Education Equity

Meeting the Needs of Students With ADHD

Steps you can take to foster greater productivity, order, and calm for these learners.

January 22, 2015 Updated June 15, 2017

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 ruling 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. As the Supreme Court noted in Brown, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But this didn’t apply just to people of color—it applied to any student unable to access educational opportunities, including those with disabilities.

Brown helped pave the way for the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, signed into law in 1975 (enacted as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in 1997), which made it easier for students with disabilities to secure services and created opportunities for greater educational equity.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder, and the Americans With Disabilities Act allows it to be classified it as a disability. But getting an accommodation or special services based solely on an ADHD diagnosis is difficult—and unless students manifest “one or more specified physical or mental impairments,” they’re not considered disabled and are not eligible for services. Essentially, 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.

Without accommodations and/or special education services, 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 33 percent of all students with ADHD who didn’t have a comprehensive therapeutic/educational plan failed out of high school.

But we as teachers have the power and ingenuity to create more effective learning environments for students with ADHD. Even if students don’t have an individualized education program, we can create learning environments that foster greater productivity, order, and calm.

Making Learning Child-Centered

Child- or student-centered learning presumes that students who are drivers of their own learning will be more invested and motivated. It’s a tenet of the constructivist learning theory first proposed by Jean Piaget, and it considers the learning styles, preferences, and interests of the student. It encourages incidental learning.

It’s also a way to accommodate a child with ADHD. The teacher maps out goals and resources, and assumes a facilitator role. Students work in small groups, with a partner, or independently. Gaming, MOOCs, hands-on activities, small-group activities, webquests, and mini-lessons can all be integrated as resources.

Integrating Personal Development Into Lessons

Students with ADHD frequently lack skills required in the real world, including problem solving, time management, fiscal responsibility, personal accountability, communication skills, and public speaking. Teachers can integrate these skills into lessons. For example, students who need help advocating for themselves can learn how to present and sell ideas, market themselves, and communicate effectively through public speaking. Public speaking integrates oral presentation skills, research, storytelling, nonverbal communication, time management, problem solving, and speaking fluency.

Differentiating Learning and Encouraging Mastery

Differentiation and encouraging mastery are the basis of the Montessori method. Assess each child’s learning style and design an individualized 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.

Integrating Movement and Mindfulness Meditation

Children with ADHD are statistically quite bright. Unfortunately, their symptoms—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 so-called happy hormones.

Mindfulness meditation is also helpful. Scientific American reported that after an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation, MRI scans showed that participants’ amygdalas, the brain’s fight-or-flight center, shrank. It also showed that their prefrontal cortices, the area associated with executive function (concentration and decision making) became thicker. A report in Clinical Neurophysiology found similar benefits of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of ADHD. In one study, adults with ADHD showed marked improvement in mental performance, a decrease in impulsivity, and greater self-awareness after participating in a series of mindfulness meditation sessions.

Creating a Positive, Supportive Learning Environment

There are common practices teachers use to reduce classroom distractions. Seating a child with ADHD in the front row, away from doors and windows, is one approach. Jane Milrod, director of CHADD Princeton and an ADHD/executive function coach, strongly recommends mentoring programs. She advocates using a study buddy—a classmate who shows the student with ADHD the ropes. Knowing that one person is there to help him or her can empower a student with ADHD. The school becomes a less hostile environment.

A program through Eye to Eye, a national mentoring organization, places high school and college students with similar labels into schools to help students with ADHD develop their study, homework, communication, and peer interaction skills.

Documenting Whenever Possible

District policies do change, so students with ADHD may become 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.

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