Tips, tools, and expert advice to support learners with ADHD
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that by 2016 approximately 6.1 million children in the United States lived with ADHD, with 9.4 percent of all individuals aged 2–17 receiving diagnoses. Although the number dropped slightly from 2011 (6.4 million) to 2016, it also rose significantly from 2003 numbers (4.4 million).
No matter whether a child recently received a diagnosis, or they’ve been navigating ADHD for years, addressing challenges and helping them succeed presents an ever-present opportunity for parents and teachers alike. Readers can use this guide to gain actionable and practical tips for best-supporting learners with ADHD along with expert advice on changes that can be made to help students function best in the classroom, at home, and in life.
ADHD and Common Challenges in the Classroom
ADHD interferes with learning in different ways, making it important for parents, teachers, and any others who interact with these students in significant ways to understand some of the common challenges. Although no two students are the same, reading through a few challenges students with ADHD can experience helps individuals understand how to best serve this population.
According to ADHD expert Nickia Lowery, students with ADHD often find it difficult to maintain focus—especially if they do not think the work at hand is interesting. “Staying on task in the classroom when not challenged by the work or when the work is difficult can present a real challenge,” she says. Reset ADHD founder Alex Hey echoes this point, noting, “Students with ADHD generally have a need to move frequently, so sitting still for 40–75 minutes is less than ideal.”
“Any shift from one position to another from one of their classmates—or any sound they make—might draw the attention of the person with ADHD and cause them to move their attention from the teacher to what their classmates are doing,” says Hey.
“Feeling pressured during test-taking time, especially if they feel stressed to finish alongside everyone else, can lead to feelings of inadequacy,” says Lowery. “This can lead to rushing to finish even though they have not really read through the questions.”
“Students with ADHD have trouble shifting from one task to another,” notes Hey. “Even though the teacher is lecturing about The Scarlet Letter, the student might be doing algebra in their head if they have not had the proper amount of time to transition into a literature-based mindset.”
“Because it is difficult for students with ADHD to focus, they have to exert extra effort to pay attention in school, making their brains tire more quickly,” says Hey.
“Students with ADHD need sleep, but they often struggle to achieve it. It is hard for the ADHD brain to shut down and get sleep,” says Hey. “It takes these students longer to do their homework at night, and they increasingly receive more and more homework—this cuts into sleep time which is a shame as it is crucial for the health of a person with ADHD.”
Understanding ADHD & Recognizing the Signs by Grade Level
What is ADHD?
ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a common mental disorder disproportionately affecting children. According to the American Psychiatric Association, learners with ADHD may experience trouble paying attention, staying still for long periods of time, keeping themselves from doing impulsive acts, staying organized, and shutting off their brains during times of rest.
Are there different types of ADHD?
Yes. Scientists have identified three types of ADHD, which are outlined below:
Inattentive ADHD manifests in the inability to focus on details, lack of attention during conversations or lectures, trouble following instructions, difficulty in organizing work or managing time well, a dislike for assignments requiring sustained effort, frequently losing personal or school items, and often forgetting to accomplish daily tasks such as completing homework or doing chores.
Individuals with this type of ADHD often find it hard to sit still. They may constantly fidget or tap on their desks, move around the classroom, start running or climbing on objects at inappropriate times, make significant noise and/or talk nonstop, interrupt people during conversations or questions, struggle to wait for their turn, or take over in situations where another leader is already present (e.g. the classroom, when playing games, or at work).
As the name suggests, individuals with combination ADHD experience both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive behaviors. These learners struggle to focus on details and internalize information, but they also find it difficult to sit still or be quiet.
What causes ADHD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, researchers still do not fully understand what causes ADHD, but efforts continue in trying to pinpoint specific reasons. Research does suggest a genetic connection, as 75 percent of those with ADHD also have relatives with the disorder. Other factors are often caused during the gestational period, with potential reasons including premature birth, brain injuries, maternal smoking or drinking of alcohol, and maternal stress.
Common Misconceptions About ADHD
ADHD is a cover-up for bad behavior. When observing kids neglecting to bring homework, talking over others, or making poor grades, it can be easy to think they are simply being lazy or inattentive. The reality is that ADHD is a recognized mental illness that causes children and adults to experience difficulty focusing and should be treated as such.
Accommodations give students unfair advantages. Under federal law, many children with ADHD are identified as special needs. Rather than giving an advantage, accommodations help level the playing field to make it possible for learners with ADHD to learn alongside peers.
Poor parenting is to blame. Research has shown that parenting has no effects whatsoever in the diagnosis of ADHD. When a student with ADHD can’t sit still or interrupts people, it has nothing to do with whether he/she has been taught that it’s wrong—these learners do not have control over their behaviors and will need therapy and/or medication to level out behaviors.
Signs of ADHD by Grade Level
ADHD can appear differently at various stages of a child’s life, making it imperative for parents and teachers to understand the common symptoms and warning signs present at each grade level. Find the age range that fits your child and carefully review the signs, symptoms, and examples available.
|Grade Level||Signs Symptoms and Examples|
|Pre-K and Kindergarten||Needs constant direction.|
Will not play alone, needs direction, struggles to finish tasks and stay focused Seems scattered.
Asks many questions but doesn’t internalize the answers, has trouble with impulsiveness and controlling movements, appears prone to accidents or clumsy Throws tantrums.
Overreacts to small issues, expresses emotions through crying and yelling, cannot handle disagreements with others, has trouble regulating emotions Cannot stay still.
Can’t sleep through the night, cannot sit still for longer than a few minutes, requires constant movement, cannot calm down easily
|Elementary School||Struggles to complete tasks.|
Frequently abandons chores or homework due to distractions, leaves test questions blank even though they know answers, cannot stay focused through noise or movement from others Seems impatient.
Can’t take “no” for an answer, insists on being first in line Inability to stop talking.
Frequently interrupts others, cannot listen through a story, talks out of turn, doesn’t filter their words or thoughts Lack of focus.
Doesn’t seem to follow what someone is saying, cannot remember instructions, struggles to retain information
|Middle School||Lack of organization.|
Room is continually untidy, seem unprepared for class/forgets homework at home, cannot plan ahead Cannot finish tasks.
Abandons chores/homework before completed, frequently skips questions, makes pointless errors Lacks filter.
Says insensitive or hurtful things to others, overshares personal information, speaks before considering that words have consequences Struggles to understand assignments.
Lacks an understanding of how to move from point A to B, leaves out key details in homework, gets lost within activities requiring multiple steps
|High School||No sense of time.|
Often runs late, receives tardy notices at school, struggles to plan things in advance Rudeness.
Says hurtful things to parents, peers, or teachers, challenges authority, doesn’t consider how their words affect others Lacks consistency.
Forgets time-sensitive tasks, doesn’t complete assignments, struggles with follow-through Loses belongings.
Doesn’t put items back where they below, forgets items at home, struggles to develop and implement organizational strategies
Can academic accommodations be made to help my child succeed in school?
Yes! Under federal law, several avenues exist for helping ensure students diagnosed with ADHD receive the support needed to do their best in school. Review the types of accommodations highlighted below and read about what it takes to request them.
Types of Accommodations:
Activity role model.
If your child frequently disrupts class, ask for him/her to be sat next to a role model they can try to emulate.
Students who invade others’ personal space may need to sit in a part of the classroom where desks are spaced further apart.
Ability to move.
If it’s difficult to stay sitting during a lesson or story, create a small strip of the classroom where the student can move in an orderly fashion.
Students who need to know they’re doing well can have weekly progress reports sent home that parents review with them.
Social behavior support.
If a student struggles to understand appropriate behaviors, set goals and create rewards for good behavior.
Types of Accommodations:
Lack of respect.
If other students struggle to respect a disruptive student, assign responsibilities to them in front of others to demonstrate trust.
Help students create an assignment book and spend time with them as they write down daily/weekly assignments.
If the student struggles to stay focused during the lesson, teachers can create a private signal to use instead of calling them out.
Students who are easily distracted can be sat away from windows or other stimulants that cause a distraction.
Students who feel self-conscious can receive compliments on improvements and positive behavior in front of the class.
Types of Accommodations:
If learners struggle with consistently demonstrating appropriate behavior, create a contract with them at the beginning of the year as a reminder of what they promised to do.
Students who seem withdrawn can be made to feel part of the class through teacher-led social interactions and group activities.
Because focusing is difficult for students with ADHD, try to build in short breaks between assignments.
Reward due process.
If students constantly blurt out answers, only acknowledge when they raise their hand and are called upon.
Schedule a five-minute period at the start of class where students who frequently make avoidable mistakes can review their work before turning it in.
Types of Accommodations:
Create favorable learning atmospheres.
Students who struggle to take tests or complete assignments around others can be given a separate space or additional time.
Support correct answers.
Students who find it difficult to follow instructions can receive oral instruction in addition to written directions.
Paired note taking.
If a learner can’t take comprehensive notes, pair them with another student to help them learn better habits.
Increased lesson comprehension.
If a student cannot understand the point of a lesson due to a lack of focus, create more systems of rewards and consequences.
Students who constantly forget materials can be allowed to keep sets of books at home and at school.
How to Request Accommodations
Get an evaluation.
Find a licensed professional counselor, psychiatrist, or another medical professional who can see whether your child has ADHD.
Meet with the evaluators.
Evaluations often come from a team comprising the school psychologist, special education teacher, and any other relevant professionals. Meet with them to learn about next steps.
Find the proper channel.
Depending on the severity of the child’s ADHD, they will qualify for free special education services under the IDEA law or Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. Work with evaluators to ascertain which one applies.
Create a plan.
If qualifying under IDEA, teachers and parents create an Individualized Education Program (IEP); if qualifying under the Federal Rehabilitation Act, they create a 504 Plan. Both can help create guidelines for how the school will help the child (they should all be measurable and achievable). The difference is that the 504 cannot be enforced by law. Some schools may try to use a generic IEP or 504 plan, but parents should insist on a customized plan and not agree to it until they are satisfied with the outcome.
When creating the IEP or 504 Plan, contacting the school for updates, making requests, or voicing concerns, ensure you keep copies of all these communications. After meeting with school staff, circulate an email laying out all the points of the meeting to establish records. The burden of proof showing whether the school adequately supports children falls on parents, so these records can really make a difference if the school needs to be challenged.
What should I do if I think my student has ADHD?
If a parent or teacher suspects that their child has ADHD, here are three steps they can take.
Pay close attention to student’s behavior.
More so than anyone else, parents often have the first sense that their child may be struggling with behavioral, emotional, or psychological issues. If you get the sense that they are exhibiting some of the common symptoms of ADHD, get them tested. Remember to support your child through this process and do not use language that will make them experience fear or shame.
Get input from student’s teachers and school.
Teachers and school professionals spend much of their days with your child, so chances are they will notice any classic symptoms of ADHD early on. While these professionals cannot provide diagnoses, they can aid parents in identifying issues early.
Talk to your child’s doctor and/or consult with a specialist.
“If a parent suspects their child may have ADHD, they should make an appointment to be seen by a licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or primary care provider,” encourages Lowery. “A teacher, principal, or other school educators cannot provide a diagnosis for your child, so it is preferable that they see someone who specializes in diagnoses of psychiatric disorders.”
For Parents: How to Support Your Student with ADHD
After receiving a diagnosis of ADHD, parents need to take multiple steps to ensure their children are well provided for and that teachers understand how to best serve these learners. Review the steps in the following section, but also conduct additional research about creating the best environment for your child.
What to do once your child is diagnosed with ADHD
After receiving a diagnosis of ADHD, parents need to take multiple steps to ensure their children are well provided for and that teachers understand how to best serve these learners. Review the steps below, but also conduct additional research about creating the best environment for your child.
Advocate for your child’s needs.
“Parents are a child’s best advocates; do not allow anyone to silence you when it comes to their needs,” instructs Lowery. “It’s imperative that you educate yourself on the diagnosis so that when you feel their needs are not being met, you can confidently request what is needed in order to help them succeed.”
Meet with your school to understand support services.
“Alert the school of their diagnosis in order to determine if there is a need for a 504 Plan or IEP,” says Lowery. “ADHD diagnoses can sometimes fall under the category of ‘other health impairment,’ but in order to obtain a 504 Plan or IEP, it must be determined that your child’s diagnosis significantly impacts her/his education in a negative way.”
Learn all you can about ADHD.
It’s important for parents to educate themselves on the diagnosis because often your child will display behaviors that seem to be defiance, a learning deficiency, or social inadequacy,” says Lowery. “These are actually symptoms of their disorder or poor coping, so parents need to understand the root, so they respond appropriately.”
Find a professional.
“Seek out a licensed provider to help your child learn coping skills to manage their symptoms and also consult with a psychiatrist to determine the necessity for medication management,” encourages Lowery. “In my experience, it is nearly impossible to manage the impulsiveness and lack of concentration without medication—at least initially.”
7 Tips Help Your Child Succeed in School
Parents are their children’s greatest advocates—especially for younger students who may not understand ADHD and need adults in the room to ensure compassionate and supportive measures are put in place. Parents can implement tools and procedures in both their homes and at school to help bolster learners with ADHD and make sure they receive the resources needed.
- Convey Understanding.
Living with ADHD can be incredibly frustrating, making it imperative that parents let their children know that they understand their frustrations and are doing what they can to make things better.
- Partner with their teacher.
Rather than creating a list of wants and demands for already busy and over-extended teachers, try to partner with them and create a relationship that works to best support your child. Look for ways to help the teacher and underscore his/her value.
- Create routines.
Students with ADHD thrive on routines, so it’s important to develop continuity. Create schedules so they do not need to predict how their days will go. As part of this routine, ensure they get ample sleep each night.
- Encourage thinking outside the box.
Students with ADHD often come up with non-traditional ways of going about their homework, interacting with others, and accomplishing goals. Avoid any “right” or “wrong” language and instead, encourage creative solutions.
- Remove shame and guilt.
Especially as teenagers, students worry enough about what others think of them without tacking on a mental disability. Remove any language that makes a child think they should feel shameful or guilty about the illness and instead encourage positivity. Keep an open dialogue so your child can talk to you about difficulties with other students/teachers.
- Help them develop organizational tools.
Working with your child’s personality and learning style, try to develop organizational structures that help them stay prepared and accountable. Some may work best with checklists while others may need a day-to-day planner. Find the right tool and rope teachers into this plan.
- Meet with teachers at the start of each year.
Just because you prepped a teacher one year does not mean that information carries over to the next. Set meetings with each teacher at the start of the semester to share information about your child, provide helpful resources, and begin building a mutually beneficial relationship.
ADHD Support Groups for Parents
As important as it is to ensure students with ADHD receive the support they need, it’s equally as important to help parents find a community of understanding individuals who have walked a similar road. Fortunately, plenty of support groups and services exist to help them navigate their child’s academic journey and be their best advocate while finding time for themselves.
Who should attend a support group?
ADHD support groups can be of value to parents, grandparents, guardians, and any other caregivers who feel like interacting with others that understand this journey could derive benefit.
How do support groups work?
While every support group maintains its own procedures and missions, the majority exist to provide community for individuals whose child(ren) have been diagnosed with ADHD. Some may focus on providing a space where parents can share their experiences and ask questions while others may offer a resource bank for those seeking information.
How can I get involved?
ADHD support groups exist online and in-person, making it easy to find one that suits your schedule and personal preferences. If online, individuals usually just need to send a request to be admitted into the private group. If in person, call or email the person/team in charge or organizing the meeting to find out time and location. The ADDitude Directory provides a list of ADHD support groups in North Texas and an example of what to look for in your area.
Finding Support on Social Media:
15 Resources for Parents to Follow
In addition to the social media support services outlined below, readers should look for other groups and social media accounts that meet their specific needs and see if any local support groups exist in their community or region.
Educator Tips: 10 School Strategies for Students with ADHD
On any given day, teachers are pulled in dozens of different directions and may struggle to know exactly how to best support a student with ADHD. Fortunately, plenty of advice and actionable information exists for educators who want to follow best practices for these learners.
- Learn about the child.
“Get to know the child’s needs,” encourages Lowery. “Most cannot sit for the entire length of a lecture, so it may be necessary to allow the student to take a walk or engage in a different activity for a set period of time before coming back to the lecture.”
- Create intentional seating charts.
“Some students need to sit in front to minimize distractions caused by other teachers or be near the teacher who can discreetly give them a signal to focus again,” says Hey. “Some need to sit in the back so they can get up and move to stay focused.”
- Remove distractions.
“Eliminate as many distractions as possible in the immediate area of the child,” says Lowery. “This will increase a child’s ability to focus and lead to better learning.”
- Create breaks.
“The brain of a student with ADHD tires easily,” reminds Hey. “A brief stand-up-and-stretch break would be beneficial to help these students stay engaged.”
- Introduce helpful sensory items.
“Consider investing in some sensory items that promote focus,” encourages Lowery. “Examples may include stress balls, yoga balls, or Velcro strips on desks.”
- Assign less homework.
“Studies have shown that staying up late to study negatively impacts academic performance the next day,” says Hey. “Students attend class all day, participate in extracurricular activities after school, come home, and eat supper—this only leaves a couple hours for homework. If every teacher gives an hour’s worth of homework, students are sleep deprived and unable to properly learn the next day.”
- Stay in touch with parents.
“Try to communicate with parents on a regular basis,” instructs Lowery. “They typically know what works best for their child when it comes to managing symptoms.”
- Use positive language.
“It has been estimated that by the age of 10, children with ADHD have received 20,000 negative or corrective messages,” warns Hey. “This has a disastrous impact on mental health and self-esteem, as negative messages stick more easily than positive ones. For every negative or corrective message you give a student, try to provide three to five positive messages.”
- Break down tasks.
“Simply assigning a big project to a student with ADHD has the potential to overwhelm them,” says Hey. “Break assignments down into small, manageable tasks to prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed and help them get started.”
- Establish routines.
If students with ADHD know they will always turn in homework during a set point of class, will always write their assignments down with the help of a teacher or row captain, and will always get breaks between assignments, it helps them anticipate the flow and get less distracted by unexpected changes.