What might ADHD look like in the classroom? Let’s examine two scenarios. Read them and consider what you would do in each situation.
Language Learner Scenario 1
Rajiv is a first-year college student. His moderate ADHD makes him active and energetic, but because he is very talkative, he’s of mixed popularity with fellow students. He has learned to manage his need to stand up and to move around, and he gets his homework done. However, he often misses your classes. In fact, since he has passed the limit of acceptable absences, you pull him aside after class to let him know he has failed. He pleads he loves your class and begs you to give him another chance. You falter and then tell him you will, but he must do extra work to make up for the missed classes and cannot miss even one more, for any reason. Knowing his condition, you allow him to decide what the extra work will be. He does. He gets excited and says he will put all his heart into the project. He swears he will never miss another class.
He comes to the next class and tells you his ideas for the project, which sound a bit grandiose, but you smile anyway. Then, he misses the next class, and the one after that, too. To your dismay, he has broken his promise. So, what do you do? (Decide. Read on. Then, see our perspective at the end.)
Language Learner Scenario 2
The school year just began two weeks ago, and Hotaru is a 16-year-old girl with ADHD in your 10th grade English class. She and her classmates will be giving short, individual presentations in two weeks. At the beginning of today’s class, you give students instructions for this presentation and some background materials. Today’s goals are for students to read through the materials, plan their presentations, and work on their PowerPoints. You tell students what they are supposed to do and that you’re available to answer their questions. Then you keep an eye on them and let them work. They all seem very engaged. Towards the end of class, you walk around checking students’ progress and giving advice. You’re pleased to note that just about every student has created several slides with bullet points and visual aids. Many have finished. However, when you reach Hotaru’s desk, she glances up at you, startled, and sheepishly shows you a blank PowerPoint slide. Dismayed, you wonder how she could have sat here the entire period and not produced a single slide. How do you handle this situation? (Decide. Read on. Then, see our perspective at the end.)
Children with ADHD
ADHD is one of the most frequent neurodevelopmental disorders for children. Here is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA have to say about it (source):
Children with ADHD may:
1) experience difficulty paying attention,
2) find it hard to control impulsive behaviors,
3) or be overly active.
Note that all children behave like this at times, but with ADHD, these behaviors persist and can even intensify.
Here are the specifics. A child with ADHD might:
- daydream often
- tend to forget things or be unable to find them
- squirm or fidget
- talk a lot
- make careless mistakes
- engage in risky behavior
- often yield to temptation
- find it difficult to take turns
- have trouble getting along with other people
Teachers who work with children with ADHD can check to see if their country and school has laws and policies for providing reasonable accommodations for learners with ADHD. If you think one of your learners might have ADHD and you teach in a country or community that does not normally flag this condition, you might find some of the following resources helpful. The DSM-5 (a description of mental disorders used by psychologists in the US) offers a checklist of criteria that you can refer to. Since ADHD comes in different levels of intensity, Conners Rating Scale of severity can help as well. Here is the downloadable short version. Of course, communicating with the child’s caregivers can give you some insight, too. Importantly, consider any information you have about a student with ADHD as private to be discussed only with the individual, caregivers, and school authorities.
Adults with ADHD
Symptoms in adults with ADHD may not be as obvious as they are in children. Adults generally have found ways of suppressing or masking symptoms, and some adults don’t know they have ADHD or don’t have a formal diagnosis. Adults with ADHD might (link):
- have trouble focusing
- tend to misplace things
- experience memory issues
- run late
- engage in risky behaviors
- struggle with verbal interactions
- have difficulty choosing task(s) to prioritize
- struggle with relationships
- feel restless
- experience mood swings
- anger easily
As you can see, adults and children with ADHD share some similarities. These symptoms can make certain aspects of formal education difficult for adults with ADHD (link). Concerning coursework, they might have difficulty concentrating during class or during an exam. It can be a challenge to meet assignment deadlines. Groupwork isn’t always easy for learners with ADHD, and they may feel isolated or avoid interacting with other students. Dealing with stress, worry, and low self-esteem may also interfere with their learning. Any of these issues can lead to bad grades, dissatisfaction with academic performance, and poor connections with peers.
Supporting Adult Learners with ADHD
Since Trent Jones has written about helping adolecents with ADHD in this issue, we’re focusing here on how teachers can support college students and adult learners.
When teaching adults, keep in mind that learners with ADHD might not have a formal diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, students do not always want to disclose this condition to their instructors. They might feel shame after having heard from many other people—including other educators—that all they need to do is focus. If you’re teaching at a college or university, be aware that, for various reasons, students with ADHD may not be seeking or receiving your institution’s disability accommodation services. They might not view ADHD as a disability, or they may not experience ADHD at a level that is dysfunctional. Furthermore, as it generally takes time to go through an institution’s formal accommodation process, instructors may be informed weeks into a course about accommodations granted to a student with ADHD.
Therefore, what teachers need to do is assume that some of our learners have ADHD and design our courses with them in mind. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a good starting point for course design (link). Using what we know about how people learn, UDL is a framework that recognizes that we have diverse learners in our classes and offers us concrete guidelines to design our courses for all our learners. Keeping our course goals firmly in mind, we need to identify and break down any barriers our students may encounter when trying to reach these goals. Ways to do this include presenting information using different media, attracting and sustaining learners’ interests in multiple ways, and allowing students different options to demonstrate their learning. However, as Karen Costa emphasizes (link), UDL is a broad approach that should be combined with personalized, specific, and structured support that learners with ADHD need.
For those of us who work in higher ed., structured support includes a well-organized learning management system (LMS), like Canvas or Moodle, where students can quickly find what they need to prepare for class. Include all the resources students need for a particular unit in one section of your LMS so that they don’t have to search for them elsewhere on the LMS or Internet. To help ADHD students find the current week or unit, highlight or mark it on your LMS. An LMS that is easy to navigate through allows students to spend their time on what’s important: learning, getting ready for class, and completing assignments (link and link).
Structured support also means breaking things down into smaller segments for learners. Big projects or assignments, as well as long readings or lectures, can be overwhelming for any student and especially for students with ADHD. The ADHD Academic recommends clearly dividing up projects, assignments, readings, lectures, etc. and signposting those divisions. Imagine what you’re doing is a book: give it a table of contents and break it down into chapters with headings. This allows learners to plan and stay on track. Over the course of a longer project or assignment, you can check students’ progress in various ways, for example, by talking with students to see how they are meeting goals or by having your students fill out and turn in short progress reports.
Finally, be approachable, flexible, and encouraging. A student with ADHD who’s experiencing difficulty in your class might be willing to talk to you about their problems even if they don’t disclose their condition. Have an open ear and consider what changes you might make to your course that will still allow you to reach the course goals. Remember that students with ADHD have had a lot of negative feedback. This means we should be on the lookout for good work and give them encouraging feedback (link).
Our Thoughts on Language Learner Scenario 1
Despite his ardent promises to you, Rajiv broke them by missing too many classes. It is easy for a teacher to feel they have been cheated when students beg for a second chance, make promises, and then do not keep them. It makes you want to come down on them hard and tell them they are “out.” But keep the nature of the ADHD learner in mind. They were very likely totally sincere when they made the promise and determined more than ever to keep it. But impulsiveness and distraction are not easy to wipe away with just will power. A day might come when the student gets distracted, loses their sense of time, and then is shocked to find that they are so late, they will be punished again, so they don’t go. Then, the impulsiveness turns into depression.
How should you respond to Rajiv’s case? There is no easy answer. Pure punishment will probably not deter his next misstep but instead just increase his sense of unrelenting failure. Showing understanding and a willingness to help Rajiv would probably work better. It might even be possible to use the situation as a teachable moment, discussing the problem and generating possible solutions. That does not mean you have to change the rules. For example, you might, as Curtis has done, arrange special make-up classes for that student. The key is to fully understand the dilemma. To change this learner, you probably have to change yourself.
Our Thoughts on Language Learner Scenario 2
Since Hotaru doesn’t have any PowerPoint slides to show you at the end of class, you might think she’s lazy and deceitful, just pretending to work. You may feel disappointed or angry. However, she may in fact be very interested in the presentation topic, leading her to read the background materials thoroughly and think deeply about the topic. So, why didn’t she work on her PowerPoint? She may have been so focused on following her thoughts, she forgot to start doing the PowerPoint. She might also want to do a really good job and is procrastinating over starting her PowerPoint because she isn’t quite sure what your expectations are. Finally, perhaps creating a PowerPoint isn’t something she enjoys doing. It takes far more energy for people with ADHD to motivate themselves to do something they are not interested in.
Again, there is no one right way to handle this case. First, if you feel irritated, take a few deep breaths to calm down. Then, you might ask Hotaru what she found interesting in the background materials and what she might include in her presentation. Now that you’ve shown genuine interest in her thoughts and ideas, you might gently ask what prevented her from starting her PowerPoint presentation. This will help you plan your next steps.
In the following class, you might begin by asking students what makes a good PowerPoint presentation and collecting their ideas on the board. You can ask for a volunteer to share one of their PowerPoint slides and have the class critique it. Then, you might ask students to create one new slide for their PowerPoint presentation, with a time limit, according to the PowerPoint criteria the class worked out. Next, students can share their new slide with a partner and give each other feedback. For the rest of the period, students can work on new slides for their deck or revise slides they currently have. Use a visible timer so that students can easily keep track of time. As they work, you can walk around, giving guidance as needed. During this phase, you can also give Hotaru, who by the way is probably not a lazy student, some individual help. This is just one idea how you could scaffold the preparation phase for students. Breaking up a longer classroom phase into shorter segments with smaller goals can help students with ADHD develop goal-related persistence skills. And you’re not just supporting students with ADHD—the other students benefit, too.
A Final Word
In most cases, ADHD is just a difference, not a disability. It comes with some advantages, such as hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, and an abundance of energy (source). In class, nonetheless, it is a brain orientation that sometimes needs accommodation, and, always, understanding. As in the two cases above, it is just plain wrong to assume that an ADHD learner’s failure to comply comes from deceit or laziness. As our MAIN video’s Jessica McCabe says in her TED Talk:
It is not about procrastinating or not caring. It is having executive function deficits that make it hard to get started. And it is not people being lazy or not trying enough. It’s kids and adults struggling to succeed with a brain that doesn’t want to cooperate…
But there is another message McCabe gives in her videos that should stand out for us, an important one: It is wrong to punish a learner for something they are already struggling with. It just adds to their failure.
ADHD. Avoid assuming laziness. Avoid inferring deceit. Appreciate a learner’s struggles. These are special ways we can help ADHD learners, which, as an added bonus, help our other learners, too. As we work with the challenges our AHDH learners face, we are better able to work with learners of all dispositions. We can be better.
 Some famous people who used their ADHD superpowers include Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Adam Levine, Justin Timberlake, Sir Richard Branson, Emma Watson, Will Smith, Trevor Noah, Walt Disney, George Bernard Shaw, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Edison, Einstein… whew.
Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is amazed at how much interesting information there is in this issue. He has come to realize he was an ADHD kid too, back from before the tendency was diagnosed.
Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.