New directions and strategies for ADHD

Written by: Colin Foley | Published:
Image: iStock

ADHD students still underachieve and many professionals can struggle to understand the barriers they face. Colin Foley looks at new educational approaches and the support offered by the ADHD Foundation

School leaders have long been aware of the difficulties experienced by learners with ADHD and the recent longitudinal study by Washbrook, Propper & Sayal (2015) clearly revealed the current high level of educational underachievement in this group of young people at age 16.

However, there has never been a more interesting and exciting time for those of us committed to improving the life chances of learners with ADHD.

Several innovations and new approaches were launched at the fourth annual ADHD Foundation conference in Liverpool last term.

Entitled New Directions in ADHD, this multi-disciplinary two-day event was attended by nearly 800 delegates from across the UK and abroad. Planned as a space to explore and share ideas in both educational and clinical practice, the second conference day was memorably opened by Stephen Drew of Channel 4’s Educating Essex and Mr Drew’s School for Boys, who encouraged the conference to reflect upon what can be achieved when “the adults just care enough”, and made a call to arms for all schools to embrace the needs of learners with complex needs and mental health problems and provide educational experiences that would benefit them as well as neurotypical learners.

This has certainly been my personal experience. As the training director for the ADHD Foundation, I have witnessed a significant increase in interest from schools nationally to our Understanding and Managing ADHD training package which I reviewed for the conference.

School leaders are increasingly recognising the need for their staff teams to understand both the symptomology of ADHD and associated neurodevelopmental conditions and how this can affect learning and behaviour and to explore what this means for classroom practice.

As a result, teachers are becoming more aware of identifying the condition, particularly in predominantly inattentive (ADD) learners, the link with co-occurring conditions and the risk factors in the emergence of mental health issues for learners with all presentations of ADHD.

Many schools have responded positively to the ideas and strategies presented to them in the package to support the full range of ADHD-related executive functioning deficiencies, particularly in reading and writing, in providing regular concentration practice during the school day, and in trialing various self-regulatory behavioural interventions.

However, it is in the area of movement, exercise and active learning that we have seen the most increased response from schools.

Under our headline of, “They have to move to learn”, I have received emails from across the country with teachers telling me of the positive outcomes achieved when learners with ADHD have access to structured and intensive periods of physical exercise.

Schools are widening access to their sports facilities or investing in gym equipment for learners with ADHD and have recognised the benefits in improved cognition, attention and mood.

Similarly, this training package has inspired discussions with teachers about the routine expectations that young people with ADHD have as they walk through the school gates each morning. We have challenged teachers to consider how these expectations can be of lessons filled with movement, activity and collaboration, thus significantly reducing the high levels of anxiety that young people with ADHD can experience on a daily basis.

The need to work with parents and carers has never been more urgent to achieve good outcomes for young people with ADHD. When ADHD is not understood or managed at home or when parents are in denial, or have undiagnosed ADHD themselves, this can have a very negative effect upon the young person’s achievement at school.

We have provided an ADHD parenting course to families for many years, however, this year, we have developed this and launched the Licensed Instructor Programme. This enables schools to be licensed to deliver this training programme directly to identified parents and carers. In some cases, these can be the families of some of the most challenging pupils in any school. It is important to note that in many parts of the country, this could be the only none-pharmacological support that families could have access to.

We recently piloted this programme in 19 schools in Warrington. The support offered to these schools was two-fold. First, training on ADHD for the staff team and second, the SENCO or inclusion manager from each school worked with an ADHD parenting specialist from the ADHD Foundation to deliver the Licensed Instructor Programme. The outcomes were outstanding with improved knowledge and confidence among professionals, and parents/carers reporting increased confidence to put strategies in place to manage their child’s ADHD at home.

A similar project delivered by the ADHD Foundation to families in Liverpool and evaluated through a random sample of 107 families in a structured interview with researchers from Liverpool John Moores found that 83 per cent of parents reported that school attendance had improved. There was also a 45 per cent reduction in exclusions.

Alongside this, we have launched “ADHD Friendly Schools”, a quality mark designed to enable schools to evaluate their practice and put interventions in place to ensure that their school is an inclusive, supportive and achieving environment for all of their pupils with ADHD.

As Dr Tony Lloyd, CEO of the ADHD Foundation, said in his opening address to the conference: “We are now moving towards a position in which the support structures and approaches available to young people in schools with ADHD and their families are where comparable structures and approaches for autism and dyslexia were 10 years ago.”

It is without doubt an exciting time to be working with young people with ADHD. Yet, the condition is still often unrecognised with a significant delay in identification and diagnosis. Too often families are stuck in the long “waiting game” for assessments and clinical appointments.

Shockingly, the average age for an ADHD diagnosis in the UK is 12-years-old. School leaders in secondary schools all know the cost of untreated and unmanaged ADHD in teenagers and young adults.

One organisation is striving to change this. Qbtech, a Swedish health technology company, launched the QbCheck test at conference this year, a school version of QbTest. This is now bringing into schools what is the gold standard ADHD screening tool in the NHS, significantly improving early diagnosis for ADHD.

Too many young people with ADHD remain misunderstood and have low aspirations and poor self-esteem. Increasingly, the conversations I have with teachers are about the mental health needs of these pupils; studies also show consistently the disproportionate number of young people with ADHD involved in the youth justice system.

I have visited secondary schools all over the country and sat in specially adapted sensory spaces and nurture environments and listened to some of the wonderful and inspirational therapeutic work that is going on routinely in these schools. We believe that often these learners need time and space outside the classroom to understand their condition and how they can manage their own biology.

We owe it to these learners to help them to understand why they may respond and react differently to situations than their peers and to learn strategies that will enable them to succeed in school and to go on to lead happy, fulfilling adult lives.

The nearly 800 delegates at our conference, including clinicians and school leaders, proves that there is a growing interest in working together towards combining both medical and educative perspectives on ADHD and in exploring innovative approaches to both support and nurture as well as teach effectively all young people living with ADHD.

As Charlotte Dowson, aged 14, and diagnosed with ADHD aged nine, said in her presentation to the conference: “My teachers understand me; they get my faults and my talents. They are on my side and that is what helps me to want to achieve even when I find it difficult.”


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