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Daydreaming or Distracted? What Teachers Misunderstand About ADHD

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We all have students in class who look as if their brains may have been hijacked. These are the students who have a faraway look in their eyes and struggle to stay present during the school day. They fail to make efficient transitions between activities and classes. They often arrive late and can't get oriented to classroom tasks. For years, I have referred to these students as "daydreamers." But after learning more about what is behind their struggle to stay present in class, I’ve come to realize there is a serious problem with doing so.

The problem starts with the word. Daydreaming implies pleasure and escape. It suggests choice. However, it is much more likely that our students with their heads in the clouds are simply students who have not been identified as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. For them, ADHD may be manifesting as inattentiveness rather than the easier-to-see hyperactivity or impulsivity that most people associate with the disorder.

An estimated 6 million U.S. children ages 2 to 17 have ADHD, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The noisy brain at the heart of these behaviors is not something anyone chooses. Students who struggle with paying attention consider it a frustrating and sometimes debilitating academic curse. It interferes with their ability to complete assignments in a timely manner (if at all), their ability to listen to and understand directions, as well as their ability to efficiently comprehend content in class. In short, ADHD makes it hard to thrive in school.

An Invisible Misunderstanding

It is hard to understand what we cannot see. Students with this form of ADHD, in eras past known simply as attention deficit disorder, are not the hyperactive ones attracting teacher attention by moving about the room, fidgeting, tapping their feet or tipping their chair. What they are dealing with is essentially invisible.

The misunderstanding surrounding this condition often leads to frustration and harsh judgments on the part of teachers, as well as unnecessary discipline. Certain behaviors like arriving late, turning in incomplete work, losing focus during class, or missing directions are typically seen as indications of a poor work ethic. But common teacher instructions I have heard throughout my years of teaching to "listen better," "focus," or "follow directions" are typically ineffective strategies for these students.

A student struggling with inattentiveness is more likely to be the one who raises her hand to ask a question that has just been answered, or the one who loses track of the discussion altogether. Frequent miscues and obvious confusion make her seem like she is not listening when, in fact, the opposite is true. ADHD makes it difficult to filter out the unessential information and focus on the most essential. A student with ADHD is actually trying to process multiple streams of information at once.

"One-on-one, compassionate conversations with students about their difficulties can be truly profound."

Maybe the cruelest thing about the misunderstanding that surrounds attention difficulties is the toll that it takes on a student’s sense of potential. Some of my brightest, most creative, and capable minds are the ones who struggle to pay attention in class. I see this in their brilliant contributions in discussions, their original ideas, and their completed projects and assessments. These students do care about their learning, but they struggle to master the practices to help them do so efficiently and effectively.

A Guide for Learning Accommodations

While we teachers should not discount the importance of diagnosis for students who may suffer from ADHD, there is only so much we can do in this realm. We must not wait to offer classroom-based accommodations for our students who have clear issues with attention, regardless of whether or not they have been diagnosed or medicated.

I have found that one-on-one, compassionate conversations with students about their difficulties can be truly profound. Taking the time to privately acknowledge students' often invisible effort (and struggle) is essential. I ask my own students who face these challenges what they think is at the heart of their attention difficulties.

Even if students are not able to offer much clarity, a transformation often occurs in their learning because they finally feel seen and understood. They become more motivated to sustain the extra stamina required for all the school tasks that do not come naturally.

I also find it helpful to directly engage students in designing personalized strategies to sustain their focus and attention during school. My students have suggested various classroom supports for themselves, like preferential seating, noise-cancelling headphones, a quiet corner, and a posted daily schedule or class agenda.

Other helpful instructional accommodations include providing extended time on assessments, using weekly planners, breaking large assignments into smaller chunks, offering instructions in multiple formats (such as oral, written, and digital), setting small, achievable class goals for long-term activities and projects, and providing rubrics that clearly describe the elements of a successful completed assignment. These accommodations do not change the expectations or end goals for these students, only the form of the assignments.

Taking Action for Students

ADHD, for many students, is invisible and complex. It is no wonder that it is often ignored or misunderstood by teachers. But whether or not a student carries an official ADHD diagnosis should not be a prerequisite to taking action. As teachers, we do not need permission to help distracted students. There are no tidy, silver-bullet strategies to eliminate struggles related to attention.

But engaging our individual students in thoughtful conversations about their attention and helping them design strategies to address them can be a good place to start.

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