ADHD & Classroom Management: Q&A With Dr. Mary

Flickr photo by LizMarie

Today Dr. Mary is addressing the topic of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and classroom management.

Q: My 9-year-old daughter has just been diagnosed with ADHD. She has had a lot of problems with misbehavior in the classroom. What are some things that her teacher can do to help her now that we know what's wrong?


A: The good news is that managing ADHD in schools is a well-worn path. As a result, there are many books and an abundance of information on the Internet about this topic. I happen to like the books written by Sandra Rief, an experienced educator who writes and lectures about helping children with ADHD in both the classroom and at home. I find her books easy to read and full of very practical, research-based information.

Students with ADHD, as well as students who tend to test the limits, benefit from teachers who maintain highly structured classrooms and good classroom management. In structured classrooms, expectations for appropriate behavior are clearly stated, starting from the first day of school, and teachers tend to act predictably and consistently. For example, concrete class rules are reviewed and posted on the wall for all to see (e.g., "Keep hands and feet to yourself," "Work silently during quiet time"); the class schedule/routine is also posted, along with visual cues such as a checklist or poster showing what's needed for a particular subject or activity.

The use of signals to get students' attention is another technique used in the well-run classroom. Many of us remember our teachers raising their hand or clapping a particular pattern when they wanted the class to stop what they were doing. Other signals include turning the classroom lights on and off, putting two fingers up in the air, or chiming a bell. These signals can be especially helpful for children who have attentional problems.

For students with ADHD, visual cues work best, so in addition to the information posted on the board or around the room, it often helps to have small "prompt" cards on the student's desk, to remind them of what's expected. Each card can be a drawing or photograph of the proper behavior. For example, because many children with ADHD have difficulty remaining seated, a card could depict a drawing of a child in their seat, writing, with the instruction, "Stay seated" printed underneath. Some children tend to drift off and daydream when they should be working. A card to address this might say, "Keep on task," and show a student working diligently at his desk.

The physical layout of the classroom can also be optimized to help children with ADHD. For example, the best arrangements of desks for children who have attention issues include a U-shaped and a straight row formation. These are in contrast to the popular group formation, where groups of students (often four) are seated in a cluster facing one another, which isn't recommended. Students with ADHD ideally should sit at the center of instruction, near the teacher, and near peers who can serve as good role models (e.g., they pay attention, stay focused on their work, raise their hands when they want to talk, etc.). Students with ADHD should also be seated away from auditory and visual distractors, such as a noisy hallway, pencil sharpener, and windows.

Many opportunities are available for positive reinforcement in the well-run classroom. Most teachers try to catch students doing something they should be doing, and then praise them for that behavior, either verbally (e.g., "I like the way Terry is sitting quietly and looking at me. I can tell she's ready to listen.") or non-verbally (e.g., a nod, a thumbs-up) in an effort to recognize that individual student as well as a way to communicate what's expected from everyone at that moment. Children with ADHD may not automatically demonstrate as many positive behaviors as their peers and thereby not have as many opportunities for praise. Teachers should be aware of this disparity and make even greater attempts to reinforce positive behaviors.

Rief suggests that teachers give a minimum of three times more positive attention to students than corrective feedback. Teachers often have various kinds of reward systems for students, groups of students, and/or the entire class. For example, students can earn fun activities or privileges for work completion, such as extra recess time or free time in class. If finishing assignments is an issue, the student with ADHD will likely need more chances to earn the reward than his/her peers. Positive reinforcement is also used as a strategy to manage behaviors and encourage pro-social behaviors, such as the ones outlined in the classroom rules. Common systems include token economy (earning points or tokens which students can cash in later for a prize) and marbles in a jar (when the teacher catches a student or even the class acting good, he/she puts a marble in a jar; when the jar is full, the class earns a reward).

While a positive approach to managing behaviors is always best, there are of course times that the teacher must give corrective consequences. In the structured classroom, children know ahead of time what to expect when they misbehave, and teachers typically have a continuum of consequences, starting with a gentle response. For example, a teacher may give the nonverbal warning of simply standing near a child who is playing with his pencil box during a writing activity. This subtle act reminds the students that it's time to get to work. The student with ADHD may have a much harder time controlling behaviors like this, so teachers need to be more flexible and understanding. These students simply cannot control many behaviors, like moving around in their seat and fidgeting with objects. Less gentle corrective consequences for misbehavior might include loss of a privilege for a period of time (e.g., five minutes taken off of computer time) or extra work. Sometimes using an individualized behavior chart, where specific behaviors are listed and monitored throughout the day by the student, can be very effective with ADHD children.

While misbehavior can often be successfully managed in the classroom, there are other ways that schools assist students with ADHD. Because ADHD often interferes with learning, strategies that address academic challenges should also be considered. There are things the classroom teacher can do, but sometimes other specialists can be involved. ADHD can also interfere with social relationships, so social skills training or emotion management work can also be helpful. Finally, some children with ADHD will qualify for a 504 plan and will receive additional classroom accommodations. This is a great opportunity for the parent to partner with the teacher in identifying what works best for their kid.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Got a question about school learning and behaviors for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.

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