Strategies for students with ADHD

Strategies for students with ADHD
Read and Spell blog
Strategies for students with ADHD

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder but without the hyperactivity, are specific learning difficulties (SpLds) typified by short attention span, lack of concentration and in the case of ADHD, poor control of impulses.

A hyperactive student might be impulsive, disruptive, restless, or uncooperative. He or she may be a child who doesn’t sit still and struggles to listen. Because of the impulsivity and activity level, students with ADHD can try to solve problems physically and their extreme behavior may lead to problems in the classroom.

However, teaching coping strategies to children with ADHD can make learning less problematic and help them focus their attention on the lesson at hand.

ADHD and ADD: What’s in a name?

Different contexts apply the terms ADHD and ADD in different ways and you may find them both lumped together as ADHD, or also written as ADD/ADHD, AD/HD. AD(H)D or even still simply as ADD. ADD/ADHD was known just as ADD until the late 1980s (1), with controversy about how to diagnose and treat it dating back to the 1970s (2).

It is now accepted as a common neuro-developmental psychiatric disorder that affects more than 38 million people throughout the world (3). Medication is quite often prescribed, but this can be controversial.

It’s important to remember that SpLds are not related to the student’s intelligence or potential for learning. The key to reaching that potential lies in finding and applying the appropriate strategies.

Recognizing a child with ADHD

As with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and dysgraphia, symptoms can be mild to severe but for illustrative purposes, we’ll describe behaviors at the extreme end of the scale. Learn more about the differences between dyspraxia and ADHD.

ADHD is more frequently diagnosed in males than females so we’ll refer to the individual student as “he.”

In class he can’t sit or stand still, is impulsive, and has a low boredom threshold or tolerance for frustration. He can’t mind his own business. He’s a student who is easily distracted, is always looking up and around, and fidgets with fingers, pencils and other objects.

He demonstrates negative or oppositional behavior. He doesn’t follow the rules – not necessarily because he doesn’t want to but because he just doesn’t hear them. A particular non-favorite behavior with teachers is when the student with ADHD doesn’t listen properly to questions to the class, and blurts out inappropriate responses. He doesn’t wait his turn.

There are deficits in his social skills that can result in poor interaction with peers. Children with ADHD may tease or be mean and cruel to other students and blame them for things that go wrong.

He may be aware of this, but can’t control himself. This may be a child who isn’t invited home for play dates or birthday parties. Alternatively, some peers may find his challenging behavior attractive, and he may develop a bit of a following.

Students with ADHD may be able to decode in reading activities, but struggle to focus on the material so comprehension can be poor. They may experience mood swings in the classroom and elsewhere, be extremely disorganised, lose possessions and homework, and generally not be prepared for the lesson. They can also have poor fine motor skills, and produce messy work.

These students may become socially isolated, possibly leaving them at risk for future employment or mental health problems in the longer term, though symptoms in adults tend to diminish with age. Early identification and intervention are important so that individuals can develop strategies to cope with life and learning.

Strategies for helping children with ADHD in the classroom

Introducing strategies

To address behavior in the classroom, ask the non-compliant child what he is experiencing and what he feels about school and what he’s learning.  It may be that the child doesn’t perceive that there is a problem with his behavior, so tell him about your own perceptions. You may have to explain to him specifically what noncompliance and impulsiveness mean.

“These are the things I see in your behavior.....We are going to work on them. We’re a team. I’m on your side and I’m going to help you.” Also, explain that you have lots of strategies you can try together and “let’s see if this one works for you”. In this way, if it doesn’t work, he won’t feel as if he’s failing.

The aim is to empower the child and help him to feel in control. As with all strategies, there’s no point in setting them up if they are not used consistently and/or the child doesn’t know what they are for.

For the child with ADHD, it helps if the parent and teacher can work together to agree on goals, and to be consistent with them. It’s also important for home and school to reinforce them using the same language.

When setting goals, and developing a plan, identify a problem then consider the different possible solutions: “What would happen if you did this? Or that? What would the consequences be?”. With each goal, reinforce that “This is the plan. This is how are we going to get there. If you follow the plan, you’ll get where you need to be.”

Do this regularly, and the child will eventually start developing his own plans, which is what he needs to do.

Tips for teachers and parents

Teachers, parents and others have shared these effective strategies for students. Some will have much wider applicability than school and just being relevant for children who have ADHD. One Special Needs Consultant who generously shared information for this blog has suggested these techniques in her workshops and points out that many are particularly helpful for teachers who have an undisciplined class.

Provide students with structure.

Keep in mind that these are children who learn from direction, not from discovery. They are students who need structure rather than open-ended learning. 

Break tasks into steps.

Give assignments one at a time and break tasks down into small manageable chunks so each part is clear to the student. Shorten tasks or work periods to coincide with the child’s attention span. Allow extra time. Teachers can frequently ask “How are doing on your plan? Have you finished number 1?

Good work. Let’s mark that off now ...”. Consistently monitor time management, which can be an on-going problem for students with ADHD. Give a timeline, have clear expectations of a standard of work, and react positively. “That’s great. How did you do on this?  Is that your best work? Yes or no? Do you think you should redo it?”

The child knows whether or not he could do better, and over time, learns to monitor his own work.

Keep feedback positive.

Teachers and parents might be inspired to say “Don’t do that” quite often. These can be children who receive a lot of feedback for negative behavior. Be quick to say “It was great the way you did that” and to immediately praise positive behavior. Everyone listens to praise.

Try to ignore minor inappropriate behavior. Recognise him only when his hand is raised appropriately. To take this a step further, it may be that together, you work out a set of visual cues that might include him always putting up his hand as if to give an answer, so he gets to move a bit, but you only come to him if at the same time, he also raises an index finger or a fist to indicate to you that he believes he has the right answer.

You may be able to comment non-verbally on his behavior and keep him on task by using a pre-agreed pointing or wiggled finger, or by putting on your special serious teacher face. This way, you won’t come across as nagging all the time.

Provide student with opportunities for exercise to help them focus attention

Stand close by. 

The teacher doesn’t always have to teach from the front of the class. A child who is bouncing around isn’t learning. When you have a child who’s struggling to sit still, standing beside him can imply a heavy presence that often calms him down. 

Help them stay still.

Sometimes Occupational Therapists will use heavy vests or weighted jackets to hold the child down and centre them a bit. They also use big balls as to sit on them successfully and maintain balance takes focus and can be fun.

Every strategy has to be for the child and none of them are Band-Aids. A technique that one teacher found to be effective, but which was also controversial with other educators, was to lay two feet of loose string across the student’s lap and say “I’m tying you down” and the perceived weight of the string calmed him down.

Know your students.

Things they enjoy doing (such as computer games) will hold students’ attention for longer. 

Allow physical activity breaks.

One teacher and pupil agreed that if the student indicated he simply couldn’t sit in his seat for another single second, and she responded as agreed, the student would be allowed to leave the classroom, run around the playground a couple of times, and then return.

Teaching social skills

Appropriate social interaction may have to be specifically taught for these students.  “How are you feeling?... How do you think that made him feel?...  I liked the way you looked him in the eye when you said such and such...Remember when you ..?”. Comment on the positive behavior of other students. “I liked the way Leon said thank you to Sally when she...”.

Modelling is very important. Working with a partner can be very beneficial both for social behavior and for other learning. These are children who need to be taught how to interact. The child with ADHD may well recognise that he’s not socially adequate or fitting in. 

Teach him how to accept compliments.  He needs to be taught that if the teacher or his mum says he did something well, it’s appropriate to accept the compliment and say thank you.

He needs to be taught about body posture. “If you slump, this is what you are saying with your body.” It only takes a minute to say “Okay class, I want you to turn to your neighbour, look him in the eye, smile and say good morning.”  The whole class benefits from learning this stuff.

How technology can help students with attention difficulties

Allowing technology in the classroom

Allow the use of computers where appropriate. Touch-type Read and Spell can be highly effective for students with ADHD. It was originally designed for those with SpLds, is very carefully structured, and teaches touch-typing in a unique way using a whole word approach. This means children learn to spell while they learn to type. It is appropriate for seven-year-olds and up – once the hands are mature enough to sit comfortably on a keyboard - and being “age neutral” in content, is also appropriate for adults.

Learn more

The course embodies much of what is good practice for a child with ADHD. Tasks are broken into small chunks, presented in a multi-sensory way with immediate positive feedback of success.

Short modules are delivered at the child’s chosen pace, with a clear understanding of the expected standard of work, and with the opportunity to re-do work as appropriate. Self-esteem is enhanced and the student feels in control of his own learning, sometimes for the first time.

Being able to touch-type also manages the messy handwriting children with ADHD may have and gives them a skill for life. They work their way through four thousand words, including punctuated sentences. Many children find the course enjoyable to do, and as it engages their interest, they are motivated to continue.

Do you have any strategies for helping students with ADHD in the classroom? Join the discussion in the comments! Did you like this article? Have a look at the top 7 blogs to follow to learn more about ADHD.


1 Weiss, Lawrence G. (2005). WISC-IV clinical use and interpretation scientist-practitioner perspectives (1st ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press. p. 237. ISBN 9780125649315. 

2 Parrillo VN (2008). Encyclopedia of Social Problems. SAGE. p. 63. ISBN 9781412941655. Retrieved 2 May 2009.

3  Cowen, P; Harrison, P; Burns, T (2012). Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (6th ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 546. ISBN 9780199605613.

Facebook Facebook Facebook
About the Author 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
Reviewed by 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Read and Spell Blog Strategies for students with ADHDEstimated reading time: