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How to Teach: ADHD

"Signs, Symptoms, Strategies" from Learning Disabilities Association of America

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a condition that becomes apparent in some children in the preschool and early school years. It is hard for these children to control their behavior and/or pay attention. It is estimated that between 3 and 5 percent of children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or approximately 2 million children in the United States. This means that in a classroom of 24 to 30 children, it is likely that at least one will have ADHD.

ADHD is not considered to be a learning disability. It can be determined to be a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services. However, ADHD falls under the category “Other Health Impaired” and not under “Specific Learning Disabilities.”

Many children with ADHD – approximately 20 to 30 percent – also have a specific learning disability.

The principle characteristics of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. There are three subtypes of ADHD recognized by professionals. These are the predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type (that does not show significant inattention); The predominantly inattentive type (that does not show significant hyperactive-impulsive behavior) sometimes called ADD; and the combined type (that displays both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms).

Other disorders that sometimes accompany ADHD are Tourette Syndrome (affecting a very small proportion of people with ADHD); oppositional defiant disorder (affecting as many as one-third to one-half of all children with ADHD); conduct disorder (about 20 to 40% of ADHD children); anxiety and depression; and bipolar disorder.

*National Institute of Mental Health, 2003

Signs and Symptoms

  • Fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes
  • May have poorly formed letters or words or messy writing
  • Has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  • Does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork or chores
  • Avoids or strongly dislikes tasks (such as schoolwork) that require sustained mental effort
  • Forgetful in daily activities
  • Has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Loses things necessary for tasks or activities (pencils, assignments, tools)
  • Shows difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly
  • Acts as if “driven by a motor” and cannot remain still
  • Blurts out answers to questions before the questions have been completed, often interrupts others


  • Allow a child to change work sites frequently while completing homework or studying
  • Assign tasks involving movement such as passing out papers, running errands, watering plants
  • Use music as a tool for transitioning, song = task
  • Vary tone of voice: loud, soft, whisper
  • Stage assignments and divide work into smaller chunks with frequent breaks
  • Teach students to verbalize a plan before solving problems or undertaking a task
  • Permit a child to do something with hands while engaged in sustained listening: stress ball, worry stone, paper folding, clay
  • Use inconspicuous methods such as a physical cue to signal a child when she or he tunes out
  • Provide opportunities for student to show divergent, creative, imaginary thinking and get peer recognition for originality
  • Employ multi-sensory strategies when directions are given and lessons presented

Excerpted from the LDA of California and UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute “Q.U.I.L.T.S.” Calendar 2001-2002

"How to Teach Students with ADHD" from UC Berkeley DSP

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterized by a persistent pattern of frequent and severe inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsiveness. People with ADHD have many problems in academic settings. Some of these problems are similar to the problems of people with learning disabilities: slow and inefficient reading, slow essay-writing, and frequent errors in math calculation and the mechanics of writing. Other problems are especially characteristic of ADHD; students ADHD often have serious problems with time-management, task-completion, organization, and memory.

For suggestions on working effectively with students who have ADHD, please review our section on learning disabilities, as well as the following.

  • Students with ADHD generally perform better if given a syllabus with clear explanations of tasks and specific due-dates. As the semester progresses, keep reminding students of impending deadlines: "Remember, the problem sets are due on Friday."
  • Whenever possible, start each lecture with a summary of material to be covered, or provide a written outline. If you use broad margins and triple-space, students will be able to take notes directly onto the outline: an aid to organization. At the conclusion of each lecture, review major points.
  • Students with ADHD may tend to "drift" mentally during class, especially during long lectures. They are better able to stay tuned-in when the class material is stimulating and the format varied (for example, lecture alternating with presentations and class discussion). If the class goes on for several hours, be sure to permit several breaks.
  • Students with ADHD are often distractible, so you should invite them to sit near the front of the class, away from possible sources of distraction (for example, doors, windows, and noisy heaters).
  • Avoid making assignments orally, since ADHD students may miss them. Always write assignments on the chalkboard, or (even better) pass them out in written form.
  • Provide test-sites that are relatively distraction-free; and when students are taking tests with extended test-time, do not ask them to move from one test-site to another.
  • For large projects or long papers, help the student break down the task into its component parts. Set deadlines for each part; for example, there might be deadlines for the proposal of an essay topic, for a research plan, for the completion of research, for pre-writing to find the essay's thesis, for a writing-plan or outline, for a first-draft, and for a final edited manuscript.