Strategies for teaching students with ADHD

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With 400, 000 children in the UK thought to have ADHD, Dr Madan Mall and Dr Paul Holland look at educational strategies that can help these young people to reach their full potential.

In an earlier SecEd article, we explored the “causes and impact” of ADHD as described by literature and experiential data provided by participants to doctoral research. This time, we focus on overcoming the difficulties of teaching children with ADHD by looking at what does and doesn’t work in an educational establishment.

The findings are mainly drawn from literature and the experiences of 17 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who took part in a three-year study. The participants emphasised the importance of pupil and teacher relationships.

Extensive literature on relationships suggests that children need “unconditional love” (Walsh, 1991), “constant praise” (Phillips, 1991) and “firm boundaries” (Bodenhamer, 1983). 

Relationships characterised by empathy, respect and “genuineness” have been campaigned for by Rogers (1957) among others and many of these constructs were echoed by the participants in the study.

What doesn’t work

Children spend most of their childhood in the school setting, which can either be a safe or a hostile place. If the school environment is hostile it can destroy an individual’s sense of belonging, and in turn can affect their concept of self. “Self-concept” refers to how the person sees him or herself. This has three components:

  • The ideal self (e.g. how the person would like to be).

  • The public self (e.g. the image one believes others have of him or her).

  • The real self (e.g. subjective thoughts, feelings and needs that a person sees as being his or hers).

Butler and Green (1998) postulated that the notion of “self” remains a personal construction, and that there is a need for a child to develop a strong sense of self for appropriate affirmation and validation (Rowe, 1989). 

It emerged from the data that participants encountered a number of factors that hindered their progress, these were elements of schooling that did not work. Factors preventing progress included:

  • Inadequate infrastructure.

  • Lack of preparation by the teacher.

  • Ineffective behavioural management strategies.

  • Lack of awareness of ADHD.

Inadequate infrastructure

Participants with ADHD found mainstream school with large classrooms to be an extremely difficult environment. They were easily distracted, became bored and behaved according to their emotional state (Wayne). 

Two participants reported that they were excluded from primary schools, which had an impact on their sense of security and therefore made them feel as if they were on an emotional “rollercoaster” (Robin), being “chucked around” (Robin, Crystal), or moved from one school to another by their parents (James). “I got thrown out in a primary school or I left because teachers could not put up with me. I got put in a special school, in a unit attached to the school, children with (physical) difficulties, or learning … or behavioural problems or whatever” (Crystal).

Crystal was placed in inappropriate environments, which were unsuited to her individual needs. The behaviour leading to the exclusion was interpreted by others as the “uncontrollable child”. This reinforced the label that the ADHD child was “bad”, which affected Crystal’s self-concept and resulted in further disruptive behaviour as self-defence that she and other participants (Laura and Robin) were not bad. This intervention can make the individual feel as if he or she is not accepted.

Perceived lack of teacher preparation

As a result of the interviewees’ concentration span fluctuating from (hyper-focused to hypo-focused), they needed coursework that was appropriate to their level of understanding and assessment to gauge the time duration of the exercise. 

For instance, Laura began to play with gas taps or other instruments in the science laboratory, because “I done my work … and I was bored”. She used to “finish a 40-minute period in 20 minutes” and there was no extra work provided by the teacher. 

For some participants, the school work was not explained patiently, thoroughly or slowly enough, which led to disruptive behaviour (Crystal, James, Wayne, Tom). Sometimes, the subject was perceived as neither captivating nor interesting, but required injecting “some life into the subject” (James, Tom). 

Crystal also reported: “I haven’t been much good at understanding things and anything technical. (Everything) had to be explained slowly.”

If one-to-one support was not forthcoming, or the course materials not explained properly, this would lead to distraction and escalation of behavioural responses (e.g. disruptive behaviour).

Ineffective behavioural management

The evidence from the participants’ data identifies all the individuals had similar difficulties, but in some areas no two ADHD interviewees were the same. This taps into individual personalities and characteristics being unique. 

Crystal said she was always “giving them backchat” and when a teacher reprimanded Crystal she would “kick-off”. Robin also “refused to do any work … and caused an uproar”.

Wayne would not stop talking: “I’d just do it (keep talking) until they get rid of me or something … sent me out of the classroom.” The exclusion from the class did not modify Wayne’s behaviour, he continued to make sarcastic remarks because “part of me enjoyed it”.

Laura was hyperactive and she would run around the classroom, always doing something resulting in her spending time outside the head’s office, which magnified her perception that she was naughty, wild and hated. 

Similar sentiments were shared by Crystal: “They ended up taking me out in another room, couldn’t put up with me”. This type of exclusion reinforced a feeling of being the “odd one out” and, therefore, “alienated”.

At times, the teachers came across “as fake, pretending to be caring” (Crystal, Wayne) and their insincerity was detected very quickly (Laura). 

Participants felt that they had been judged/labelled too quickly. Steve was told that he would not be able to cope in mainstream school and, therefore, would need to attend a special school. The opposite was true for Robin, who wanted to go to a special school with small classroom settings consisting of eight pupils per class. 

This is an illustration of how individuals differ in many ways and need personalised assessments, taking into account their individual wishes, which can be polarised as was the case for Steve and Robin.

Teachers’ lack of awareness

Ignorance of ADHD symptoms can be a barrier. Participants were aware of their strengths and limitations, but felt the teachers lacked understanding. Teachers continuously ask ADHD pupils to stop – interviewees felt they became desensitised. Laura reported that the school “did not really get it … they didn’t really understand” the behaviours associated with ADHD, and wished they had some understanding about “what ADHD is … how it affects the person … so that they are not branding me as a naughty kid” (Laura).

Aspects of schooling that work

Three factors were found to be key features to effective measures: adequate infrastructure, curriculum and appropriate strategies, and an awareness of ADHD.

Adequate infrastructure

Small classrooms and one-to-one attention in the mainstream school was mostly desired, except in severe cases where ADHD participants required a special school. Seven interviewees wished they had been in smaller classrooms with one-to-one support. Robin attended a special school in her secondary years, where there were eight pupils in a class and she received “more attention”. It was an environment that “was so friendly”, which meant she really enjoyed her time there. This resulted in Robin modifying her behaviour.

Curriculum strategies

Consistent rewards for academic achievements can accelerate and motivate most students and reinforce their internal desire to learn and do more (Hattie, 1992). 

This generates an injection of “self-belief” – students feel that they are capable of reaching higher prospects and are therefore inspired to accomplish. For ADHD interviewees this was no exception. Because James enjoyed maths, physics and chemistry, and had the ability to focus in his studies, he ultimately gained a place at university to study physics. 

Laura completed her 40-minute physics lesson in 20-minutes because she was interested in the subject and therefore was able to complete her tasks and exercises quicker than others.

Tom found it extremely difficult to focus, especially in subjects that he was not interested in, “unless it was art. ADHD people thrive on things that are creative”.

Louise was very clever and found most academic subjects interesting because she was “very hungry for information. I was … miles ahead of other kids”.

Advice for teachers working with ADHD children included “keep them as active as you can” (Tom), with a variety of pursuits (Louise, Laura, James). A variety of interesting teaching methods and encouragement will help them to “fly” – “they’ll really enjoy it and they will benefit” (Tom, Steve).

The participants in the study said that teachers need to be very calm and patient (Wayne, Crystal, Laura, Tom) and not shout or control them because ADHD children have grown up with being told off for doing “anything and everything” (Wayne, Louise, Steve).

Wayne advised: “Don’t bother nagging them all the time because (ADHD) children do loads of stuff like … fidgeting around. ADHD children like to feel they are in control. Give them some respect and treat them like an adult … and (don’t) patronise them … because I think … all children have a sense of inferiority.” 

Awareness of ADHD

Teachers who were empathic and consistent in their approach were perceived to be helpful. This highlights that, when there was an awareness of the symptoms of ADHD, the person working with the individual changed his/her perceptions of the students from disruptive, naughty, wild, will not concentrate and dominates, to someone who has attentional difficulties (hypo-focused and hyper-focused), impulsivity (in control and no control) and hyperactivity (hyperactive and hypoactive).

This in turn helped to manage unacceptable behaviour. Participants in this study experienced a magnitude of negative messages and a multitude of critical labels, which then had an adverse effect on their self-concept. Adequate infrastructure, appropriate behavioural strategies and awareness of ADHD are all important factors in ensuring that children with ADHD are able to reach their full potential.

  • Dr Madan Mall is a chartered counselling psychologist. He currently works at Lindsworth School in Birmingham. Dr Paul Holland is a chartered psychologist, and SEN and behavioural consultant.
Further information
 
Selected references
  • Bodenhamer G (1983) Back In Control: How to get your children to behave. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Butler RJ, Green D (1998) The Child Within: The exploration of personal construct theory with young people. Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford.
  • Greene RW (1998) The Explosive Child. Harper Collins, New York, NY.
  • Hattie J (1992) Self-Concept. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.
  • Phillips C (1991) To Be Whole Again. Parade Magazine August 11: 10–2.
  • Rowe CE (1989) Empathic Attunement: The “technique” of psychoanalytic self-psychology. Aronson, Northvale, NJ.
  • Walsh A (1991) The Science of Love: Understanding love and its effects on mind and body. Prometheus books, Buffalo, New York.


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