Mission (Not So) Impossible: teaching English to high school students with ADHD

***Disclaimer: I am not an expert on ADHD, ADD or any related disorders. As always, medical and counseling professionals are the people to turn to when looking for a diagnosis or treatment for these conditions. The following post is based solely on my experience as a classroom English teacher, and should be taken as such.***

At the outset of this semester, I looked at one of my new class rosters with a bit of leeriness. Or, perhaps dread defines it better—in a cruel twist of fate, all of my sophomores who have been diagnosed (or who self-diagnose) with attention difficulties were now grouped in the same class. Even more to my chagrin, a heaping handful of my counterpart sophomore teacher’s toughest crew were ALSO on my new roster. The memory of my pre-service teaching education reminded me “now, don’t judge these kids before you see how they actually act together.” Reality nudged me closer to thoughts like “heaven, preserve me. This is going to be a nightmare.” The chuckles of my co-workers while viewing my class list did not help the situation.

True to my trepidations, the first few days involved a lot of firm shutting-down of jumping, blurting out offensive or (or just loud) statements, banging on desks, and flicking/poking/trying to pick each other up at the beginning of each class. I was whipping out my strictest persona all over the place. I held things together… but probably just barely. I started to wonder if this class would break my record of zero referrals since working at SFHS—then again, it’s hard to know who to kick out when the entire classroom is a powder keg of chaos. I found myself thinking, “I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to facilitate this class at the same level as my others.” Every day, it seemed like I was expending a herculean amount of effort just to keep the ball rolling in one, straight direction with minimal deviation.

Now, one quarter later, I am proud to say that my “nightmare” class and I have reached an understanding, and I have grown extremely fond of them. As always happens, once I began to have human conversations and humorous interactions with my students, my assumptions about them began to fade away and I found myself charmed in spite of myself by their occasional antics. They have also met me halfway and, in general, show me respect, perform fairly well academically, channel their energy in positive ways, and answer “yes, ma’am” to the occasional redirection. Looking back over these nine weeks, I’m trying to identify the miracle. I mean, I am no Mary Poppins. In writing this post, I’m trying to explore these questions: What did I do right? And how can I do it again?

I think, on the most basic level, the key to reaching this understanding with my students comes from knowing that their initial behavior was not a hateful vendetta against me. Part of it was brain chemistry, forgetting to take medication, and the stress of a new classroom environment. Another big part of it was their default instinct to fulfill the prophecy of the messages that have been fed to them for their entire educational lives. I can make this assertion with confidence, since several of them came straight out and told me, upon our first meeting, “I have ADHD so… yeah, we might not get along” or “you’re not gonna be seeing a whole lot of homework from me. I mean, really…my mind is WACKO!” I said what I usually say to such things, “Oh. Ok. Well, thanks for telling me.” That shook them up a little bit. I always refuse to react in a major negative way with students, even when they come at my class from a negative mental place. Diffuse and redirect are always my actions of choice. That basic principle, combined with the hopefully helpful tips below, is my way of revising the prophecy to one of classroom success.

TIPS FOR HARNESSING THE SECRET AWESOMENESS WITHIN ADHD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

  1. Identify the instigator(s). In a class full of behaviorally reactive students, it is important to figure out who typically begins the cycle of distraction or deviation. It’s usually not the loudest kid who gets the class rolling. Figure out who that young man or lady is, and address their behavior, privately and firmly, as soon as possible. They need to understand that one initial action that they view as harmless can send the entire operation reeling. Often, this student doesn’t even realize that he or she is instigating and will apologetically shape up. When the leader is suddenly a good example rather than an instigator, the majority of students will begin to really try to fly right.
  2. This next one is good classroom management practice no matter what, but it’s even more important in a class with several ADHD students. Make sure expectations are crystal clear, always consistent, and easy to understand. Also, try to express your expectations in physical terms rather than conceptual ones. For example, “Let me see your eyes so that I know you’re paying attention” works better than “Please pay attention.” It’s also better to describe what you want to see, rather than what you don’t. So: “I need to see you sitting down and writing right now” is typically better than “stop messing around.”
  3. Teach students ways to recognize and manage the thought process that leads up to disruptive behavior. This is what I say to my class almost every day: “You need to make a choice before reacting to something somebody else says or does, about whether or not it’s useful to react. If you have no useful reason to react, ignore it. Do not worry so much about what other students are doing. Your job is to make sure that you are doing something positive and good.” [Repeat, repeat, repeat]
  4. Give students tools to use when that thought process management attempt fails and they begin to escalate or lose attention completely. In my eyes, sending a student on a “walk” (with a pass, and no longer than 7 minutes), is a completely acceptable and good way to manage extra energy. As long as students don’t abuse it, this policy offers them time and space to cool down and collect themselves, before they do something that will require a different type of walk to the principal’s office.
  5. Try your best to empathize with and verbally acknowledge the extra effort it takes for students with ADHD to focus and produce a product. They don’t often get to hear that validation and understanding that, yes, it is tougher for them to do the same things that other students do. However, that’s not always a detriment. The same kids who seem to be focusing on a million things at once can often focus at an intense level on a goal, once they “get in the zone.” It’s getting them in the zone that’s the issue. Setting many short term goals and giving lots of genuine praise as goals are achieved sets students up for a good experience.
  6. If at all possible, stay fast-paced and active in your teaching lessons. Give the students constant things to look at and do. Be excited, theatrical, and loud, if appropriate. (I’m pretty sure anyone watching me teach this particular class might think that I, too, have ADHD.)
  7. As always, I’ve found that personal relationships are key. A kid may act like a terror during an “off” day in class, but when I see him two hours later in the hallway, I’m still going to say “hi” and “how’s it going?” Just giving any student the small recognition of noticing and caring about their existence does wonders for managing that student in a classroom setting.

Not every day in room 209 is a shining example of classroom management, even in the sections with very well-behaved students. There are always rough days (for instance, my recent lesson in the computer lab when all the power went out and everything went to heck). But I guess the message to come away with here is that there can be far, far fewer rough days when the students and teacher understand and respect one another. In some cases, that’s way easier said than done. But a lot of times, it’s those same cases that are all the more rewarding.

2 comments
  1. Anne Michaelis said:

    Thanks so much for the tips! You sound a lot like me–full of energy, enthusiasm, and very much connected to the students. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years, but English 9 for eight of those years. I teach 9 Honors, 9 Gen. Ed. and a 9 ICT which is co-taught with a special ed. tchr, but can be described much the same way as your class you mention.
    A question I have is how do you read literature and complete writing activities that are “active”? I do plan at least one activity in a 65-minute time frame that is “fun”. This is usually a smart board game or active vocab game of which I have plenty. I usually let kids have a 3-5 minute break if they’ve been sitting for a long time. But I just wish English itself (reading and writing) could be more “active”. Just today I really listened to a student struggling with ADHD after school. We reviewed some methods I’ve used in the past that might work–squishy ball, standing in the back of the room, going for a 3-5 minute walk (frequent breaks), and then I gave him some putty (poster tak). This seemed to be the thing that got him to focus, but time will tell. Any other ideas you have would be great. Thanks so much for your insight!
    -Anne

    • Ms. H said:

      Hi, Anne! It’s always exciting to hear from other high energy educators who care deeply about their students. 🙂

      In response to your question about making reading/writing more active… that’s definitely a challenge. Some ways I attempt to address this are:

      READING
      *Have students break into groups to create an illustration and quote that sum up an important moment of a difficult reading section, and explain their choices to the class.
      *Reading aloud, popcorn-style… just the concept that they may be called on at any time can help with a read aloud of a section.
      *Dramatic re-enactments of a scene (Not JUST for plays.)
      *Doodle annotations–provide a page with 9 blank boxes: each box may represent a paragraph or section for students to sketch out an idea or plot event.
      *If silent reading time is ahead, a calm down ritual, such as listening to music for “one song” or finding a special spot in the room, etc.

      WRITING
      *Conferencing/checking in frequently as students are working, helping them set small goals that can be reached in 10-20 minutes
      *Writing “sprints” where students try to reach a certain word count by the end of called time (focus on first draft quantity over quality)
      *Concept mapping or other graphic organizer before drafting
      *Color coding with colored pencils or colored fonts for different components of writing. Ex. Make all your textual evidence green, your transitions orange, and so forth.

      Hope those ideas might spur some new techniques in your classes! Active learning is quite a challenge in the ELA classroom. Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *