Here are 10 techniques for addressing the unique needs of children with ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, in your classroom.
Even when you understand why kids misbehave and you have strategies to maintain classroom order, you may still have one or more children who disturb their peers when they should be sitting quietly, blurt out comments when you ask them to listen quietly, and never seem able to make it through an entire Bible lesson without interrupting the class. These unique children may regularly turn your Bible lesson into a nightmare.
Perhaps that one child who always has trouble sitting still and paying attention is one of the millions — some 3 to 5 percent of all kindergarten through 12th-grade students — who’ve been diagnosed with some form of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These children don’t misbehave deliberately; they have a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for them to concentrate and control their behavior.
If a teacher doesn’t understand ADHD, the classroom can be a negative experience for children with ADHD. Psychologists and teachers recommend these 10 techniques to transform your classroom into a positive experience for children with ADHD.
1. Acknowledge the child’s disorder.
Teachers may make the mistake of attributing a child’s misbehavior to a bad attitude, says Dr. Grant Martin, a licensed psychologist in Seattle, Washington, and author of The Attention-Deficit Child.
“There are a lot of teachers who just think a kid doesn’t want to behave,” says Martin who has worked with children with ADHD for more than 30 years. “Or a lot of people will say the parents are the problem or it’s a spiritual problem.”
Martin says it’s important for teachers to recognize that ADHD is a neurological disorder that causes children to have difficulty focusing or creates an excessively high level of physical activity and impulsive behavior. Some children may have both of these characteristics.
“If teachers understand why ADHD children behave the way they do, it’s easy to have compassion for them and recognize they need extra support from the teacher,” says Martin.
2. Establish clear rules and expectations.
“Structure is so important for kids with ADHD because they’re so easily distracted by any little thing,” says Barb Tjornehoj, a teacher at Trinity Christian School in Omaha, Nebraska. “If they see a teacher allowing one student to talk, they will not hesitate to talk, too.”
Tjornehoj says, “When a teacher doesn’t have clear rules and expectations, the classroom can be up for grabs. Sometimes it takes just one child with ADHD to set the tone for the rest of the class.”
Tjornehoj suggests regularly reviewing rules before beginning a lesson because children with ADHD have a tendency to react in the moment and forget class rules. Consistency is also key, she says.
Both Martin and Tjornehoj stress that a teacher must have everything for the lesson prepared in advance. It’s humbling to admit, but sometimes a child’s inappropriate behavior is the result of a teacher’s lack of preparation.
3. Dare to discipline.
“Children need to know that when they break class rules or behave inappropriately, they’ll be disciplined,” says Dr. Janice Acker, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, and former elementary school teacher for 20 years.
Acker says class rules should be simple and enforceable with clear consequences. The consequences for negative behavior should relate to the innappropriate behavior. If a child intentionally breaks a crayon, for example, he can no longer use it.
With children who have ADHD, psychologists and teachers say immediate and incremental consequences work better than all-or-nothing losses. Losing a privilege for an activity that’ll occur in 10 minutes is much more effective and reasonable than telling a child he’ll lose a privilege for the rest of the year.
4. Anticipate problems.
Seeking to prevent behavior problems before they occur is one of the best strategies for working with children with ADHD, psychologists and teachers say. And all it takes is a little time to notice a child’s behavior patterns.
Is there any behavior a child does every week in class? If so, think of ways to eliminate whatever triggers the behavior. Two kids with hyperactive tendencies sitting next to each other, for example, is a nightmare waiting to happen. Try seating these students either next to calmer students to provide behavior role models or near you where direct eye contact or a tap on their shoulders can redirect their attention.
To respond to a child’s recurring inappropriate behavior, Acker recommends a multisensory approach. “If a student has trouble remembering to raise her hand, a good strategy is to write the specific desired behavior on an index card and just hand the card to the child,” says Acker. “This works just as well as saying, ‘Mary, you forgot to raise your hand again.’ ”
5. Provide positive feedback.
Since children with ADHD often get told what they’re doing wrong, it’s important to let them know what they’re doing right, says David Childs, a teacher at Cimarron School in Lancaster, California, who has worked with ADHD children for 10 years. “Children with ADHD don’t often get praised for good behavior, and they need praise like all kids,” says Childs. Find specific behavior to praise, suggests Childs, even simple behavior that might not seem extraordinary. A teacher might say, for example, “Bobby, I like the way you’ve been sitting still for five minutes.”
Marlane Henderson, a Sunday school teacher at Rolling Hills Covenant Church in Rolling Hills Estates, California, and the parent of three children with ADHD, recommends that a teacher report a child’s positive experiences as well as the negative ones to parents.
“All parents often hear about is the negative behavior,” says Henderson. “They need to hear positive feedback about as much as their child does because it can be very discouraging to always hear what your child is doing wrong.
6. Don’t take a child’s behavior personally.
It’s easy to lose your cool when a child regularly interrupts your lesson, but responding out of anger doesn’t represent Christ and isn’t the most effective way of dealing with the situation. If you have an ADHD child in your class, plan in advance how you’ll respond to any misbehavior. What strategies will you use to redirect a child’s attention? Where will you draw the line between a little fidgeting that doesn’t matter and movement that disturbs the class?
7. Collaborate with parents.
“Teachers often neglect one of the best resources in working with children with ADHD — the child’s parents,” says Tjornehoj, who trains Sunday school teachers to work with ADHD children.
Yet parents can tell a teacher what helps the child succeed in following rules in other situations such as at school. A teacher and parents can coordinate rewards that really matter to kids such as playing video games at home. Yet rewards and privileges are effective motivators only if they’re immediate short-term rewards rather than long-term goals that can be difficult for an ADHD child to achieve.
8. Make interruptions teaching moments.
“Interruptions don’t always have to be bad,” says Henderson. “They can be teaching moments.”
Henderson says one Sunday school teacher at her church with several ADHD students deals with interruptions by asking his class questions such as “How would Jesus be acting during a Bible lesson?” or “What would Jesus not be doing?”
“So often teachers think a child who isn’t paying attention doesn’t want to learn about God,” says Henderson, “but that’s not true. A lot of times they just need to be redirected with a question.”
9. Look beyond behavior to see the whole child.
Children with ADHD need to know that there’s someone who understands why they have trouble listening and sitting still.
“Because they often get in trouble, children with ADHD often get labeled as troublemakers,” says Childs. “They often think their teacher is mad at them if they’re constantly disciplined or, in some cases, yelled at.”
That’s why it’s important for teachers to let children know they still love them even when they act inappropriately! Do this by making a special effort to get to know a child. This will help the child not feel rejected if disciplined.
Tjornehoj says, “If you don’t have love for these kids, they’ll be able to tell right away, and the church will have failed to present Christ to them.”
10. Don’t give up!
ADHD children require a lot of extra effort and patience. Improvement in their behavior might not be noticeable for a long time. Admittedly children with ADHD can be a real challenge, but don’t give up. God can minister to these children through your love, patience, perseverance, and belief in their ability to succeed.
Scot Butwell is a free-lance writer in San Pedro, California.
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