Reflecting on your school days, are your memories mostly filled with laughter, happiness, and a sense of belonging? From primary school and high school all the way to university, students with neurodivergent conditions like ADHD often face a tougher journey through school than their peers. As adults, many recount their school experience as a source of trauma that still affects them as adults. The struggle with sensory overload, executive dysfunction, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention transforms everyday academic and social challenges into insurmountable obstacles. In addition, emotional regulation troubles, along with social complications such as potential bullying and friendship difficulties only amplifies their everyday struggles.
I am a teacher with ADHD who also has years of experience teaching students with ADHD, I am passionate about helping other educators better support their ADHD students and mitigate against the risk of them experiencing school based trauma. In this blog post I will guide you through five obstacles that your ADHD students are likely encountering at school and suggest practical strategies teachers can take to provide better support.
What is ADHD?
There is so much more to students with ADHD than what you see in the classroom. ADHD isn’t just about being restless and disorganised with boundless relentless energy. Those with ADHD grapple with unseen challenges extending far beyond common perceptions.
ADHD is linked with altered dopamine function, affecting nearly every aspect of life. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is critical for motivation, reward, movement, executive function, sensory processing, and emotion regulation. Understanding that your ADHD students have biological and neurological differences is a crucial step in offering better support for them.
Hyperactivity: Let them Fidget!
A common tell tale sign that your student has ADHD is their constant need to fidget. However, did you know that not all ADHD individuals experience hyperactivity? Furthermore, there’s a gender discrepancy, with boys tending to exhibit more hyperactive behaviour like fidgeting than girls.
Contrary to the assumption that a fidgeting student is bored or unfocused, fidgeting doesn’t necessarily mean they are disengaged and is actually an effective technique for maintaining focus.
Recall that a defining feature of ADHD is a deficiency of dopamine, which is essential for learning. An expert on ADHD, John Ratey showed that movement, even slight hand gestures, triggers the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter associated with learning. So when your student is fidgeting, they are essentially generating the dopamine required to concentrate and learn during your class.
I do acknowledge that fidgeting & moving around can cause disruptions in the classroom setting. Nonetheless, a wide variety of fidget toys are designed to be discreet and permit movement with minimal distraction.
Fidget toys offer a means for individuals to keep their hands busy without causing significant disruptions to those around them. Additionally, they offer a means of self-regulation an important step towards independence and responsibility.
Unfortunately, many teachers actually ban these from their classrooms.
In my classroom, I consistently encouraged ADHD students to use fidget toys, and I’ve observed notable improvements in their attention and behaviour as a result. Another tactic I’ve found effective is assigning classroom tasks that involve movement to students who are more hyperactive, like distributing worksheets or writing on the whiteboard. I also recommend students to stand and stretch before they buckle down for written assignments or activities or incorporate brief movement breaks into lessons if possible.
Inattention: Harness the power of special interests
People with ADHD do not suffer from a deficit in attention. On the contrary, they often have a surplus of attention. The difficulty lies in controlling and managing this attention. Individuals with ADHD are ‘easily distracted’ by the squirrel at the window or the fan making a noise or students laughing outside the classroom.
However, they may also struggle with shifting their focus when it is necessary. This is called hyperfocus – an intense, laser-like concentration on a specific activity or task. Like the hyperfocus experienced in autism, this is often to the exclusion of everything else.
Many neurodivergent people have certain subjects that deeply interest them and trigger their hyperfocus. So, what’s the key to engagement and focus? Firstly minimise distractions. I suggest that ADHD (and autistic) students wear noise cancellation headphones or earpieces when working and sit away from visual distractions where possible. The front of the class next to the teacher is usually a good location.
Incorporate your students’ particular interests wherever possible. I make it a point to discover my students’ unique interests at the start of the year by playing introductory games and write them down to weave into future lessons and discussions. Math and English lessons become much more interesting for students when their special interest characters make an appearance in whiteboard presentations, word problems, sample sentences, and creative writing topics.
Another useful aspect of these special interests that I have found is that the enthusiasm can be transferred from one subject to another. For instance, one of my students had a significant interest in Disney Princesses. When I introduced the class to the princesses of the Tudor era, I mentioned that they remind me of Disney princesses with their beautiful dresses, but that they were real and murderous. My students’ eyes lit up and she was on board. In fact it wasn’t long until her interest and knowledge in Tudor princesses outpaced mine.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD): Pick your Own Teams
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is a common yet misunderstood symptom of many non-apparent disabilities. While not an officially recognized diagnosis, it feels very real to those who experience it. RSD is characterised by intense emotional pain and distress, triggered by the perception that they have been rejected or failed at something.
Nobody likes to be criticized or fail, but the emotional response for ADHD people with RSD is debilitating and traumatic. An episode can lead to rage, crippling anxiety, loneliness, plummeting self worth, and extreme low mood, sometimes with suicidal ideation.
Of course we can’t entirely shield students from RSD, but there are numerous strategies we can employ to mitigate the risk. For a start, stop allowing students to select their own partners or teams. Being left unchosen is highly likely induce an RSD episode. This is a commonly reported experience among adults with ADHD as being an extremely humiliating and traumatic memory and is somewhat preventable. Please always be the one to assign partners and teams, either by making the selections yourself, or using a name generator on the whiteboard. I can’t stress this point enough: Never let the students choose their teams or partners.
RSD can also be reduced by doing emotional literacy pre-learning. The aim of developing emotional literacy is to build empathy among the students and foster a more tolerant, supportive, and inclusive classroom environment.
Executive Dysfunction not Laziness
Executive function skills enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks. Up to 90 percent of children and adolescence with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction, which can make their school life particularly challenging.
Common symptoms may include forgetting instructions, difficulty organising work, a dishevelled appearance, poor time keeping and a tendency to misplace items. The default response of many teachers is to reprimand the student when their executive function falters, for example if they forget something at home. This often occurs in front of the class, which unfortunately is not only an ineffective and damaging approach. But the student might also react to this public humiliation with anger or defiance.
A good approach would be to quietly speak to them when you notice them struggling, ensuring this happens without an audience, and offering your support in a manner that’s kind, empathetic, and even light-hearted.
Some schools even have strict policies around uniform and personal appearance, these rules can disproportionately impact students with ADHD who often struggle with maintaining a tidy appearance. However, this ‘untidy’ look is not necessarily an indication of laziness or disrespect. Instead, it could be due the challenging ordeal these students face each morning: waking up early, getting organized.
Emotion Regulation Difficulties
Individuals with ADHD frequently struggle with emotional regulation, often displaying more intense reactions compared to their neurotypical peers. Anxiety and frustration often dominate their daily experiences, amplifying already stressful situations. But there are genuine biological and neurological factors influencing their ability to cope.
Understanding why people with ADHD have a harder time managing their emotions isn’t straightforward. It involves a complex interplay of several factors such as an overly responsive ‘fight or flight’ system, that make the brain ultra-alert and sensitive to potential threats.
It’s crucial for teachers to ensure that tasks and expectations are clearly communicated. Challenges with auditory processing, executive function, and attention regulation may mean ADHD students could miss parts of instructions and feel too embarrassed to ask for clarification. Thus, make sure to keep instructions clear, straightforward, consistent, and ask students to repeat them back to ensure understanding.
People with ADHD are known for their strong sense of justice and fairness, and they will react angrily to perceived inequity or injustice. If they feel you’ve treated them unfairly, it could significantly harm your relationship in the long term. Always explain the reasoning behind rules, avoid showing favouritism, and consistently be fair and they will respect you, making it more likely that they will adhere to the rules and trust others.
Understanding and supporting students with ADHD requires empathy, patience, and an investment of time from the teacher. As teachers, we are not merely tasked with imparting knowledge; our responsibility extends to creating an inclusive, supportive environment that caters to neurodiverse learners and transform our classrooms into safe spaces where all students feel understood, supported, and appreciated for their unique contributions. The strategies discussed in this blog post aren’t exhaustive, but they’re a good starting point for creating an environment where ADHD students can thrive, and avoid the school-based trauma that many with the condition unfortunately experience.
Most importantly, remember that you are one of the most significant figures in your students’ lives. Your attitudes, responses, and the environment you create will impact their self-esteem, academic achievements, and overall school experience.