Having ADHD puts students at high risk for being disengaged in school. When students with ADHD aren’t engaged, a sort of lose-lose-lose situation can develop: teachers don’t know how to get through to students, students feel like they’re being blamed for things beyond their control and parents stand helplessly by.
But things don’t have to be this way! Here are some techniques I’ve found are helpful for keeping students with ADHD engaged, based on my experience first as a student with ADHD and later tutoring kids with ADHD. Give these a try because if you’re able to keep a student with ADHD engaged, you’ve already won most of the battle!
For this post, I’m going to look specifically at 3 techniques I think are especially useful for seeing how the minds of ADHD students work. I’ll follow up with more tips in a later post.
1. Let them fidget
Working successfully with students with ADHD means changing the way you “read” the behavior of fidgeting. We often think of fidgeting as a sign that someone isn’t paying attention or isn’t listening.
With ADHD students, however, fidgeting means the opposite – that they’re trying to focus and trying to listen. The ADHD brain is chronically understimulated, and fidgeting is a coping mechanism to increase alertness.
The research is clear that children with ADHD focus better when they fidget (here is one of several studies on this topic). So asking them to stop fidgeting not only won’t make them more engaged but in many cases will actually interfere with their own efforts to keep themselves engaged.
The important thing to understand is that fidgeting is a different behavior for children with ADHD and children without ADHD. Children without ADHD do not tend to perform better on cognitive tasks when they fidget more. Children with ADHD do tend to perform better on cognitive tasks when they fidget more.
To encourage ADHD students to fidget in ways that aren’t distracting to those around them, you can try letting them use squeeze balls, letting them doodle during lectures, letting them stand while they work or letting them sit in chairs that allow for free movement (stability balls make great seats for ADHD kids!).
When I got to high school, I discovered that chewing gum was another useful way to channel my fidgetiness, especially when taking tests. I couldn’t get the mint taste out of my mouth for hours after the SAT!
2. Present information both visually and aurally
Whenever possible, give ADHD students the choice between learning new material by reading and learning it by listening.
The thing about lectures is that once information goes by, it’s gone forever – so if you have a tendency towards not paying attention, you’re going to end up missing a lot of what’s said. If the information is written down somewhere, though, it ain’t goin’ anywhere.
On the other hand, ADHD students also often don’t deal well with large volumes of written material. They zone out, end up having to reread the same sentence over and over, etc. And in many cases, ADHD comes as a buy-one-get-one-free package that includes dyslexia.
Therefore, try to make sure whenever possible that students have the option of learning new material both visually and aurally. That way they can listen to the parts that are hard to read through and read through the parts that are hard to listen to.
This technique is important to prevent students from reaching the point where they’ve missed so much information that they’re entirely lost and any further attempts to keep them engaged will be an exercise in futility.
3. Play to their strengths
Students with ADHD tend to have larger gaps between the things they’re good at and the things they’re bad at than other students. In school settings, they sometimes end up spending most of their time trying to improve the things they’re bad at rather than pushing themselves to get even better at the things they’re good at.
However, it’s important to also devote time to the things they’re good at and challenge them to improve at these things for a few reasons:
- It helps them develop confidence and a sense of mastery that will feed into everything they do.
- Balancing things that are rewarding with things that are frustrating will raise their tolerance for the things that are frustrating
- Experiencing some activities as both challenging and engaging shows them that not all activities that are challenging are necessarily unengaging
- In the long term, the things that they’re good at are likely to be the things that they return to over the course of their lives
What are your experiences working with ADHD students – or being one for that matter? Please share in the comments below!