by Tim Grivois-Shah, Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement
After a whole-group lesson on the carpet, a class of 28 second grade students returns to their seats to work on their stories. Except for the sounds of pencils scratching across paper, the class is silent. Five minutes into independent work time, however, Greg stares at a poster advertising milk. Then he notices that the lights are humming. Then a friend asks for a pencil, and while getting the pencil, he sees a vocabulary worksheet that he knows he was supposed to do. Maybe he should get that done right now. Greg understands that he’s supposed to be writing. For some reason, though, getting started on any assignment is difficult without constant reminders to stay on task.
Mikayla is in time-out again. She thought she was following directions and running after the ball, but when the whistle blew to go back to her line, Mikayla kept playing. She loves running, kicking, throwing, lifting, and pulling, and looks forward to the one half hour of Physical Education she gets a week, but always seems to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. And now, having spent most of her only PE class this week sitting down, Mikayla gets in line to go back to class for her math lesson. Where she’ll spend most of her time in a seat. Trying to sit still. So she doesn’t get in trouble. Not learning math.
Students with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) experience school differently than their peers.
The National Institute for Mental Health defines ADHD as a condition marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. While all students can let their attention drift or fidget on occasion, children with ADHD struggle to start and complete tasks or to keep their voices and bodies quiet all the time. For children like Greg, what appears to be indifference towards schoolwork is actually an internal struggle to train his attention on one task when his brain wants to drift to every piece of sensory input happening in the classroom. Or, for children like Mikayla, their inability to follow directions or to keep their bodies in control is actually the natural consequence of a learning environment that could become more responsive to her needs as a learners with ADHD. In either case, evidenced-based interventions exist to support students with ADHD that can reduce time teachers spend managing behavior and increase time that students with ADHD engage in meaningful learning.
Intervention 1: Schedule 30 minutes of physical activity before learning time begins.
Dr. Betsy Hoza and her team discovered that when first-grade teachers scheduled 30 minutes of unstructured physical activity before their typical morning activities for twelve weeks, teachers and parents of children with ADHD noticed significantly better behavior and academic achievement than students who received classroom interventions without physical activity. Even more promising is that the team discovered that students with ADHD who began their day with recess increased their ability to process information and sustain attention.
Key action: Start the day outside, and the less structure you provide, the better.
Intervention 2: Declutter the learning environment.
Reducing clutter on tables, counters, and walls to what is strictly necessary for learning increases all students’ chances of finding what they need. And, for students with ADHD, a clutter-free learning environment eliminates visual distractions.
Sounds can also clutter classrooms. Schools can eliminate bells and instead use clocks to manage class periods. Another strategy could be to set clear, school-wide expectations for noise levels in common areas during learning times. Within the classroom, teachers can provide headphones, experiment with white noise, and set classroom expectations for noise level during independent work time.
Sometimes, learners may choose to work at study carrells or use privacy shields to focus attention to the work in from of them. Be careful, however, not to use independent work areas as a punishment for symptoms of ADHD. The purpose of the study carrel is to support student achievement, not to exclude from the classroom community.
Key action: Eliminate sights and sounds that clutter your learning environment.
Intervention 3: Make learning fun.
The parts of our brain that form long term memories pay close attention to the parts of our brains that feel strong emotions. Teachers of students with ADHD can transform ‘distractibility’ into an asset by making learning fun.
Imagine a middle school student with ADHD walking into their classroom on a Monday morning with a stack of packets full of diagrams and vocabulary related to cell structure on their desks. Consider the same classroom where the same student enters the classroom to find desks arranged in a circle to represent a cell membrane. The teacher, dressed as a Golgi body, asks students to model the endoplasmic reticulum by holding hands and folding the line back and forth. As the teacher explains the structure and function of the Golgi body and its relationship to the endoplasmic reticulum, students and teachers work together to make proteins that the cell needs and to send toxins through the cell membrane.
Or they could just do the packet.
Key action: Avoid packets. Embrace joy. Learning should be rigorous, and rigorous learning should be fun. For students with ADHD, learning that is fun reduces impulsive behavior and increases mastery.
Starting the day with physical activity, removing visual and auditory clutter from the learning environment, and making sure that the learning is fun are three evidenced-based interventions for students with ADHD that will reduce time spent managing unexpected behavior and increase time spent on learning. Even better, while these interventions would likely help all students achieve more, students with ADHD have the most to gain. Best of all, they are free. Going outside, cleaning up, and adding fun to a lesson can happen as soon as we decide to do it. Give one of these interventions a try and let us know how it works!