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ADHD

How to Teach Kids with ADHD

9 practical suggestions from a professor with ADHD.

Key points

  • Beginning the school day with a few minutes of mindfulness can calm the mind and clear the working memory, paving the way for learning.
  • ADHD kids have a window of attention where they function optimally, which involves just the right amount of stimulation.
  • It is best for ADHD kids to understand how they learn before what to learn, including a basic understanding of executive function.

Neurons that wire together fire together. The mind is naturally curious and excited to take in new information. Especially in young minds, neurons eagerly group when new information rolls in and strengthens as patterns are formed. This is a very natural process for all of us.

Teaching the wild and wonderful ADHD mind is like navigating a kayak down the Colorado River in springtime. It is best to ride with the fast momentum, carefully steering away from potential obstacles, rather than to resist the current and risk a crash or total capsize.

Photo by Brett Sayles/Pexels
Source: Photo by Brett Sayles/Pexels

Here are 9 tips for a more enjoyable ride:

1. Begin each class with mindfulness.

Many people are still under the misconception that mindfulness is like other forms of meditation, that it is about sitting still in a lotus position like a Zen monk in a Tibetan cave for hours on end. Though this can be mindful, sitting is not essential, as mindfulness is not about creating a thought vacuum. Mindfulness is about being and goes with us wherever we go (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), which is ideal for those in the Fast Mind Club (ADHD).

Beginning each class with 1-3 minutes of mindfulness will clear the working memory so that it can take in the new information you have worked so hard to prepare. Mindfulness also reduces anxiety. There are many resources for teaching children mindfulness, which will benefit all of your students. At the college level, I begin every class I teach with a minute or two of mindfulness. Make this a daily routine and build a healthy habit for life.

Photo by Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Photo by Yan Krukov/Pexels

2. Team Fast Mind

Communicate that we are on the same team. Kids need to realize that teachers and students are not in opposition like high school football rivals. We are in it to win it together. Kids also need to understand that they need to play an active role in their own education. This means being prepared each day for class and learning to communicate their needs (Boring & Boring, 2021).

These are good habits to begin shaping from the ground up so that our young ADHDers will be successful and ready to go to middle school, high school, and eventually college. Habit formation is only successful with consistency and reinforcement. Beginning this early on in elementary school will aid in the prevention of academic agony and poor self-esteem and increase the chances of happiness and success all the way up the ladder into adulthood.

3. Don’t make assumptions.

Just because kids are not making eye contact or are gazing out the window toward a galaxy far, far away does not mean they are not paying attention. Then again, it might. The best practice for this is to remain interactive. Be creative with your teaching style. Be innovative about how to meet different learning styles. And neurotypicals will benefit from bringing fun and interactive learning into the classroom as well.

4. Don’t take things personally.

It is easy to see a bored look on a face and interpret this as your class is not exciting enough to captivate your students. This is not necessarily so. Realizing from both a cognitive and physiological standpoint that it is not natural for a child to sit for the majority of eight consecutive hours can be helpful.

Generally, taking things personally doesn’t go anywhere good, as this is a form of self-importance (Ruiz, 2010). Instead, embrace the glazed-over looks by adding a splash of humor to reel them back into the classroom. If your class is boring, then re-evaluate what you are doing or not doing. Innovate. Change it up.

Photo by Katrina Holmes/Pexels
Source: Photo by Katrina Holmes/Pexels

5. Be aware of the attentional window.

ADHD kids might be distracted or not distracted enough. There’s a sweet spot where they function optimally, which involves just the right amount of shiny objects (Boring & Boring, 2021).

Though it may not be in the official job description for educators to be entertainers, you truly can’t go wrong bringing some pizzazz into the classroom. When learning becomes a consistently pleasant and even enjoyable experience, children will look forward to it. And, much more of the new and exciting information you’ve worked so hard to prepare will stick in their long-term memory banks (which is the goal, after all).

6. Guidance first, then content.

It is way more important that kids understand how they learn than to regurgitate the content. This will happen naturally and easily once they understand how their fast minds work (Boring & Boring).

7. Teach kids about executive functioning (EF).

These beefy psychological terms can be broken down for a child into ways they can understand by first using concrete examples. Later on, when kids are able to grasp more abstract thinking, educators can take a deeper dive into explaining the various aspects of the EF system, such as planning, judgment, reasoning, decision-making, impulse control, and how we learn to connect past experiences into the present.

In fact, hanging EF posters around the classroom with examples of what this looks like can be enormously helpful for young ADHDers, as this can provide a visual of what seems so confusing on the inside (Bechard & Huberty, 2021). Taking the time to educate kids on their wild and wonderful minds will be far more motivating than shameful consequences.

Photo by Kindel Media/Pexels
Source: Photo by Kindel Media/Pexels

8. Explain the ADHDer’s unique interested-based nervous system.

Describe to young ADHDers what this means, how this difference in wiring affects their motivation and stick-to-it-ness, as well as how it is a gift. Explain that those in the Fast Mind Club are driven by a high-octane, interest-based nervous system, which means that we go full throttle when something captivates us. This can be a challenge when navigating through the required school curriculum, and educators need to explain how this works and provide strategies for managing this.

It should also be conveyed that this is an ADHD superpower, as we are very naturally creative and innovative. Perhaps give a few examples of the many famous people out there with ADHD who are inventors (Leonardo da Vinci), actors (Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg), Olympic athletes (Simone Biles and Michael Phelps), as well as entrepreneurs (Jet Blue CEO David Neelemen). Explaining how their mind’s engine runs—that it is different and not defective—early on in the game will give them some protective armor to defend against the inevitable judgment of adulthood with labels such as immature and irresponsible.

9. Incorporate movement and music into the classroom throughout the day.

Make it part of your daily routine to incorporate movement and music in between lesson segments. Do the hokey-pokey and turn yourselves around. That’s what it’s all about!

Learning is a very natural and enjoyable process when we ride with the current.

References

Bechard, M. & Huberty, K. (2021). An educator's guide to executive functions: How to understand and support students in need. ADDitude. Retrieved from: https://www.additudemag.com/executive-functioning-adhd-teacher-guide/?u…

Boring, J. & Boring, M. (2021). 9 ADHD strategies every teacher should know. ADDitude. Retrieved from: https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/teacher-strategies-to-help-adhd-…

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in every day life: New York, NY. Hyperion.

Ruiz, M. (2010). The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom (a Toltec wisdom book): San Rafael California. Allen-Amber Publishing.

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