Ruling with a Fuzzy Mitten: Teaching and Managing Classes with ADHD Learners

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Within the teaching profession of the present day, it has become increasingly more difficult to create an air of classroom management. While instructors who have been in a professional learning environment for years have the practice of honing their craft and adjusting year by year, new prospects are thrown into a pool ever-increasing in depth. Teachers are being asked to do more with the same amount of time as they always have and many with the added challenges of multiple students with multiple learning disabilities or special needs. In the time before prescription pills, when corporal punishment was the norm, the term ADHD for children did not exist. They were labeled as being simply rambunctious or free spirits with many of them filling up the detention desks after school. Today, a teacher needs to be able to recognize the difference between “a kid being a kid” and possible attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, not as a diagnostician but as someone who can facilitate the student to the help needed. Help that starts with the teacher having the characteristics to handle a classroom that is a hodge-podge with students of varying attention lengths, a solid grasp of the instructional needs ADHD students require, and knowledge of the support system that should be in place by the district of employment.

The qualities and skills which make any teacher effective are the same for a teacher that is effective at teaching ADHD students, except these characteristics are required in larger amounts for longer periods. If the school day is a marathon the teachers working with ADHD students must be able to sprint every other mile. Observation is imperative. The instructor’s ability to observe and maintain a focus on the entire classroom is essential as it is from this skill that all others can draw meaning. The patience of a teacher is effectively challenged when dealing with ADHD students. If the teacher is observant than there is a greater chance of witnessing student attempts at adhering to rules and completing their studies. An unobservant teacher suffers a lower patience threshold as it is the big gestures and events that get the attention and often these are classroom disrupting events. Being consistent in discipline and instruction is also essential. Observation works itself back into the fold here as an instructor must maintain a high level of observation as to correctly praise or discipline every time. A student with ADHD will quickly lose interest when they realize they are not being held accountable to their work regularly. Another excellent skill is effective communication. Of course, it is a given that communication is a mainstay of all educational positions, however, with a roomful of students it is important that a teacher can communicate what is needed to the ADHD student quickly and efficiently. Take too long to give an explanation and the student will lose focus, requiring the information to be repeated and affecting the patience of the instructor (Dunne, 2007). All these skills are necessary not just for handling students with ADHD but for the entire teaching profession.

Instructors need to drop any prejudices or misnomers they may have concerning students with ADHD. Yes, it is a fact that students with ADHD tend to disrupt the classroom by either taking time from the rest of the class by requiring extra instruction not due to poor instruction or a misunderstanding but from not paying attention or by having their energy get away from them and act out causing a classroom disruption. While these are negative behaviors in the classroom, they do not mean in the case of a student with ADHD that the child is misbehaving maliciously or disregard for classmates. Instead, this demonstrates that even the most well-meaning child who wishes to learn and attempts to focus on work can be at the mercy of their disorder. Compassion and understanding together help a teacher move past the idea that they may be getting a class clown or chronic lesson disruptor.

The classroom environment is what makes or breaks students with ADHD. The more distractions the harder it becomes for them to focus. Smith (2001) states, “carefully planned education procedures, such as giving rewards, making assignments more interesting, letting students choose their assignments [from a teacher selected list], shortening the task, giving clear and precise instructions” can effectively lead to academic success (p. 147). A fine line must be found between consistency and spontaneity. The classroom must be a place where the framework for discipline, reward, and expectations are always the same, but the student never knows what is going to happen next. ADHD students require posted classroom rules as a reminder of their behavior. It also helps to place the assignment for the day on the board in the same place every day, perhaps also going out of the way to tape a notecard with the assignment on it to the desk of any ADHD students in the classroom. When the student can so easily be distracted it helps save time for an explanation on the part of the instructor if the child can simply always know to look at the i.e. upper-right of the board or corner of their desk to remind themselves what they should be working on (Dunne, 2007). A student with ADHD not only has difficulty paying attention but also holding still. An effective way to refocus students is to stop and take a break. Have students stand up, stretch, perhaps throw a soft object about the room quickly. Something that will last thirty seconds to a minute and allow energy to burn off while serving as an approved distraction. Once the time is up having students immediately sit back down and begin refocusing on the lesson or assignment.

Other than the breaks that are facilitated by the teacher the classroom should be silent during solo assignments and at a low whisper during groups. The noise volume in the classroom directly affects the attention of ADHD students. Breaking assignments down into smaller tasks can help avoid overwhelming some students where they eventually shut down thinking it’s “too much.” During group work ADHD students work best in smaller groups where they can be assigned a key role, doing this allows for students to assume responsibility not just for themselves but also for their peers (U.S. Dept of Education, 2006). This serves two roles. First, the students within the group will monitor the progress of the student with ADHD themselves as their work depends on one another. Second, if the student tries to entertain his/her peers it is because their approval is sought, and fear of losing that approval can convince even the biggest class clown to buckle down and work when a major member of group work.

Discipline for ADHD students needs to be constant, harkening back to the need for observation always. The teacher must recognize the student’s proclivities for getting lost. A series of silent hand gestures can be worked out to facilitate the student to get back on task without disrupting any work that may be quietly occurring or any verbal instruction (Dunne, 2007). Recognition must be made between student behaviors. Sometimes students are simply daydreaming, others actively ignoring the lesson, some may be disruptive because they are trying to quietly borrow a pen or have missed what was said and rather ask a neighbor for help than interrupt the lesson. These behaviors need to be actively identified and addressed through operant conditioning or ignored by the teacher based on their offense or frequency.

Without the support of a school or district that knows what it is doing regarding teaching ADHD students, instructors can be overwhelmed by the necessary steps. The most ideal conditions are not always met; however, it is always important to make the best with what one has with which to work. Many educators, “report being unprepared for and reluctant to include students with challenging behaviors…and only educators who have experience with students with ADHD or who have education about them were willing to make instructional changes” (Zentall, 2007, p. 78). In-service training seminars help to foster a sense of camaraderie and reliance between teachers while giving them a safe environment to explore what they do and do not understand about ADHD. One thing a teacher should never do is attempt to diagnose a student with ADHD or any learning disability or condition. In almost all cases that teacher is not a doctor and even so it is simply their job to observe and record any instances that cause them suspicion, and to provide these to the appropriate delegated individual at the school. The school environment also needs to be one of understanding for the teacher. Every student is different and if a teacher can help better that student the school should stand behind the teacher’s decisions, provided the help is harmless, no matter how unorthodox. Examples of these different methods may include giving the student free time to run errands around the school or working with other teachers to create a supervised quiet room in which students can go work. Effective communication amongst one’s peers is also essential. Speaking with the students’ previous year teachers or, if divided by subject, speaking to other teachers within a grade level or team can help spread effective management techniques. The student may behave a specific way in science and that the teacher can inform the English instructor about what is done differently that helps the student concentrate.

Students with ADHD are not so different from students without it. They’re just great at requiring more of what it takes to be a teacher, more time outside of instruction, and a deeper support system than what is traditionally viewed as enough. Other students may see it as an unfair treatment but that’s settled by expressing the very true to application definition of fair. Fair isn’t about everyone getting equal or what they want, fair is everyone getting what they need.


Dunne, D. W. (2007, September 20). How can teachers help students with ADHD? Education World®. Retrieved April 9, 2014, from

Smith, D. D. (2001). Learning disabilities. In Introduction to Special Education: Teaching in an Age of Opportunity (4th ed., pp. 146-149). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Teaching Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Instructional Strategies and Practices (2006). Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of Education.

Zentall, S. S., & Javorsky, J. (2007). Professional development for teachers of students with ADHD and characteristics of ADHD. Behavioral Disorders, 32(2), 78-93.