Teaching students with ADHD can be both challenging and rewarding. The key is understanding the nuances around how these students learn. There are many techniques teachers can use to help students with ADHD be successful. But before we dive into those strategies, I’d like to tell you about what it’s like to learn for student with this cognitive disability.

Meet my 14-year-old nephew Thomas. He loves typical teenage boy things: video games, snowboarding, comic book movies, and Percy Jackson books. He’s a wonderful young man.

He also has severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and may also have Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. In 2006, when he was just four-years-old, his teachers said he had serious behavioral problems. He consistently spoke out of turn. He was unable to focus, combative, and didn’t follow direction. The school wanted to move him to a specialized institution. It took another two years before he was diagnosed with ADHD, and an individualized education plan was developed so he could remain in mainstream education.

Even with his diagnosis and a plan in place, the last eight years in school have been rough on him. He’s often misunderstood, has a hard time communicating and making friends, and still struggles to focus on the task at hand and follow directions. Most of his teachers don’t know how to teach him, and he’s left to his own devices a lot of the time.

Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Cognitive disabilities like Thomas’s make up the largest segment of disabilities worldwide. The World Health Organization states that more than 25 percent of the global population has some form of cognitive disability. The list of medical conditions that are being recognized as cognitive disabilities range from dyslexia and reading comprehension challenges to autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, PTSD, and even depression and anxiety disorders. Each of these conditions brings a unique set of challenges for learning and formal education.

This makes cognitive disabilities the hardest classification to understand and accommodate. Thomas’s experience could be improved if his teachers had more knowledge and techniques for teaching kids with ADHD.

Here are seven key things to understand about a student with ADHD:

  1. Students with ADHD struggle with memory, especially remembering long strings of sequential instructions. They require clear, succinct information. If you’re in a face-to-face scenario, give these students one unambiguous instruction at a time. If you’re in an online environment, clearly document the series of steps you need them to take so that they can refer to it when their mind wanders. By breaking things into smaller, manageable chunks, you are setting them up for more success.
  1. Students with ADHD need free time built into the day to allow them to wander around, daydream and not worry about the task at hand. By allowing them free time, and not taking it away as a punishment for bad behavior, you’re increasing the likelihood of these students staying engaged and focused during the rest of the day.
  1. Most students with ADHD know what works for them and what doesn’t. Involve the students in the creation of their individualized education plan (IEP). These students are more likely to work hard to meet their objectives when they’re given some ownership over their learning.
  1. Many students with ADHD have developed coping mechanisms to help them focus. These can often manifest as distractions to other students—such as fidgeting, pacing, bouncing in place, etc.—but they are generally quite effective for the ADHD student. My nephew needs to be moving to focus on what someone is trying to explain to him. If he’s allowed to walk in the back of the classroom, he retains more of what was explained in a lesson than when he is forced to sit still.
  1. Students with ADHD are often misunderstood by their classmates due to a lack of awareness. Unfortunately it can create a sense of separation. Educate the rest of your students about the different ways that ADHD students learn. By calling attention to their coping mechanism or accommodation, and explaining the reasons behind it, you remove the idea that this student is getting special treatment—and you can help the other students understand him or her better. This may lead to more positive social interactions in your classroom.
  1. Questions are an invaluable tool in teaching a student with ADHD. When there is a lot of dialogue in the lesson, it’s easier for these students to stay engaged. Be sure to randomly ask students with ADHD questions, so they are not able to discern a pattern and tune out until it’s their turn next.
  1. Most students with ADHD are kinesthetic learners. Build content and instruction that engages as many senses as possible (sight, sound, touch). You’ll increase chance of a desired outcome. This is especially true in an online environment, where students need to work more independently.

These are just a few ways you can help students struggling with ADHD be more successful. The good news is that many of these techniques will increase all students’ engagement, and create an environment that relies less on individual accommodation and more on inclusive practices.

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