George Lucas Educational Foundation

Positive, Intentional Supports for Students With ADHD

An educator with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder shares simple strategies for supporting students with this learning difference.

March 13, 2024
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When I was growing up, I often heard family members, teachers, relatives, and even friends imply or say outright that I was lazy. Many said things teasingly, but others would admonish in frustration or judgment. As a child and teenager, I worked hard to hide what I considered failures. I was ashamed that I couldn’t keep up or get my work done on time and embarrassed when I lost homework or accidentally left things at home.

Now I know what I didn’t then. I have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—ADHD. I was not, and still am not, lazy. I have a disorder that is very often overlooked or undiagnosed in children (and especially girls) that causes me to struggle with executive functioning and self-regulation skills such as self-motivation, time management, forgetfulness, difficulty sustaining attention and completing tasks, and difficulty planning.

Luckily, I tended to score high enough on tests that my ADHD didn’t derail my academics. Unfortunately, fixing the damage to my self-esteem and self-image is still a work in progress.

As an educator, I’ve seen many students with diagnosed or suspected ADHD struggle academically due to the consequences of the disorder. What makes the struggle even harder is when teachers and other educators fail to intervene in positive, research-based ways to help.

Labels like “lazy” don’t help anyone. These kinds of labels are, instead, character judgments that don’t explain why students exhibit behaviors. What can help, instead, is getting to the root of the problem and building up the student’s belief and confidence in themselves.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

Before applying a potentially harmful label to a student, analyze the specific behavior(s) the student displays. Do they avoid starting tasks? Is it mostly in one subject (writing is a struggle for more than half of students with ADHD)? Do they start tasks but get easily frustrated and give up, or begin causing distractions? How long has the behavior been going on—weeks? months? years? Ask a lot of questions, and leave the emotion out of it. Be open to the possibility that there is more going on than you might think.

Another option is to do a 20-to-30-minute observation of the student when the behaviors usually occur. Using any observation form, such as this one from the Iris Center, or even a blank piece of paper, note the beginning time as well as the setting of the observation. Then, describe what the student does and says factually without making any assumptions about why.

If it’s too hard to keep your emotions or opinions out of this process, try bringing in a colleague who doesn’t know the student to give an unbiased observation. This is very similar to what many schools use for a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) in their Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). This kind of observation can also be beneficial for teachers trying to support students with behaviors that are preventing them from learning even if they don’t qualify for their school’s MTSS program.

Once you’ve clearly defined the behaviors, explore possible causes. Maslow theorized that all human behavior begins with a motivation to meet certain needs. Students, even neurodivergent students, are no different. However, the needs they’re seeking to fulfill may be different than those of neurotypical students. Are there gaps in knowledge and skills that may be causing the student to avoid the unpleasant or embarrassing experience of admitting they don’t know how to do something? Could they be acting out due to frustration or anxiety over their academic struggles?

ADHD, along with other learning differences, can often cause students to avoid nonpreferred tasks at all costs, leading to sometimes severe behaviors. The student’s historical data can be very helpful at this point. Look for clues and trends in the student’s scores in a variety of areas, starting with overall scores, and then dig deeper into individual domains, skills, and benchmarks. If you can identify specific areas of weakness, you can create a plan to address them.

Building Up Student Self-Esteem

One example of a behavior that teachers might mistake for laziness is students starting tasks but failing to sustain the attention needed to complete them. They also often misplace their work or forget to turn it in. Sometimes, the work may even be complete but just never left the backpack. If the root issue is ADHD, no amount of telling the student, “Remember to turn your work in” or “Don’t forget to complete your homework,” is going to fix the problem.

Dr. Russell Barkley advises that anyone wanting to help change the behavior of someone with ADHD must intervene at the point of performance—the immediate time when the behavior would typically be triggered. He lists clear steps to take to put guardrails in place for certain ADHD behaviors. For many students already struggling with low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression due to their ADHD or academic deficits stemming from their ADHD, however, it will take more than tips and strategies to overcome the issue. It will take building the student’s belief in themselves as well as helping them develop an understanding of how their brain works (metacognition).

The first step to helping struggling students develop self-esteem is eliminating negative talk and questioning about why they forgot something or didn’t do some task. Believe me, ADHD students don’t know why, so continuing to ask only makes them feel worse about themselves than they already do.

Second, use sincere, positive praise to reinforce to students that you believe in them. Encouragement, not flattery, works wonders when sincere. Phrases such as “I know this is hard, but I also know you can do it” or “I know how hard it is for you to get started writing, but you have such wonderful ideas. Tell me your ideas out loud first” acknowledge the student’s challenges while instilling in them the amazing belief that someone is on their side and just gets it. For some ADHD students, it might be the first time a teacher has talked to them with empathy rather than exasperation or frustration.

When moving on to completing larger projects or tasks that span multiple days or weeks, work with the students to break down the task into steps with specific due dates and check-ins. To build motivation to complete each step, have them think of a way to reward themselves after completing each step. Teachers can start these conversations like this: “This is a big project that will take a lot of time to complete. I know I can get overwhelmed when I have something big to do. What helps me is to make a plan to do little parts, one at a time. We could make a checklist too.”

The key to overcoming any challenge with ADHD students is to be sincere in your empathy as well as in your belief that the student can succeed. Communicate this belief to the student, and then make the student your partner in crafting a solution, showing them that you truly value their input.

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