busy. These can be calming sensory items  like a blanket, squeeze ball, wax sticks, playdo, or silly putty. Tell the other children that the child needs these to stay focused, just like some children need glasses. Not everyone gets them because not everyone needs them.
  • Give the child something to hold with both hands while walking in the hallway – like a folder or ribbon.
  • Play body-awareness games like the Noble Duke of York
  • Use self-control/ impulse control games like Simon Says
  • Use individual white boards during group time to reduce time that children sit and listen and to increase engagement (all children will benefit!)
Self-Regulation Strategies
  • Break down tasks into smaller chunks
  • Transition the child a few minutes before the other children and provide plenty of advance warnings about changes
  • Teach the child how to track the speaker with his eyes to help increase attention
  • Use Self-Monitoring Charts
  • Teach child to calm down by reading and practicing Tucker Turtle
  • Children who have trouble regulating their own behaviors can learn how to do this by first regulating others. Put this child in charge of finding out who is not on task, or who is not keeping their desk clean, or who is not walking quietly in the hall. They can move from regulating others to eventually observing their own behavior.
  • Provide a visual marker (tape or carpet square) for personal space on carpet during group time
  • Memory Strategies
  • Play memory games & mnemonics
  • Give directions slowly and repeat them. Ask the child to repeat them back to you.
Planning and Organization Strategies
  • Simplify directions
  • Make cleaning out and organizing the desks a frequent part of your class schedule
  • Prepare an individual daily schedule card that the child can keep at her desk
  • Remove distractions – place desk in calm area
  • Use checklists for assignments to make sure all parts are completed
General Strategies
  • Use visual reminders such as pictures of the daily schedule, pictures of what a clean desk should look like, pictures of how to stand in line
  • Review behavior expectations before activities
  • Keep a consistent schedule and routines
  • Brain exercises – look for computer games and video games that stress focus, attention, and control
  • Maintain a positive, close relationship
  • Allow wiggling, standing by desk, etc if it doesn’t interfere with working
Most important of all: Provide FREQUENT positive feedback. This should be at least four times as many positive comments as corrections. Children who are struggling with ADHD in the classroom needs lots of support to know when they are doing the right thing. Even if you catch the child doing something positive for a half a minute - give positive feedback!

Please share in the comments any strategies you've found helpful.


  1. Alex Mueses

    Wow, there are so many strategies, i do not have any experience working with children with ADHD, and i cannot wait to work with children with this disorder, so that i get to practice these strategies. I am sure it would be an extraordinary experience by having the opportunity to engage them getting to the next step.

  2. This is my dream to actually work with children who experience this disorder. In my opinion, that is not a bad disorder. With all of the solutions out there, educators only have to do research and educate themselves to care for the disorder. Many of them are very imaginative, creative, has excellent thinking skills better than me, and they are exceptional energetic inventors. When all is said and done they are still human beings that need loving tender care. They have a wonderful sense of humor that individuals find irresistible. I hope that soon I could accomplish this goal.

  3. Alex and Alicia - you have a wonderfully positive attitude. It can be very challenging and stressful to work with children who have difficulty with executive functioning, however, having strategies to use makes it easier. And of course, having a positive attitude and plenty of patience is the key!!

  4. One of the main challenges that I've had with working with children diagnosed with ADHD is not knowing what to do! Often children are "thrown" into Special Needs classes and there isn't any professional development workshops to help the teachers help the students. These strategies will mark my start with helping those within my reach! Thanks Dr. Rand!

  5. Lucille - let us know how you make out with any of these strategies. It would be great to have your feedback and share your experiences!

  6. Cassandra DonnejourOctober 22, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    I actually have a child in my class who displays signs of having ADHD but unfortunately the parents are reluctant to get the child tested to be qualified as "special needs" which is quite unfortunate. The child's grades suffer because of this. I read over some of your suggestions and I they are very helpful. I tried the stress ball to keep her focused and so far it is working for short periods of time. Hopefully, we can work on extended the focus time as we work together to get through the assignments to keep up with the other students within the class.

  7. I've actually used the private signal when a child is starting to drift off task in the class I'm doing my student teaching in. To quiet the class when they get a little noisy the teacher sings "tootsie roll", the students answer back "lollipop, we were talking, now we stop". Since they are all use to this, when I noticed one child with ADHD drifting often I reminded him of the teacher's quiet signal. I then asked the child what their favorite candy was, they answered "kit kat". Since the students are use to the candy reference and it works I decided to stick with it. Now, when I see that child drifting from task I quietly walk by and say "kit kat". It immediately directs their attention to what they are suppose to be doing. Something so little really is effective!

    1. I love this idea, Heather! Not only does it give a signal to help the child self-regulate, it also increases your social bond to the child by having a "special" signal just between the two of you. Glad to hear it's working well!

  8. What stood out to me the most is the timer procedure. Allowing breaks! Now that I look at it makes so much sense. We expect these kids to just work work work work with no breaks. The solution is so simple and it seems like as teachers we overlook it. As opposed to trying to stop the problem instantly we have to first prevent it!

  9. Denise - When you think about it, children are already taking breaks all the time! They ask to go to the bathroom, or they sharpen a pencil, or they get out of their seat to pick up a book they dropped, etc. We need to plan breaks for them that are more effective - while also teaching them how to take individual breaks when they need it. And remember, it's not the break that is a problem in classrooms, it's the difficulty getting back to work!

  10. Professor Rand,
    You left me baffled in class, when you compared the children to us. I could never sit down for 7 hours in a row. I am constantly taking breaks and walking around. Perhaps if we gave the children goals to set then if they completed it they would be allowed to go on a break. With the child I observe I have noticed if I tell him to complete all the things on the list I want him to do, then he can go on break. As teachers we should not easily give up and allow the child to dominate us. Instead we need to set ground rules, and then reward them when the time is appropriate.

    - Cecilia Huamani

    1. How true - I find that most college students can't stay focused for more than an hour or so without a substantial break. How could young children do it longer? Setting goals is a great idea - just be sure that the goals are reachable, otherwise, you'll get a lot of escape behaviors.