Teachers and ADHD

Be That Teacher Who Breaks Through

Students with ADHD learn differently. This presents a challenge and an opportunity — for more visual, collaborative, interactive, positive lesson plans. Not to mention a life-changing relationship with the students who struggle at school

Blocks that spell out teach on a wooden desk

Teachers: Have you ever had a lesson plan that didn’t work the way you wanted it to? Maybe it’s because you planned the lesson for yourself. It would have worked fine for someone who learns like you do, but it wasn’t effective for struggling learners. Do you have a student who wrestles with simple assignments? Does he act confused or oblivious when you speak? Does it seem as if he’s been blindfolded, spun around, and asked to perform while receiving too much information from a cheering, well-intentioned crowd? What makes a great teacher is listening, adapting, and forgiving students who flounder. Here are several strategies for making things easier for ADHD/LD students in your classroom.

Explain Figurative Language

As you guide your students through a task you’ve assigned them, they may appear baffled by something you said, such as “keep your head on straight.” If a student doesn’t know that expression and interprets it literally, he may become concerned that his head might come off. Explain what you mean when you speak figuratively. If a child is very distractible, your figurative words may cause him to miss the lesson plan. Develop the lingo that you wish to teach with, and be sure your students understand it as well.

Show and Tell

Show and tell is not just for students. When introducing a new topic, it isn’t enough to talk your student through it. You need visual aids. Make a zipping motion with your hands when telling him to zip up his jacket. Point to the object you want him to retrieve. Use a laser pointer every once in a while to direct his gaze where he needs to look and focus.

When your students receive instructions, show them what you want by doing it yourself, or have a peer demonstrate what to do. Students with ADHD do best when auditory and visual information are presented together. Give an example they can follow. Even if the student missed part of what you said, he may succeed by watching you demonstrate.

[Free Download: The Big List of ADHD School Resources from ADDitude]

Work As a Team

Your student with ADHD may be totally disinterested in a topic and clueless about the “planning” of a lesson. You can change that by including him. Get him thinking by asking him how long he thinks it will take to get the job done.

Let your student come up with ways to demonstrate what is on the lesson plan. Perhaps he could find a YouTube video that shows what you are teaching about, or he might develop an experiment or project the class could do. A student with ADHD prefers short tasks and might become overwhelmed by complication. You should remain in control of the subjects and material, but involving the student will help him stay engaged.

If you see your student’s attention waning, you know he isn’t retaining the information you are presenting. Everyone’s thoughts wander now and then, but try not to let your student with ADHD drift too far from the lesson. Once he loses focus, you have to spend energy reeling him back in, taking away time from teaching. Alerting strategies, such as saying your student’s name, changing the volume or pitch of your voice, or doing something unexpected, like bouncing a rubber ball off the wall, will redirect your student’s attention back to you quickly.

Though your lesson plan should be flexible, it also needs structure. You know your goals, and you will find the way to achieve them best. Your ADHD or LD student may become restless, but he needs you to be firm and patient as you draw him back to the lesson. If you can use humor, you and your student will be less frustrated as you both try to stay on task together.

[Free Download: What Every Teacher Should Know About ADHD: A Poster for School]

Doing Lessons Right

Impulsive students will become frustrated if they are inattentive and don’t receive your directions. They approach assignments as a race to the finish, so they can get back to doing something they really like. Be sure to define what you mean by a task being “done,” not just completing as much as they intend to.

ADHD/LD students make a lot of mistakes, even when they think they are doing what you asked. They know when people are frustrated with them. Students with ADHD need more encouragement than their peers, but usually get less. To get that specific lesson plan goal accomplished, tell your students when they do things correctly. Let them know that you notice and encourage them to keep going. Tell the parents when the child has done well, so he can hear you say something positive about him.

Use Your Eraser

The lesson plan is not set in stone. Never be afraid to change it. The point is not to mold the student to the lesson plan, and neither is it to mold the lesson plan to the student. It is to mold the plan and the student together. Some of your students are non-traditional learners; therefore, adaptations must be made. As you help your student find the strategies that work for him, remember that your lesson plan may require some changes as well. If something isn’t working, you can always switch gears. You can teach your child if you can reach your child. No lesson plan is perfect, and not all contingencies can be anticipated. When change is necessary, roll with the punches. You and your student will learn a great deal from each other.


Forgetfulness is an ADHD behavior that may look like laziness or a bad attitude, but it is a classic characteristic of the disability.

Punishment will not grow more white matter or improve attention. Teach compensatory skills for coping with the challenge.

Here are some examples from Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD & Executive Function Deficits, by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S

PROBLEM: Forgets to write down homework assignments

> Ask another student or “row captain” to double check to see that assignments are written down.
> Use an assignment notebook/student planner.

PROBLEM: Forgets to bring home the correct assignments and books

> Put a checklist on the door of his locker (check algebra homework, get books).
> Write a reminder note in the palm of the hand.
> Staple the weekly lesson plan in the student’s planner.

PROBLEM: Forgets to complete long-term projects

> Break projects into segments, each with a separate due date.
> Send a reminder to parents about projects and due dates.

PROBLEM: Forgets to complete in-class assignments or steps in solving problems

> Reduce demands on working memory by providing written instructions.
> Simplify multi-step directions; use task checklists.

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