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10 Tips for a Smooth School Year for Students With ADHD

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.
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It’s a new school year, and many of the 6.4 million U.S. children ages 4-17 who’ve been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are coming back to the classroom in varying states of readiness for the rigors of academic life.

The big question is: Are you ready for them?

ADHD is considered to be a neurobiological condition that has three primary symptoms: hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility. Students diagnosed with ADHD may have difficulty focusing on classroom tasks, organizing their assignments, and even staying in their seats at school. I worked for five years as a special education teacher, and know that teaching kids with ADHD can be quite a challenge. While medications may help many students cope with the stress of coming back to the classroom, drugs alone often aren’t enough. Here are 10 strategies to help students with ADHD have a smooth transition into the school year:

1. Let them fidget. Fidgeting helps ADHD-diagnosed students focus better, research shows. Naturally, you’ll need to help them find a way to fidget without disturbing other students. Some teachers give students squeeze balls, while others make use of elastic Bouncy Bands stretched across the bottom of a desk or chair, so that kids can quietly bounce their legs as they do classwork.

2. Engage them in active learning. Studies suggest that when kids with ADHD are involved in passive learning, such as listening to a lecture or silently reading a book, their symptoms become more pronounced. But when they are actively involved in learning—through spirited class discussions, reading out loud, or writing activities—their behaviors become indistinguishable from those students without ADHD. Add collaborative, hands-on, and project-based learning to the mix, and you’ll go a long way toward providing the extra stimulation ADHD-diagnosed students need.

3. Provide physical activity breaks. One of the reasons for the skyrocketing rates of ADHD (up 11 percent from 2003 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has to do with the decline in moderate to vigorous physical activity in the classroom. Plan on having an exercise break every 20 to 30 minutes between lectures and textbook or worksheet learning. Some teachers play a video of aerobic exercises set to music that students can follow. Others use exercises from books such as Sarah Longhi’s Classroom Fitness Breaks to Help Kids Focus (Scholastic).

4. Integrate the arts into lessons. Students with ADHD are burgeoning fountains of energy, and the creative arts help provide a channel for directing that energy toward constructive, rather than loose, ends. Have students put on an improvised play or puppet show to act out the plot of a story. Allow students to keep a sketch diary to record the visual thinking required in their math or science lessons. Permit students to work on history or social studies projects that integrate music or dance with words and numbers.

5. Take your teaching outdoors. When students diagnosed with ADHD are in natural environments such as gardens, parks, or woods, their symptoms decrease—often substantially. Some teachers take their students on walks through nature while reading aloud from a piece of literature. Others allow their students to do fieldwork outdoors when doing science observations, or carry on class discussions outside.

6. Allow students to make choices. Giving all of your students meaningful choices to make in the classroom will expand their repertoire of social and emotional skills while also empowering ADHD-diagnosed students with rewarding activities that can lessen their symptoms. Let them choose their own books to read, their own math problems to work on, their own homework assignment to complete, or their own long-term project to engage in.

7. Bring novelty into your lesson plan. Students with ADHD get bored more easily than typically developing students. Spice up your next lesson plan with a little something extra to grab students’ interest. Wear a costume that goes with the lesson, such as an Einstein wig for science class. Draw pictures to go along with math problems. Find a few minutes during your history lecture to sing a song from the Civil War. Bring in an animal skeleton for an anatomy lesson.

8. Use interactive technology. With the development of new learning technologies—from virtual and augmented reality to video games that help develop focus and working memory—there is now a cornucopia of apps and programs for teachers to reach every kind of learner. Students with an ADHD diagnosis respond well to strong stimulation, so choose apps for them that include vivid colors and sound effects, frequent feedback on performance, and highly interactive lessons.

9. Share stress-management techniques. Give students strategies for remaining composed in situations when they’re more likely to become stressed or hyper, including during testing or at the end of the school day. Have them practice deep breathing. Show them how to stiffen their muscles (like a robot) and then relax them (like a rag doll). Ask them to visualize their most peaceful image or scene (For some kids with an ADHD diagnosis, it might involve a monster truck rally.).

10. Promote positive teacher-student rapport. Kids with ADHD often have had previously difficult experiences with their teachers. Work hard to make sure that this doesn’t happen in your own relationship. Greet them when they come into the classroom. Find out as much as you can about their strengths and abilities (you can ask parents about this during parent-teacher conferences), and let them know you see the best in them. Finally, short-circuit difficulties by having 1-on-1 student-teacher conferences to work out misunderstandings and mistakes.

Having kids with ADHD in your classroom doesn’t need to add to your teaching burden. By recognizing what students are best at and capitalizing on their strengths, you can transform difficulties into opportunities and provide these students with a successful school year.

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