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A photo of a young child with pigtails, wearing a monster backpack.

According to the National Education Association, educational equity means that education should be accessible and fair to any child who wants it. In principle, it’s based on the 14th Amendment and the 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. The aim of that court decision was to fix the ills of an educational system based on segregation and inequity in the funding of schools as it pertained to minority students.

The decision did improve educational equity for children with disabilities. As a result of the decision, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (that includes IDEA, Section 504, and ADA), signed into law in 1975, paved the way for students with disabilities and made it easier to secure services.

DSM-5 defines attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a developmental disorder, and the Americans with Disabilities Act considers it a disability. But getting a 504 accommodation or special services based solely on an ADHD diagnosis is difficult. Rulings laid out by the U.S. Board of Education are stringent, and unless students manifest "one or more specified physical or mental impairments," they won't be eligible.

Without these accommodations, many students with ADHD don't thrive in the classroom. Betrayed by their bodies, these kids struggle with peer relationships, feel like failures, and are stigmatized. In 2012, the CDC reported that 33 percent of all students with ADHD who didn't have a comprehensive therapeutic/educational plan failed out of high school.

These kids are caught in the middle. Not necessarily minority, they're not part of the educational equity debate. Not necessarily disabled, they're ineligible for services.

As teachers, despite being a part of an embattled profession, we do hold tremendous power. We can help flailing learners believe in themselves. Even without a 504 accommodation, we can with some ingenuity create a more effective learning environment for children with ADHD. Here are five possible approaches.

1. Make learning child-centered.

Child- or student-centered learning presumes that students who are drivers in their own learning will be more invested and motivated. It's a tenet of the Constructivist Learning Theory first proposed by Piaget, and it considers the learning styles, preferences, and interests of the student. It's also a way to accommodate a child with ADHD. The teacher must map out goals and resources, and assumes the facilitator role. Gaming, MOOCs, hands-on activities, webquests, and mini-lessons can all be integrated as resources.

2. Differentiate learning and encourage mastery.

This is the basis of the Montessori Method. Assess each child's learning style and design an individualized learning plan to accommodate that child. It's student-centered learning at its best, facilitated by the teacher and encouraging mastery, confidence, and enthusiasm -- and students with disabilities do well with this method. In What Works for Differentiating Instruction in Elementary Schools, Grace Rubenstein shows how this modification can be put into place.

3. Integrate movement breaks and mini-mindfulness meditation sessions.

Children with ADHD are statistically quite bright. Unfortunately, their symptoms of ADHD -- distractibility, hyperactivity, clumsiness, impulsivity, nervousness, and poor focus and concentration -- can undermine learning. To help them "blow off steam" and refocus, schedule some short movement sessions such as yoga, tai chi, Zumba, or a quick power walk. The exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, the "happy”" hormones.

Mindfulness meditation is another activity gaining in popularity. Scientific American, in a recent article, reports that after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, MRI scans showed the amygdala, the brain’s "fight-or-flight" center, shrank. It also showed that the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with executive function (concentration and decision-making) became thicker. A recent report in Clinical Neurophysiology concurs with the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of ADHD. In one study, adults with ADHD showed marked improvements in mental performance, a decrease in impulsivity, and greater self-awareness after participating in a series of mindfulness meditation sessions.

4. Create a positive, supportive learning environment.

There are common practices that teachers use to reduce classroom distractions. Seating the child in the front row, away from doors and windows, is just one approach. Jane Milrod, Director of Princeton C.H.A.D.D. and an ADHD/Executive Function coach, strongly recommends mentoring programs. Her approach is the "study buddy," a fellow classmate who shows another classmate with ADHD "the ropes." Knowing that one person is there to help him or her can empower a student with ADHD. School becomes a less hostile environment. Another program through Eye-to-Eye, a national mentoring organization, places high school and college students with similar labels into the schools to help students with ADHD develop their homework, study, communication, and peer interaction skills.

5. Document as much as possible.

District policies do change. With change, students with ADHD may be eligible for accommodation and special services. Document whenever possible, and involve the parents in your strategies. Note any modifications made in the classroom and their effectiveness, and make recommendations toward creating educational equity when strategies that don't include special education are insufficient.

Most importantly, consider these strategies as fresh ideas. Teaching a child with ADHD is challenging, frustrating, and exhausting. New ideas can generate new energy. And that new energy can revitalize and bring hope to a child with ADHD. It can also help to bridge the gap between educational equity and the children without it.

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Merle Huerta's picture
Merle Huerta
Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13

Wow, Samer. That was a terrific, relevant article. Much food for thought.

Eva OMalley's picture
Eva OMalley
ADHD Advocate/Educator

Motivation is the issue as its home is in the frontal lobes.The anterior cingulate is responsible for that function and PET scans have documented how poorly this area responds to "just thinking about something" as enough to motivate us to do it. If these areas aren't getting enough neurotransmitters, as brilliant as the child's ideas are, they will not be managed or acted upon. Also delays in reaching milestones development like internalization of language skills are also going to interfere with attempts at mindfulness. You need self talk in place in order to guide yourself. If this isn't developed well, you might have a first grader with pre-school operations still. I couldn't inhibit long enough to allow a peaceful thought into my head to help me until I was treated medically. I truly hope that above all, that teachers, focus on the problems and not the behaviors. If they take a bit of time to direct efforts to drilling a little to finding this out, behavior becomes secondary and what is driving it becomes more clear and fixable. You don't need school or parents to be on board. Sometimes you are probably the only one who will be paying attention.

(1)
Merle Huerta's picture
Merle Huerta
Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13

Hi Eva,
Yes, all that you say is so true. The real problem is that most teachers don't have your breadth of knowledge. Those who have the information and training frequently aren't in the classroom, or trenches I like to say. Teachers across the board need training in the mechanisms and manifestations of ADD/ADHD.

About mindfulness, yes, I'm beginning to find that it requires self talk. But initially, using mindfulness meditation can at the least notch down anxiety in these students. With one of my own children who at 12 is only beginning to develop some reflection and self talk, the guided meditation puts her to sleep. That's a win as far as I'm concerned. If a child with ADHD feels less anxious in the classroom, that's a positive.

(1)
Eva OMalley's picture
Eva OMalley
ADHD Advocate/Educator

I am SO glad there is someone out there who is addressing the anxiety concerns of children as well. I remember asking my doctor if anxiety was diagnosed in children back 10 years ago and he said yes, it's common but not commonly treated. Most of my son's issues seemed not from his academia but from needing to go to the nurse every few hours to take a break from instruction. What looks like "trying to get out of class" is really "shutting down and overwhelm. Than you again for taking this topic to out of the dark ages and agreeing that a teacher is much more than an instructor. They are the surrogacy of the parents and in the trenches is where we need to bring the help to the "shell shocked" students and teachers alike. There is training from CHADD for Teachers. T2T or Teacher to Teacher has been doing trainings for several years in specifics of ADHD in the classroom. I will approach Edutopia to advertise this on their site: http://www.chadd.org/Training-Events/Teacher-to-Teacher.aspx

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

I would have seen as hyperactive in my young years, due to having a terrible stutter and continually harassed by a parent, sibling, peers, and teachers. This created much higher average, internalized stress, which created more activity for stress relief. I feel we are missing out big time by using a very improper definition of average stress a only occurring as some event or present activity and not as I see it, many layers of experiences, fears, need, anxieties, problems that we carry with us each day. I feel children who are unable to more cognitively deal with such things are driven to activity as their only outlet.
I feel we can do more to help parents and teachers help those students with such higher average stress get more support on more ease of communication and care. In the classroom, we can first model the proper dynamics of approaching newer mental work more slowly at first
2. also make good use for all students of the need to have more breaks on the hour of at least 5 to 10 minutes.
3. For older students I feel we can begin to teach students how our average stress is made up of many layers of mental work that create more tension and need for more activity. We can help those students learn to approach their individual environments more delicately to continually improve their lives more permanently reduce their layers of average stress to create more ease over time. - not genetic
4. I feel the dynamics or approaching newer mental work more slowly is something that needs to be taught to all students. I feel higher average stress tends to create more exaggerated pace and intensity, thus heightening their total average stress that usually leads to more frustration and activity.

Merle Huerta's picture
Merle Huerta
Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13

Thank you Ann for sharing your personal experiences and insight!

judyd123's picture

I think most teachers do not have enough training to deal with ADHD students. Training would be help so much. I know I have learned from past experiences. Teachers also need support from administrators.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Yes, our inappropriate, medical models leave teachers with only the idea those students need either medicine or discipline. I have always feel our misunderstood definition of average stress greatly hides the true, root cause for ADHD. We need to understand that average stress is not just some present, situation event or events, but many layers of maintained problems, needs, circumstances, fears, other areas that remain in our students' minds from many "past, present, and future areas". This will create much more activity in those young students who are not as mentally, emotionally, socially, cognitively supported, for those many things the child is undergoing is remaining in the minds of those students even in an normally quiet classroom. These many and usually high layers of mental work create the only outlet many young students have and that is, more activity for temporary relief of the agitation those many internal layers of mental work create. Any added fear, anxiety, schoolwork exceeding that student's immediate knowledge, experience, fatigue limits, (socially created) attention spans, and /or improper pace and intensity created from a funneling of high average stress into attempting mental work, can create more of a need for activity as a stress relief.
We need to understand the task analysis of our students needs in terms of frustration limits, fatigue limits, attention spans, improper pace and intensity, and our own usually mis-reflected adult mannerisms, words, pace, and intensity upon those students. This may require many changes in teacher presentation, time on tasks, breaks, and general pace and intensity of pushing various workloads upon students already perhaps undergoing much more stressful events, anxieties, and needs from home. The more we do understand the environmental causes, the much better we can begin to design a more correct curriculum for all students.

Rebekah Price's picture

I agree that most teachers do not have adequate training to maximize their effectiveness teaching students with ADHD. As a Special Education teacher, a lot of my students have ADHD and I must make adjustments in my teaching style in order for them to learn to their full ability.
In addition, most of my children have added stressors and anxiety due to familial, economic and social situations. I think a great activity I can introduce is mindfulness meditation.

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