While this article has a primary focus on children with ADHD, the strategies discussed here can be utilized to help any child with challenging behaviors.
Children with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms frequently have difficulty at school. They often get yelled at, lose recess time, get put in time out, get detention, or get a phone call home. When they get home they may be punished again for their behavior at school or for exhibiting challenging behaviors at home. Consequences in school generally occur when students have trouble in the following areas: following directions, sticking to the class routine, keeping track of assignments, staying seated, staying in their area, working quietly, completing their work, or raising their hand before speaking.
Students with ADHD cannot always control their behavior due to their disability having a neurological basis. Their actions are not based on willful, purposeful defiance. When children get punished for actions they cannot control, behaviors often get worse. Over time, from being embarrassed in front of peers, yelled at by teachers and/or parents, and punished for things they cannot help, their self-esteem goes down. They feel frustrated and angry and they may shut down (refusing to do work, not communicating their feeling with adults) or their behaviors may increase rather than decrease.
While every child with ADHD is different, below are some common characteristics.
Children with ADHD often have trouble:
- catching directions the first time (they may be distracted by something else or thinking about something else).
- remembering directions (they are often thinking of so many things they may forget information that the parent or teacher deems important).
- controlling their impulses (they may blurt something out, grab something from another student, call out in class, etc. even after being told not to several times).
- remembering or carrying out multiple steps such as that in a morning routine in class (e.g., unpack, put your belongings away, take out your pencil and morning journal, complete the writing assignment on the board) or for an educational assignment (such as completing a long division problem or planning a school project).
- concentrating or focusing for prolonged periods of time, which may be required for a written assignment, a reading assignment, or listening to a teacher-directed lesson (they can become distracted by movement or noises in the environment, distracted by their own thoughts, feel a need to get up and move, or simply need a mental break because they can only sustain attention for so long)
- keeping their body still or remaining seated
- keeping materials organized or keeping track of important papers or belongings
With the right strategies in place, children with ADHD symptoms can make positive behavior changes in school and at home.
As a parent, be an advocate for your child. Work with your child’s teacher, administrator, and guidance counselor to help them understand your child’s symptoms. Let the school know that your child needs to be supported rather than punished for behaviors they may not be able to control.
It is important to understand however, that a teachers job can be overwhelming. She has 20+ students to manage, lesson plans to write, tests to grade, scores and grades to keep, etc. It can be overwhelming for a teacher to implement all the strategies necessary to support students with behavioral needs like those with ADHD, especially when she may have more than one child with behavioral challenges in her classroom.
Despite these facts, your child’s teacher should put forth her best effort to understand what strategies are recommended for children with ADHD or children with challenging behaviors, and try her best to put these strategies in place. If she cannot meet your child’s needs due to being overwhelmed, the school needs to work with you and her, using a team approach, to figure out how to utilize all possible resources in the building. For example: Can the guidance counselor get involved? Can a peer buddy help? Can an administrator step in? There are a lot of resources in a school that can be exhausted in order to help teachers feel supported when implementing strategies.
If a child’s needs are so great that they cannot be supported in a classroom with one teacher, even after all school resources have been exhausted, he may benefit from an evaluation by a school psychologist to determine what additional supports through the special education he may be eligible for. Special education looks very different than it did in the past. Children can often remain in the regular classroom and receive extra support from a special education teacher or paraprofessional.
Children with an official medical diagnosis of ADHD or another condition (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder, depression, or Asperger’s) are entitled to a 504 plan if their disability is interfering with their academic progress. A 504, also called a Chapter 15, is a legal document that requires your child’s school to provide accommodations for your child, so they are not falling behind their peers due to their disability. Due a Google search for “504 Plan” or talk to your child’s school for more specific information.
As a parent, work with the school team to understand the behaviors your child is exhibiting. For example: Is he talking too much and not completing work? Is he out of his seat and calling out? Is he losing his papers and forgetting how to carry out routines? Is it all of the above?
Here is a list of specific strategies to support children with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms in school:
1) If a child has trouble sitting still or staying in his seat he should be given opportunities to move throughout the day.
Opportunities for movement can include:
- standing up at his desk while doing work
- walking around the class in a predefined area
- getting out of his seat to stretch
- passing out materials
- erasing the board
- running errands to the school office
- going to the water fountain
It is up to the parents and the school team to work with the child to figure out what type of movement break would be best.
2) Seat the child away from distractions as much as possible. Keep the child seated away from the window, door, pencil sharpener, and talkative peers.
3) Have lists available for students who can read so they can refer to the list for tasks requiring multiple steps (e.g., a list of the steps for the morning routine or a list of steps for long division). Remind them to refer to the list if they forget the steps and do not independently refer to the list .
For students who are not yet able to read, try to provide a visual schedule of the steps or give them reminders of the steps if you cannot provide visuals.
Read my article How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support for more on this topic.
4) Chunk classwork into small manageable steps. Give the student a certain task to complete. Check it when done and then give him a break to move or engage in a preferred activity when the task is completed. For example, if the class has to complete 20 math problems, allow the student with ADHD to complete 10, take a two to five minute break and complete the next ten. Make the goal reasonable for the child. Some children might need a break after only five questions.
For more open ended assignments such as listening to a class lecture, use a timer. For example have the student listen for five minutes and write down three important facts, then give the student his break. Also use a timer to time the break time. Allow the timer to dictate the end of the break rather than you arbitrarily saying “okay, breaks over.” Let the student know the exact plan (e.g., after you complete ten problems you will have a three minute break). See my article Getting Kids Motivated With Timers for more information about using timers to motivate children to complete work and other tasks.
5) Assist the student with staying organized. Show him exactly how to organize his materials and supervise and guide him regularly, while he tries to do independently. As he becomes more independent with organization, slowly fade out the organization checks.
6) Stay close to the student: Frequently walk by his desk, keep him seated near your desk, or stand near his desk when teaching (whichever strategy makes the most sense for your classroom).
Here are some class-wide strategies to help all students including the ones with ADHD
1) Phrase directives in the positive and use redirection. Tell your students what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want him to do (e.g., “put your pencil down”, “look up here”, “finish writing your sentence”, etc. instead of “stop tapping your pencil”, “stop talking”, “stop playing with things in your desk”, etc.)
2) Post clear rules that tell your students exactly what you expect (e.g., raise your hand, quiet while working, stay in your area) and frequently review these rules. When any child breaks the rules, including a child with ADHD, remind them of the rule in a neutral tone (e.g. when the student calls out point to the rule and say “we have to raise our hand to be called on.”)
Implement these rules with consistency. If you allow some of the children to break the rules some of the time, you can’t expect children to know when to follow the rules. The expectation should be for them to follow the class rules at all times.
3) Give children choices throughout their day. This gives students a sense of control. Feeling in control is very important for students with challenging behaviors. When they feel more in control they are less likely to defy you because they feel like their opinion matters, which helps them feel respected.
Here are examples of some choices for students:
- Do you want to write your assignment on paper or type it on the computer?
- Read a page from a book of your choice and summarize the page by either drawing a picture or writing a paragraph.
- After you complete your assignment, do you want to play a math quiz game or play hangman on the board?
4) Use random selection to call on students, rather than just calling on the ones who raise their hands. For example, you can write each students name on a Popsicle stick and put the sticks in a cup. A student will never know when their turn is coming to participate, which will encourage all students to pay attention.
5) Praise students for following the rules and participating (e.g., “Thank you for raising your hand.”, “You worked very quietly today.”, “You remained in your area during your assignments, nice work!”, “Great participation during science today.”, etc.). This helps with student self-esteem, reinforces rules, and motivates other students to receive the same type of praise. Some children feel embarrassed when praised in front of the class. You can always offer praise in a more subtle way for these students. For example, you can write a note on their paper or test, give them a look that acknowledges their positive behavior, or let them know at the end of class when students are walking out or in the beginning, when everyone has not come in yet. See my article How to Praise Your Kids for more on using praise with kids.
6) Allow students to earn time to engage in preferred activities for following class rules and completing their assignments. Preferred activities can include movement breaks like the ones mentioned above, class time to play a game, ten minutes of extra recess, 15 minutes to talk to peers, drawing a picture, computer time, or whatever you deem appropriate for your students and classroom. You can even do a Google search for “Reward Ideas in the Classroom.”
When working with children at home, encourage them to complete homework, chores, and follow rules by using the same methods described above for encouraging compliance in the classroom.
I understand that not every one of these strategies will work for you, your household, your classroom, or your child. These strategies may not be what you are used to and may require a lot of changes on your part. While there is no perfect method for eliminating all challenging behaviors, these are the strategies that I endorse and believe in as being the most effective for creating behavioral change. I believe in these strategies for three reasons: 1) They are backed by research. Studies show a positive change in children with these strategies in place, 2) I have seen these strategies work when others have implemented them, and 3) They work for me with a 99% success rate as I have implemented these strategies for over 16 years.
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