The challenges of ADHD

This article was originally posted in Headteacher Update 11/9/15.


Children who suffer with ADHD face daily challenges during their school life. Daniel Sobel discusses how teachers and teaching assistants can best support these pupils.

Best practice in inclusion involves identifying the exact nature of difficulties experienced by pupils. It is all too easy to react to the behaviour of students at face value, or to make assumptions attached to specific diagnoses or labels.

Sometimes known labels are a shortcut to appropriate differentiation, but in the case of ADHD, a child’s difficulties can simply look like bad behaviour. Perhaps this explains the number of excluded students who are diagnosed or present with ADHD behaviours.

There is much to say about the pitfalls in the resources and training currently available for teachers and teaching assistants. ADHD is not high enough on the CPD agenda and so staff simply lack the skills to manage these behaviours.

In addition to that, headteachers with whom I work often describe the struggle to “change hearts and minds” when it comes to including students with behaviours that can be so frustrating in the classroom.

I discussed the issue of staff attitudes towards ADHD with Ann Freeman, author of Help Me Understand ADHD, in a series of conversations which led to this article. We felt it would be useful for teachers and teaching assistants to learn more about the impact that the condition can have on a child.

I hope this article will deliver that. We have also included a number of tips on best practice in the classroom. While I talk about ADHD students throughout, it is important to bear in mind that, because the degrees of hyperactivity or disruptive behaviour are not easily apparent, many young people are undiagnosed.

Differentiating for the range of needs in a typical classroom is difficult enough as it is, and a student who can’t sit still and distracts others from the get-go is a huge additional challenge. I hear teachers describe students who experience hyperactivity as “infuriating” and other words to that effect, in a tone which conveys all the frustration they feel.

I can empathise, as I’m sure anyone who has taught a variety of students can. We can quickly jump the chasm from all-inclusive, haloed armchair pedagogue to exasperated teacher who deals harshly with or excludes the vulnerable, needy child who is making the lesson unbearable for everyone involved.

But the desire to blame ADHD students, to kick them out of the lesson to get rid of the problem, comes from seeing only the tip of the iceberg – the behaviours associated with ADHD – and not the mass under the water: the individual struggling with the impact of their difficulties. ADHD is a condition, not an illness; it is a neurobiological disorder that the person will have to manage for the rest of their lives. With age, some of the symptoms improve, but the condition can be painful for the young person, who is probably just as frustrated by it as their teachers are.

A student with typical ADHD will frequently experience being told off, being told to do better and be better. They will sit countless times in an exclusion of some sort thinking about how bad they are and how they aren’t like the other kids in their class. The accretion of these experiences leads the student to hatred of school and a disregard for rules which don’t seem to apply to them.

Cut to their secondary school geography teacher who is known for being strict: the student is told to sit still at the threat of being excluded yet again. This time, the student knows that they are at the end of their Pastoral Support Plan and could be permanently excluded, or worse: sent to another school in a managed move to fail again. Anyone who has sat on tribunal appeal panels for exclusion will have seen numerous iterations of this story.

Common to many ADHD students, too, is a low sense of self-worth resulting from negative responses from peers and adults. The sometimes cocky “I don’t care” attitude that an ADHD student might present is often a defence mechanism against this. ADHD students are just as hurt by being told off, and by the dislike of peers and adults, as anyone else. It is hardly surprising, then, that ADHD can evolve into other mental health problems such as depression.

Another obstacle for many ADHD students is poor motivation for school work. They come to feel that there is no point bothering because they can’t succeed. The combination of all these challenges creates the negative spiral which leads to students getting passed around from school to school in “managed moves”, each another nail in the coffin of their motivation, or even out of the education system to NEET.

Approaches to support pupils

It is incredibly hard, but possible, for a school to contain and eventually nurture a student who has been rejected by a few schools already. With the right approach and intervention ADHD students will offer a huge amount despite their difficulties. The following paragraphs detail techniques you can try with students who present hyperactivity.

Two umbrella points are, first, that in general, motivation through understanding, praise, encouragement and patience is key to success. Second, it is helpful if the class teacher can involve parents as well as the student when planning coping strategies. This lays the groundwork for continuity and team-work and sends the message to the young person that adults are listening to and looking out for them, helping their motivation.

Another idea is to discuss with the young person the three behaviours that are causing the most difficulties in the classroom. Write them down on laminated card, with a copy for the teacher and another for the student. Encourage the student to look at their card before each lesson. Surreptitiously show the card to the student, highlighting positives with praise and encouragement, to help them monitor their progress as the lesson takes place. When the lesson finishes, give either a point or a half-point for each behaviour. This method can be combined with a home contact book so that rewards for good behaviour and encouragement can be reinforced by parents.

If the student has an allocated teaching assistant, ask this member of staff to write down three points at the start of the lesson, in order of priority, focused on tackling the subject of the lesson. This can help prevent procrastination and teach the student a coping strategy which they can take up independently in due course. For example, for comprehension, the three points might be: read, highlight key facts, and then answer questions.

Other effective strategies

  • Tackle constant fidgeting by giving the student some Blu-Tack or a small leather or foam ball.
  • Sitting ADHD students next to a positive role-model. The teacher can discreetly support the role-model through the lesson.
  • Helping ADHD students to dispel some of their negative reputation with peers by giving them small responsible jobs to do. For example, ask the student to hand-out or collect in worksheets.

Anger outbursts

Deal with anger outbursts in the classroom or the school corridor in a measured way. Anger outbursts are more common in secondary than primary schools. They can be a manifestation of an ADHD student’s impulsivity (they don’t think of, or they forget, the consequences) or sense of injustice (the feeling that it is always them singled out for misbehaviour), a form of attention-seeking, or even a deliberate attempt to be excluded from the lesson because other frustrations have built up and the student wants to get out.

Dealing with these outbursts as a teacher or teaching assistant is really challenging, but it is so important to bear in mind that your attitude affects the attitude of the student. Keep calm, don’t shout, and avoid going over old ground. Engage the student by coming to some sort of mutual agreement about current and future behaviour.

Sensory difficulties

Some ADHD students also experience sensory difficulties which can affect levels of hyperactivity. Health authorities have suggested a special cushion for the student which helps their awareness of the chair and offers additional stimulation, addressing sensory issues which could be the cause of a student’s desire to get up and walk around. But such cushions might attract too much attention, especially in secondary school. An alternative option is for the teacher to allow the student to get up every 25 to 30 minutes under the guise of doing a small job like handing out worksheets.


Each ADHD student has a personality they deserve the opportunity to develop. Understanding and responding to the condition and the context of the young person who has it (ADHD is often linked with challenging circumstances at home) will have a hugely beneficial effect on that person’s current and future success.

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