Dealing with ADHD in the Classroom

symptoms of adhdI’m sure you have experienced it before – the one class you would love to avoid, that one child that makes teaching that much more difficult. Either he won’t sit down, or she won’t stop talking, and there is never enough time in a lesson to complete what they need to do. Assignments are usually handed in late or not at all. Books are lost, routine doesn’t exist. The child is sweet enough, when he isn’t constantly interrupting you with irrelevant questions or asking you to repeat the instructions again for the fifth time. It’s beginning to drive you and the rest of the students in your class a little crazy.

Most people would recognise this behaviour as ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In South Africa approximately 10% of children are thought to have the disorder (Perold, Louw & Kleynhans, 2010). In fact, ADHD is considered to be one of the most common childhood disorders (Holz & Lessing, 2002). But what is ADHD? How do you deal with it in your classroom and how do you work with the parents to create a better learning environment not only for the child with ADHD but also for the children affected by his or her actions?

adhd bunnyFirstly, what is ADHD?

ADHD has 3 major classes of symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Inattention can be seen in the way children have difficulty paying attention in class, they make careless mistakes, do not complete tasks on time, daydream, need supervision and become bored quickly. Impulsivity occurs when children interrupt often, answer before the question is completed, do not think before they say or do something, are disruptive and have difficulty waiting for and following instructions.

Finally, hyperactivity in children is shown through their inability to sit still. They fidget excessively, talk constantly and may interrupt others. Some children may even have motor tics (these occur when a child blinks or swallows excessively). Because these children have difficulty paying attention, tend to move excessively, and have difficulty controlling their impulses, they often struggle in the classroom setting. (Holz & Lessing, 2002; www.helpguide.org/mental/teaching_tips_add_adhd.htm, 2013; Brand, Dunn & Greb, 2002) However, according to Perold, Louw and Kleynhans (2010), many studies show that these children have a normal to above average level of overall intelligence but that they have difficulty in expressing and applying their knowledge and intelligence.


Possible causes?

Genetics are considered to be one of the biggest causal factors of ADHD (Perold, Louw & Kleynhans, 2010), and children do not outgrow ADHD – it is a lifelong disorder (Holz & Lessing, 2002). According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. According to ADHASA (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Support Group of Southern Africa) people with ADHD may eat certain food additives which can increase the symptoms of ADHD. However, according to Perold, Louw and Kleynhans (2010) there is no scientific evidence to show that what children eat is linked to ADHD and that changes to the diet have no direct effect on ADHD. Baird, Stevenson and Williams (2000) believe that the central disability of ADHD is impaired inhibition which leads to difficulties with social skills, organisation, self-control and time management.

There are five major ways of treating ADHD.

Purdie, Hattie and Carroll (2002) suggest that there is no agreement with regards to which intervention works best and they analyse the five major interventions. The first is medication (for example Ritalin or Concerta), which is the most common and probably most cost effective treatment. However, the research suggests that medication is not effective in the long term – it only deals with symptoms in the present. Medication can also have dangerous side effects. Neuro-link (www.neuro-link.org) has a natural supplement which is advocated to help children with ADHD by improving concentration and speeding up information processing. It may be a natural alternative to Ritalin or Concerta.

The second intervention is behaviour based. Children are taught how to behave using rewards and punishment. For example, if a child completes a worksheet within a certain time limit they are given a sweet or some other reward; if they do not complete the worksheet they have to stay during break time to complete the worksheet. A behavioural intervention is more effective when it is combined with medication. Purdie, Hattie and Carroll (2002) state that the consequences teachers use for children with ADHD need to be “more immediate, powerful, tangible, and frequent” than those consequences they would use for children without ADHD. Children with ADHD have difficulty delaying their wants. This means that if they had to choose between a merit with a long-term goal in (which is not tangible) or an immediate prize such as a sweet or pencil (which is tangible) they will choose the immediate prize, even if the 10-merit prize is much bigger or better.

The third intervention follows the cognitive-behavioural approach. For this approach children with ADHD are taught how to use self-talk and self-control to learn how to delay their responses – for example, learning how to wait for the teacher to complete the question before responding. This allows the child to better control their impulsivity.

Parental interventions teach parents hoe to deal with their child’s ADHD behaviour. The parents learn how to control the behaviour and how to teach self-control to their child (Purdie, Hattie & Carroll, 2002).

Finally, educational interventions

teach teachers how to deal with learners who have ADHD. Perold, Louw and Kleynhans (2010) state that teachers are a valuable source of information when determining whether a child has ADHD. They also suggest that the way a teacher deals with the child has a great impact on whether the learner will excel and how they do in the classroom. There are many suggestions for how a teacher can deal with a child with ADHD. Many sources suggest lowering the noise in the classroom as well as seating the child relatively close to the teacher in a place where they will not be easily distracted – like away from doors and windows. Children with ADHD need more intermittent relaxation breaks. They also respond more positively to both parental and teacher motivation. Children with ADHD enjoy both visual (pictures, diagrams and movement) and tactile (touching and doing) learning and secondary school learners also enjoy being taught using patterns. Rodd (2006) suggests that teachers should be careful of labelling children using negative connotations.

The helpguide.org website (www.helpguide.org/mental/teaching_tips_add_adhd.htm, 2013) has several suggestions. They suggest that teachers should give immediate praise and motivation. Allow children with ADHD to work with a partner. When giving instructions they should be easy to understand; they should be given slowly and clearly and repeated if necessary. They suggest that you test children orally and that you colour code each of their subjects (this might work well in the younger grades but could be applied by a parent for high school students). Students need a system for writing down tests and assignments. Use verbal or sound cues (for example – ring a bell before you make any important announcements, like what to study for in the next test). Children with ADHD need a physical outlet – this can range from tapping a pen (annoying in class) to playing with a stress ball (at least this is quiet) to chewing gum (yes we know it’s not allowed in class but perhaps an exception can be made especially if it channels the child’s extra energy and movement). Teachers can also have a broad outline of what will happen in the lesson on the blackboard and summarize key points at the end of the lesson (which is great for other students as well). The helpguide.org website also suggests that different activities are included in the lesson.

Being a teacher is becoming increasingly difficult, not only is there more administration to deal with but classes have become bigger and there seems to be an increase in the number of children with learning difficulties. Children with ADHD can be a challenge but how they are dealt with determines their success in life. While all children require patience and help, children with ADHD may need just a little bit more. What you choose to do in the classroom as a teacher or as a parent at home affects the way your children will learn and behave. Think carefully about what interventions you choose to use – not all interventions will work with all children. Each child is unique and will respond better to some strategies than to others. Mathsatsharp would love to hear what worked for you. Send us your stories and we will post them beneath this article so that your stories can inspire other teachers. We look forward to hearing them. Contact us here

ADHD cartoon


  • J. Baird, J.C. Stevenson & D.C. Williams (2000) The Evolution of ADHD: A Disorder of Communication? The Quarterly review of Biology, 75: 1, pg 17 – 35
  • S. Brand, R. Dunn & F. Greb (2002) Learning Styles of Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Who are they and How can We Teach Them? The Clearing House, 75: 5, pg 268 – 273
  • T. Holz & A. Lessing (2002) Aid to the teacher to identify the learner with ADHD in the classroom: A Literature Study; Educare, 31: 1 pg 236 – 250
  • N. Purdie, J. Hattie & A. Carroll (2002) A review of the research on Interventions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: What Works  Best? Review of Educational Research, 72: 1, pg 61 – 99
  • M. Perold, C. Louw & S. Kleynhans (2010) Primary School teachers’ knowledge and misperceptions of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) South African Journal of Education, 30, pg 457 – 473
  • M. Rodd (2006) Commentary: Mathematics, Emotion and Special Needs; Educational Studies in Mathematics, 63: 2, Affect in Mathematics Education: Exploring Theoretical Frameworks: A PME special issue; pg 227 – 234
  • S.S. Zentall, G.W. Harper & M. Stormont-Spurgin (1993) Children with Hyperactivity and Their Organizational Abilities; The journal of Educational Research, 87: 2, pg 112 – 117
  • www.helpguide.org/mental/teaching_tips_add_adhd.htm (2013, July 19)
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