Seven classroom strategies for children with ADHD

ADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder. Neuro-developmental disorders affect the development of the nervous system which then leads to a change in brain function affecting, learning, memory, self control and emotions. There are times throughout my forthcoming SEN course where I’ll ask you to ‘Remember the Facts’. When we remember the fact that ADHD is biological, it helps teaching practitioners to better respond to the behavioural effects without being frustrated or triggered. Yet we can also find wats to make adaptations to accomodate the effects of ADHD on a child's learning experience.

I teach in an PRU that works with children with Social, emotional and mental health needs and the referral rate of children with ADHD is fairly high. Half of the students I teach have a diagnosis of ADHD (some medicated and some un-medicated) with some having a dual diagnosis of other disorders such as Tourette's. Tensions can get pretty high when you have 3 or 4 very bouncy children each setting each other off! It keeps me on my toes. However, over time, I’ve developed some pretty helpful strategies to help me set these children up for success.

1. School and Classroom Environment

First, consider how your wider environment reinforces your behaviour expectations. While some behaviours are impulsive, it does not mean we can’t help children work towards sharpening their self-awareness. It can help if we are setting the standard school-wide and classroom-wide and not just focussing in on any one particular child.

2. Praise the controlled behaviours

I’m trying hard not to use the word ‘good’ to describe behaviours here. When we remember the fact this disorder is biological and affects impulses we can refer to behaviours as ‘controlled’ or ‘impulsive’. Remember to constantly praise the controlled behaviour (however it presents itself), as opposed to responding negatively to the impulsive behaviour.

Well done for keeping your hands to yourself! Or
I can see you’re really trying hard to use your pencil safely, keep it up.

If we praise the times the children is able to control their behaviours then we are reinforcing our expectations, and this can help children to sharpen their self-awareness. If a child finds themselves unable to control their impulses and the result is another child being hurt or harmed or even them hurting themselves, be sure to help them simply understand what happened and who was affected rather than giving consequences for ‘bad behaviour’.

3. Rewards

For all children a reward chart gives them immediate gratification. I like to focus in on one particular target. For example, a child in one of my groups finds it difficult to use resources safely. A ruler or pencil is usually used as a missile in the lesson. I give this child a behaviour chart with one target of ‘I can use my resources safely’. You can choose how many ticks or stars the child needs to aim for in order to receive a reward. I like to split the day up into two halves. If a child fails to meet their target in the morning, they need to know they can reset and still try again in the afternoon. Yes, this means two rewards in the day but it needn’t be an arduous task for the adult. A 5-minute game or getting to help small children in the nursery feels like a big deal for most children.

4. Calming resources

I often choose a calming toy or resource that responds directly to the child’s individual needs. For example, one child finds it difficult to stay in their seat without moving around or standing up. I use a pedal machine which they can use whilst sitting in their chair, or at their table. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to use a wobble cushion or gym ball. Another child constantly needs to use their hands and is always throwing things across the room. I’ve given him a stress ball toy or something to occupy his hands doing a sedentary activity like sitting on the carpet or listening to teacher input. A weighted blanket across the shoulders or on their lap is also immediately calming.

5. Sensory Integration

I’m not a trained OT, nor am I trained in Sensory Integration, but I have done some research. I always note if I notice the same kind of behaviours – do they always seek to move their muscles and joints? Do they hit or bite others? Perhaps they need some sensory activity that meets their sensory need proprioceptive or vestibular sensory need. For example, one child likes to get underneath his table and practice leg presses by lifting the table up and down with his feet. Yes, I know…and every time I have mini heart failure. But I’ve considered that this might be because he needs to do some ‘heavy work’. e.g. carrying books or boxes or pushing heavy objects around. I timetable in ‘heavy work’ activities throughout his day and it seems to have a calming effect. Another thing to consider is whether a child is responding to the noise level of their surroundings. Rather than tell an adult that a space is too noisy or over stimulating, a child might rather hit out or scream or make loud noises. Trying to use ear-defenders in class can help you determine whether a child needs the space around them to be quieter in order to stay focussed on the task or activity. A SENCO or and Occupational Therapist may be able to support with this and if it’s requested, I might share some further insights on this in another blog post.

6. Transitions

Does increased activity or impulsiveness peak at specific times? For example, when a task appears to hard or a task isn’t appealing? Or at the start of a new task when anxieties might be high. Think about how the child might transition into this activity rather than jumping straight in! Do they have ‘Now and Next’ board to help them anticipate the next task or do they need a 2-minute mindfulness session between activities to keep them calm and grounded.

7. Engagement

Some of my students become distracted or disengaged and this is when other impulsive or hyperactive behaviours can start to show. I like to prompt pupils to stay on task by warning them that I’ll be asking them a question in the next five minutes. Sometimes, I give the children who are most easily distracted a role or responsibility in my teacher input. That might be giving them the interactive whiteboard pen to edit my work on the board or something of that nature. Sometimes when children are at their desks I give them a pen and paper to doodle or sketch as I’m doing the teacher input – it seems counter intuitive but it can help to keep some children focussed in on the learning. Of course, this is dependent on the child.

Lastly, I want you to ‘Remember the facts’. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It isn’t a child’s will to be disruptive, impulsive or in some cases dangerous. Build a classroom environment that supports a child to be more self-aware and praise them when they're clearly working hard to control their actions.

Let me know if any of these tips are helpful. Or if you have any specific challenges I haven’t been able to help with in this post so far. Don’t forget to tag a friend who might benefit from these tips. Follow me on Instagram where I'll introduce more advice from a CAMHS psychologist on how to support children with ADHD.

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