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The Best Classrooms for Children with ADHD

What is the best classroom environment for a child with ADHD?
The ideal classroom will be informal but structured. That may sound contradictory at first, because we tend to think of structure and formality as being the same thing. They're not.

By "formal" I mean the type of classroom where all children are expected to sit in their seat and the teacher stands in front of the classroom delivering a lecture. Such an environment may look structured, but it isn't necessarily so. The lectures may be unfocused. The children may not be getting good guidelines on what's expected of them.

The problem with a formal classroom setting is that it presumes all children learn in the same way. Often an ADHD child needs more latitude in how (versus) what she accomplishes. For example, she may need to stand up at her desk and work at her own pace.

What are the characteristics of a structured classroom?
A well-structured classroom, on the other hand, can be highly informal. But it incorporates lots of cues and tools that help children organize their work and stay focused. For example, the teacher may post calendars, daily schedules, and assignments prominently, and refer to them often. Children will have a designated work space. Materials will be well organized--for example, art supplies will always be kept in the same closet; the dictionary will always be kept in the same spot on the teacher's desk. Short-term and long-term assignments will be written in the same corner of the blackboard.

The structure should extend into the child's personal area as well. For example, books and materials should be organized--and the organizational principles should be clear. ADHD children have notoriously messy desks. Sometimes they think that they're organizing when they're really just straightening--putting their books in a neat pile, putting their papers into folders. But if the math homework is still stuffed into the back of the folder and the math book is sitting on the bottom of the books because it happens to be the biggest, then the child hasn't really made any progress toward organization. Even if the end result isn't as neat, it's better to organize according to consistent principles. For example, the homework folder might be organized in the same order as the school day--if Johnny has math, reading, and geography in that order every day, his homework folder can have math first, then reading, then geography.

That brings up another point. Time should be well structured, too, day to day, week to week, and throughout the school year. Ideally, classes will follow the same schedule every day: Spelling always comes after math. English is always first, and so on. In many schools that degree of structure won't be practical, but the more consistent the schedule, the better for the ADHD child. The same goes for the week--for example, enrichment activities like art or music will always happen on Thursdays.

A bigger challenge is helping the child organize long periods of time--a semester, or a school year. ADHD children tend to have midseason slumps. At the beginning of the year their attention is held by the novelty of the new class. Toward April and May, the end is in sight and it helps them stay focused on what needs to get done. But the long stretch from midwinter to spring is a time when they're more likely to lose their way.

From the point of view of ADHD kids, a semester is a long, long time, and it's tough for them to maintain a consistent focus over the long haul. Just as with the classroom day or week, there should be a lot of organizational cues for the semester and school year. For example, a teacher may wish to post a set of goals and milestones at the beginning of the semester, and cross them off as each one is achieved. Similarly, one could post a time line for the semester above the blackboard, again highlighting special dates, objectives, and milestones. Once a week, the class can review the timeline and cross off what's been accomplished, and look ahead at what remains to be done.

These external cues help compensate for the ADHD child's internal organizational problems. Think of them as the painted stripes on a highway; they help keep the child from wandering all over the road. At the same time, they act as models that the child can use to develop his own organizational strategies. When we first learn to drive, we rely on those stripes a lot. Over time, we think about them less and less, but it still helps that they're there.

How should assignments be structured?
Because children with ADHD have trouble completing long sequences of tasks, a good technique for teachers and parents is to break them up into the smallest possible chunks. For example, it's preferable to give long homework assignments well in advance and permit the child do a little each day rather than all at once.

If the child has a twenty-word spelling list, it will be easier to memorize four words a day over the week, rather than twenty all at once. This "chunking" strategy also holds true for instructions in the classroom. At the end of the day, if the teacher tells the children to put away their books, put their homework assignments in their backpacks, get their coats, and line up for dismissal, the child with ADHD will still be looking for his backpack by the time the bell rings. But by breaking up these instructions into small chunks--and making sure each chunk is completed before moving on to the next one--the teacher can help the ADHD child stay focused. The teacher might say, "It's time to get ready to leave. Put your books away"--and then take a moment to ensure that everyone has done it. "Now put your homework assignments in your backpacks." And so on.

It may take awhile until this instructional style comes naturally. And over time, the teacher should look to raise the bar a little--to give two instructions instead of one. But this approach allows a child to succeed and acquire the organizational skills gradually, rather than being overwhelmed at the outset.

How should the teacher approach discipline?
First, teachers need to understand that often, ADHD children literally don't realize why they're in trouble. For example, when the teacher tells Susan not to interrupt and she says, "I didn't," it sounds like she's being argumentative or making excuses. In fact, Susan may have no idea she was interrupting. So from her point of view, she can't understand, first, why she was accused of something she didn't do, and second, why the teacher won't let her defend herself.

In one study, a group of non-ADHD children and those with ADHD were given fictional scenarios of disruptive behavior and asked to explain what was going on. A significant difference emerged: Most children thought that the child in the example could have controlled his behavior if he chose to; those with ADHD thought the fictional child couldn't control the behavior, and they identified outside forces that provoked it--for example, "His friends bug him all the time."

From the perspective of someone with ADHD, this view makes perfect sense. They know that in many cases they themselves can't control their own behavior. So it's not surprising that they feel persecuted when a teacher, parent, or peer blames them for their actions. If you got blamed because it happened to rain on your picnic, you'd feel persecuted too.

In the classroom, the teacher must walk the fine line between responsibility and blame. It's important for the teacher to impart a sense of responsibility to the child for his actions, and to help him understand the consequences of those acts--but to do it in a way that doesn't make the child feel persecuted.

It's a tough challenge. One way to approach it is by acknowledging the difficulties while expressing confidence in the child's ability to overcome them and offering a concrete strategy for doing so. For example, the teacher might tell a child, "I know it's hard for you to sit still on the bus. I think it will be easier if you sit next to me so that I can remind you to sit down." Even though the outcome may be the same, that approach sends a much more positive message than simply telling the child to sit next to you on the bus.

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From The Attention Deficit Answer Book: The Best Medications and Parenting Strategies for Your Child by Alan Wachtel, M.D. Copyright 1998. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, visit amazon.com or click on the book cover.


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