The school environment--with its schedules and assignments, its long stretches of desk work, its emphasis on writing--all too often becomes a battleground to the child with ADHD.
The battle of the classroom can't be won with medication alone. It's only the initial building block. Study after study shows that medication alone doesn't improve academic achievement.
Medication doesn't teach anything; it simply removes a major barrier to learning. If the classroom environment doesn't support the specific needs of the child with ADHD, most of the benefits of medication will be wasted.
Fortunately, an ADHD-friendly learning environment is good for all students. ADHD children will likely need more individual attention in and out of the classroom, but some of the organizational strategies are broadly applicable and beneficial. And most of them are simple, quick to implement, and involve little or no added expense.
What steps should my child's teacher and school take to help my child succeed in the classroom?
Here are some of the supports that schools and teachers should consider for children with ADHD. Your child may not need all of these supports, but discuss them with the teacher and administration:
1. Perhaps most important, modify assignments. Children with ADHD take far longer to complete in-class and homework assignments, especially those involving written work. So a workload that would be fine for a typical student may be overwhelming to a child with ADHD. It's not "cheating" to modify the assignments, any more than it would be "cheating" to make accommodations for a child with a physical or visual impairment.
The purpose of an assignment should be to help a child develop or demonstrate mastery over the material, not to complete a certain number of problems in a certain amount of time. And there's more than one way to arrive at that goal. When the assignments are too long or intensive, the child is set up for frustration and failure, and likely to feel alienated from the learning process. That's a big price to pay for the sake of a few division problems.
Because writing is often the most difficult part of school for a child with ADHD, the teacher might consider having the child answer questions orally or dictate some of his or her homework. It's even better if the child can learn to type papers on a computer.
The teacher should limit homework assignments to what is critical and necessary. For example, the teacher might have the child complete only the even-numbered problems.
Children with ADHD need more time to finish work and tests, especially those that require a lot of writing. So untimed tests are often useful. And the child should be given the opportunity to complete unfinished classwork at home.
2. Provide support to help your child stay on task. This may involve one-on-one supervision during certain activities by an aide or specialist. It may simply mean that the teacher needs to watch for inattentiveness and call on your child more often to keep him or her focused on the material. It may mean some out-of-class tutoring or enrichment.
The physical environment is important, too. One of the most basic steps is to move the child to a desk at the front of the class. That keeps him or her more focused on the teacher and the blackboard. It also means the child is less likely to be distracted by what the other children are doing. Placing a child with ADHD next to a student who is well organized is also helpful. Some schools set aside a quiet space in one part of the classroom where a child can complete an assignment.
3. Provide organizational tools and assistance. The teacher should make sure that your child is recording assignments properly and keeping his or her materials organized. Children with ADHD need extra organizational time between classes and when they're getting their work ready to take home. Look for tools and materials that help the child stay organized--for example, such children will do better taking notes in a spiral ring notebook than on looseleaf paper. And one multisection notebook for all notes is probably better than smaller separate notebooks for each class--it's easier to keep track of. Organizers may also be helpful, as long as they're not too complicated. And ADHD children will need extra work on their study habits and organizational skills. Providing the child with a written list of assignments--either at the beginning of the week or day by day--can head off major conflicts at school and at home.
4. Above all, the school and teacher should ensure that the child's self-esteem is preserved. It may be difficult dealing with an ADHD child in the classroom, but there's no excuse for humiliating a child or singling him or her out in front of classmates. Indeed, because children with ADHD often have social difficulties, enlist the teacher's help to promote peer interaction, and to find opportunities for the child to succeed in his own eyes and the eyes of his peers.
For example, cueing is a technique that can help a child stay on task without embarrassing her. The teacher and student agree beforehand on a certain cue that the teacher will give to remind a child to pay attention--a tap on the shoulder, or a certain word. That avoids the humiliation of announcing in front of the class, "Sarah, pay attention."