by Nina Parrish
According to survey data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016, about 6.1 million (or 9.4 percent) of children in the United States were diagnosed, at that time, with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Yale researcher and clinical psychologist Thomas Brown describes ADHD as an impairment of the executive functioning system. This means that students with ADHD can struggle with tasks such as organizing, prioritizing, getting started, staying focused, maintaining effort, regulating emotions, remembering learned information, holding information in mind while working, and the ability to self-regulate or monitor work for quality and completion.
Due to preexisting challenges with executive functioning and emotional regulation, students with ADHD may have struggled more than their neurotypical classmates to adjust to the many changes in schooling and other stressors brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC found that, prior to the pandemic, 6 in 10 children with ADHD had at least one other mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or a conduct disorder. A research review conducted by Rosanna Breaux, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, showed that during this past school year many students with ADHD not only experienced an increase in ADHD symptoms such as difficulty with attention and impulse control, but were also more likely to experience an increase in all mental/emotional/behavioral disorder symptoms.
Students are facing yet another period of adjustment with the reopening of schools in the 2021-2022 school year. So, what can teachers do to both help their students with ADHD end this unusual school year on a high note and prepare for the challenges of readjustment to in-person schooling? Below are a few suggestions.
Teach Strategies for Emotional Regulation
Our emotions show our brain where to focus our attention. For any child, but especially a child who struggles with regulating emotions due to ADHD, an intense emotion like sadness or anxiety may overload the executive functioning system. While experiencing this emotional reaction, the child will have much more difficulty attending to the emotionally neutral information that is being presented in the classroom. This can impact their comprehension, retention, and problem-solving abilities.
However, students can be taught strategies to reframe and process their emotions, allowing them to recognize and consciously respond to their emotions rather than immediately reacting. Students can learn to identify activities that allow them to reset when they are stressed, such as taking a walk, listening to music, or painting. They may also benefit from learning mindfulness strategies and breathing techniques.
Help Students Prioritize, Plan, and Organize Time
According to medical doctor William Dodson, students with ADHD may not be experiencing a shortage of attention but, instead, may be paying “too much attention to everything.” To help with this, teachers can create an environment with predictable routines where students know what to expect, even when the activities change. Before introducing a new concept, teachers can assist students in building background knowledge and making connections so that they will understand which information is important and can accurately decide what to focus on for the current learning task. Teachers can also provide a rubric that shows students how they will be graded, and can teach students to use the point value assigned to each task as an indicator of how much time should be spent on that task. Clear deadlines should be provided for each assignment. Students can then be taught to break the assignment into smaller chunks, each with their own due date, at which point teachers can check in with students and provide feedback. Students are then graded on their participation in this process and not their final product alone.
Create Challenge, Novelty, Urgency, or Interest
Students with ADHD are often very capable of focusing when they are interested in the topic and can “get in the zone.” Giving students choices allows them to tie what they are learning to their passions and can create more engagement. Teachers can also consider adding competitive games, hands-on activities, movement, stories, or questions to build interest and create a hook for the lesson. While keeping the basic structure and classroom routine the same, teachers can introduce novelty and challenge by frequently switching up the types of activities that students complete. A timing method, like The Pomodoro Technique, can be used to create urgency and help students to stay focused.
Work in Bursts of Activity and Schedule Breaks
To help focus attention, a very specific task can be assigned for a short time period, such as 15 minutes. If students are productive and complete the task, they get a short break. Once the students have completed several bursts of activity and timed breaks, they get a longer “brain break” to talk with friends, move around, eat a snack, or do something they enjoy. The goal should be to gradually increase the time spent focusing on work.
Focus and motivation have been difficult for many of us during this year of virtual and hybrid-plan schooling. Mike Yassa, professor of neuroscience and the director of the UCI Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine explains, “Stress is OK in small amounts, but when it extends over time it’s very dangerous.” When we are under constant stress, our brain feels foggy and our productivity suffers. For this reason, introducing these strategies in your classroom might not only benefit students with ADHD, but make learning more accessible and engaging for all students.
Nina Parrish is a special education teacher and tutor. Her Virginia-based tutoring business, Parrish Learning Zone, offers K-12 in-person and online tutoring. Nina’s writing on education and parenting has been featured at HuffPost, We Are Teachers, Listen to Your Mother, Education Week, Edutopia, and Scary Mommy. Her book on research-based strategies to increase student motivation, focus, perseverance, and self-monitoring will be published by Solution Tree in 2022. Website: http://parrishlearningzone.com/. Blog: http://parrishlearningzone.com/blog-the-learning-zone/.