Here’s the third article in my series on ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. We’ve talked about some of the specific struggles that your student may be facing as well as how to change your perspective on how ADHD can be more than a disorder. Today, my goal is to help you find specific ways to help your student succeed in school with the gifts and weaknesses they have. This may be a little difficult as every ADHD child is different. However, there will be some basic principles in here that can be applied to just about any student.
The Problem with Schools and ADHD
If your student is like most ADHD students, stress has become a very normal thing for their school life. Stress can be a healthy mechanism that propels humans towards a goal. That goal used to be avoiding dangerous animals and starvation, and now stress propels us to pay bills, get a degree, and find a steady job. Unfortunately, large amounts of stress negatively affect the brain. It impairs memory and focus as students are often focused on repelling failure rather than the actual subject material. Imagine how compounded the problem is when students are ADHD and already have a difficult time focusing on the material being presented in class.
Schools also just have a lot of small, but necessary, procedures that simply don’t work well with students dealing with ADHD. A large classroom filled with different students, brightly colored walls, and a window with all sorts of fun things going on outside only add to the distraction a student may be feeling. Direct instruction, a type of instruction that entails quiet students and lecturing teachers, often prevails in school settings as teachers attempt to teach many students at one time. This is a very ineffective way for ADHD students to learn. Many students are only retaining 30% of what they hear, and when you take into account the distractibility of ADHD students, that number drops even lower. Retention and direct instruction do not mix for your ADHD student.
How to Help People with ADHD
1) Find ways to make them feel successful.
These students are going to feel like they fail often, not only in academics but in behavior and social circles as well. These negative feelings become associated with the school environment and only furthers the vicious cycle of your student finding less and less motivation to go and therefore, failing more and more often.
If they can start to associate any kind of success with school, it’s going to help their already low dopamine levels. Helping them feel successful may look like encouragement, excitement over their work, and curiosity regarding what they’re learning. It may look like thoroughly scaffolding their lessons, teaching them the same processes over and over with patience. Remember, your student isn’t going to retain information as well. So, while a normal student may be able to remember a process after a couple of practice problems, your ADHD student is going to take longer and this is normal. Don’t let them feel like they’re letting you down with becoming impatient and asking questions about why they can’t seem to get it together.
2) Establish a routine according to their needs.
ADHD students will do much better with consistency. Just like with homework, these students are going to need far more repetition in their daily schedules to get things down. Don’t be afraid to give them some “me” time when they get home as well. You’ll have to find the correct balance for your family when it comes to letting your student run off after school to play before settling in for homework. For example, your student may not be able to handle video games or a TV show. They may get sucked into an experience like that, but being able to go and free their minds in some creative way will go a long way in helping to release the hormones they need to find motivation. This leads me to my next suggestion.
3) Help them establish a routine for exercising.
Exercise is a natural way to release important neurotransmitters like dopamine. Not only does dopamine help with motivation, but it clears thinking and helps with attention. For students who have started to struggle with depression alongside their ADHD, research shows that exercise is as strong as an antidepressant. Let them pick their exercise. Yoga, swimming, running, sports, and dancing are all good ways to release those neurotransmitters. It doesn’t really matter what they’re doing so long as they’re moving. This is also a great time of day to allow them to choose something in their lives, something they might not find a lot of in school. Students who feel a little more control in their lives are going to produce better results; they are also more likely to be more compliant.
4) Offer choices in general.
This may be one suggestion that will need to be coordinated with a professional and understanding teacher. Just as one example, students who are forced to write sentences with spelling words over and over may find themselves burnt out more quickly than a student who can choose how to practice their words. Talking with a teacher about accommodating different practicing options can still help the students meet the expectation (practicing spelling words), but in a way that they feel more motivated to do. This does a myriad of things. It helps them feel more in control, they are more likely to be involved and motivated because they’re invested in their choices, and it gives you a higher probability of success which means continued practice in the future.
5) As students get older and need more free reign, allow them to explore with a little more room.
This may look like procrastination, but procrastination may be just the thing that’s needed to give them enough adrenaline to finish a project. ADHD students work great in crunch time. High stakes mean higher excitement (even if it means more stress for you!). With this particular example, it’s important to experiment and see what works with your child. Procrastination works for some students while for others, it only cripples them further. That may seem frustrating, but remember, we’re looking at helping them succeed overall. Don’t lose sight of ultimate goals because you’re too focused on assignments at school. There will be setbacks and failures, but keep in mind that they can contribute to future success. Let there be a learning curve as students achieve more and more freedom.
6) Allow room for failure.
Speaking of parents needing to allow room for failure, modeling this behavior is going to do astronomical amounts of good for your ADHD student. Failure is inevitable, even when you’re a good student. Giving your student more control over their life may mean that more things fall through the cracks. Take a step back, ask yourself how important those things were, and if they’re crucial, find time to practice again. If it’s not the end of the world, don’t act like it is. Students can often be resilient when it comes to adults overemphasizing the importance of specific things. However, ADHD students are going to be vulnerable. They already have a hard time prioritizing and remembering everything. Emphasizing lots of small things is only going to make them feel more like failures.
Model that failure is okay. Model that forgetting sometimes is okay. And model that practicing is crucial. They will be more willing to keep practicing if failure isn’t so scary.
7) Try to-do lists.
This is a very specific example, but it’s one I’ve found is very functional for students with ADHD. Being able to break down a big task into small things that a student can check off is going to make them feel successful, therefore releasing dopamine, and continuing the cycle of success. To-do lists can also help them prioritize which is an executive function that is very difficult for most ADHD students.
8) Be involved, request the best teachers, and involve them.
As a teacher myself, I can’t tell you what is more motivating than finding a parent who wants to work as a team to help a student succeed. Help the teacher know what works at home for the particular student. Help the teacher know where the student is particularly vulnerable. And help them understand how much you care for your student, and I promise the attitude is more likely to rub off. Unfortunately, there will be teachers you won’t be able to talk to. Some teachers have pre-existing beliefs regarding ADHD that would only set your student up to be watched for failure. These are the times when it’s important to model resilience and patience with your ADHD student. Think of it as an opportunity to teach them that being liked isn’t as important as it feels sometimes instead of thinking of it as another setback.
These are only a couple of suggestions among a million that can be used for you ADHD student. Not all will work for your student; I hope some will. For more suggestions, check out some of the sources below.