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Strategies and Resources for Supporting Students with ADHD

In two important ways teachers are on the front line in the battle to help the soaring number of students who have challenging and frustrating attention issues.

On one hand, they face it each day. They motivate students with ADHD to complete work, stay focused, and sort through their overflowing backpacks and binders, all in an atmosphere where the disability is most evident―a classroom filled with distractions yet requiring structure. They are charged with empathetically and patiently training them to improve executive function habits and other key learning skills, when often just getting them to grasp instructions and not disrupt others is a challenge.

Secondly, teachers also are in a very key position to spot affected children and initiate the process for getting them the proper additional support they need. And research suggests that as the problem grows (diagnoses jumped nearly 50 percent over a decade recently, and now about 3-of-10 students are afflicted), teachers are doing that job.

“Looking at the changes in rates over time, one could have several reactions, but perhaps the most common one will be shock at the high and increasing rates of ADHD diagnoses,” says John Walkup an adolescent psychiatrist specializing in the problem. His study in the Journal of the American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry cited extensive data from a recent CDC report. “It appears that we are getting close―after more than two decades of advocacy―to identifying and treating a majority of children and adolescents with ADHD.”

So, experts say, teachers are doing their job by teaching, supporting, and identifying these students so they can be more successful. But busy teachers with 30 other kids in each class need help, says Kathleen Laundy, a therapist who has worked extensively on identifying learning disabilities in Connecticut schools and has written a book about school teams that benefit these students. She and other experts say teachers need

  • Up-to-date training to better understand the condition
  • Good, proven evidence-based strategies
  • Collaboration with caregivers who will build a plan and follow through on efforts to provide treatment and accommodations―and seek family attention to the issue

 

1) The Training

A recent study showed that when teachers get good information about ADHD, the students with the disorder show improved behavior and performance.

“Teachers need to be equipped with information about the behavioral problems that children with ADHD are likely to exhibit in the classroom, possible reasons for that behavior, suggestions for its management and information about seeking further help with particular children,” the report says.

Parents and students reported that training was important in “reducing children’s ADHD core symptoms,” the report said. It should take place in pre-service meetings or other staff development opportunities and be reinforced throughout the year.

Teachers who want to gain a better understanding of the disorder independently can find a host of resources online, including from the organization Understood (and its parent the National Center for Learning Disabilities [NCLD]), ADDitude, the ADD Resource Center, and CHADD.

 

2) The Student

There are numerous lists and guides that provide strategies for the classroom. Generally, they include tips on how to position these students, how to get and keep their attention, how to provide structure and breaks for them, and how to reward them and assign them consequences. CHADD has a one-sheet handout that summarizes the key approaches, a webinar for teachers, and a staff training package for a fee. School counselors and school psychologists also can be consulted about effective strategies.

Amanda Morin, who researches and writes about attention issues as a teacher, parent advocate, and mother of two children with attention issues, says the best work with ADHD students starts with “presuming competence. Too often we lead with the diagnosis and not with the student,” she says, noting that children with ADHD often have “high-level abilities and strengths that can allow them to soar—even though in some areas they may struggle.”

She recommends balancing work requiring lengthy or more complex thinking with more stimulating activity to keep them engaged and tap into the different ways they may learn. She also says wait time (even a seven-second pause) and checking for understanding are important since research says getting instruction is challenging but critical for these students.

Explanations should be given one at a time, but if necessary, several instructions together should begin with a phrase such as “there are three things you need to do….” By numbering the steps, the student knows there are more than one and can keep better track of them.

She also says teachers should recognize the very direct connection between ADHD and executive function―and that they can help in that area because those skills can be learned over time with practice and patience.

“Many kids also don’t know what being attentive looks like. They don’t understand how their outward behavior affects their ability to focus and how adults view them,” she notes, suggesting even these skills can be taught using the acronym “SLANT,” which will improve their focus and others’ impression of them.

  • Sit up straight
  • Lean your body toward the speaker
  • Ask and answer questions
  • Nod your head “yes” and “no”
  • Track the speaker with your eyes

 

3) The Team

Laundy says teachers are doing a good job of identifying students, seeking help for them, and following up to see that the accommodations are working, although she believes it is a collaborative effort between teachers, student support staff, and outside experts. “It’s a lot of work and requires energy and a range of skills, but it’s so important,” she says, noting that the consistent follow up is especially critical in school settings where there is always another priority and student plans sometimes become stagnant.

Lisa Weyandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and co-author of a recent study on school response to attention issues, says teachers need assistance from others in the school and community. She and other experts note that it is first critical that teachers be aware of the signs of ADHD, and report their concerns, typically to a school counselor, though they may want to share their observations with colleagues.

She recommends that psychologists be responsible for establishing the plan and adjusting it, but she notes that “these plans just are more successful when input is provided by teachers.”

“Research shows that behavior support programs are more likely to be successful when input is provided by teachers, students, and the school psychologist and others, compared to a behavior program developed by one person and bestowed upon the teacher,” she says. Collaboration also fosters communication and increases a sense of responsibility and follow through.

She and her co-authors recommend a series of steps for schools, through which teachers and school psychologists work together, typically through a process to develop a 504 plan or independent education plan (IEP), either of which can be used to provide accommodations for ADHD. She recommends these steps:

  • Define the academic problems
  • Discuss possible proven interventions
  • Choose an intervention plan that teachers believe to be feasible and effective and implement it consistently
  • Evaluate the success of the plan so that modifications can be made if necessary

Then, Weyandt says, it is critical that the plan be reviewed and adjusted if necessary, and teachers, again, can play a key role, collecting information about outcomes and encouraging a careful review. “Schools are required to follow an IEP or 504 plan and re-visit these goals and objectives regularly. However, sometimes this isn't always the case and it’s important for everyone to be diligent about following up.”

 

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at www.otherperplexity.com.