What To Do When You Have LOTS of ADHD Students.

Today was an early-out day at my school, one of those blessed shortened days where kids go home early after partaking in the craft I planned for post-lunch. Kiddies go home for extra play, and I participate in PD, meetings, or, on a good day, uninterrupted planning time.

It was also a day where three students had to meet with TAs for shenanigans on the playground, two kids stared into space all day, and three students had to be directed helped with cleaning out their chair pockets.

Roughly half my class has, if not ADHD, conditions that affect their attention span. I have never in my entire career had a class quite like it. I have taken student after student to the child assessment team, listened to parents talking about this and that diagnosis, and following accommodations in IEPS and 504s. Some students have actually changed classes from mine (for other very logical reasons including a glaring situation being completely not seen but probably unofficially to balance out the issues.) I’m not entirely sure if my population is legal or ethical, but there it is.

I get that some kids get the ADHD diagnosis. I have family members and friends who have ADHD. I have always had at least one kid with ADHD, or autism, or Executive Functioning Disorder, or any one or many of things that significantly affect attention and classroom behavior.

But never have I had half my class.

ADHD

There is plenty of advice regarding the lone student with ADHD in a classroom. Those same tips can be easily applied to a small handful of such students. Yet when you hit a dozen students the dynamics change significantly.

These students experience challenges within the classroom. They may have trouble sorting out when they’re supposed to be paying attention to at the appropriate time. They may have trouble sustaining attention for a useful length of time. They may be slower at processing the information they’re taking in. They may not even understand the information.

I do not consider myself an expert on a massive ADHD classroom. I am aware that schools/classes tailored especially for such students likely have their own very specific management and teaching. I have not been trained in that.

However, I still would like to offer some tips that worked for me.

Have a Team

Ideally, if any of these students have IEPS or 504s, they ought to have appropriate help that may include more than You the General Education Teacher. Make use of that. My school is lucky enough to have a team of teacher assistants who rock their jobs. If you have any sort of assistants, use them. Other teachers in the building… use them! I know I couldn’t survive if it were just me.

If any of your students fall under the IDEA category, make your SPED teacher your best friend. Seek her wisdom and seek her help.

If you’re able to get a team together, use it. The TAs are able to handle many a small group, or sometimes sit one-on-one with a student having a particularly hard time. I have a network of teacher who are able to take a student who just needs a non-distracted place to work.

Be Specific

My teaching career has consisted of 1st and 2nd grades. At this age level, being specific is part of the job. The students simply have not had the experience to internalize every little routine. What seems like logic to us with our wisdom of age is still new to these kids. So, yes, I was used to being specific. Or so I thought.

When half your class has attention issues, you must take the most specific instruction or explanation you have ever given and simplify and specify it even more. Common ADHD tips suggest putting things into small steps. Go with this. When giving an instruction or teaching, break down the information as much as possible. If you think it’s too simple or too specific, you just might be approaching the right territory. But keep in mind it’s probably not possible to be too specific. Even if half of your attention-issue bunch gets it, the rest still might need it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Repeat Things

I originated from the school of thought that holds it adamantly a teacher should never repeat herself. While I still find this a lovely piece of worthy idealism, in my classroom it just wasn’t realistic. Not only were they 2nd graders, they had attention issues.

So, while I love the idea of them grasping an instruction or nugget of information the first time around and do hope they one day all achieve the ability, I had to face the reality that many of these kids did not yet have that skill.

I practiced ways of giving information:

  • Stating the information
  • Having at least one student repeat the information for the class
  • Writing down the information–preferably in very specific steps, one mini-task at a time
  • Repeating the information
  • Not being afraid to repeat the information.

Now, I do make it clear the importance of making sure as many students as possible are able to grasp that information and I stress the importance of trying to listen the first time. I also don’t bend over backwards for kids who ask over and over–at that point, the kid is either being willfully obtuse or possibly needing extra attention. But I have learned that more often than not, my students who ask me to repeat things truly need something repeated.

Oh, bright ideal of Never Repeat Things, you are a glorious skill I hope my students can one day attain.

One day. Until then, I will concentrate on getting them to focus on and understand one task at a time.

Groups

I will make it known I’m not a terribly huge fans of groups. At the end of the day, I’m probably a whole-class, rather teacher-directed type of soul when it comes to learning. At least in my head. The reality is that my class is often full of students working independently or in small groups. It’s just that my reality is still a little more whole-group based–I never could buy into the type of classroom that was nothing but small groups and rotating centers.

But groups certainly have their place. Just know that this section is not about making homogenous or heterogeneous learning groups or any of that.

I first stumbled on working with groups when I realized just how hard-boardering-on-impossible it was to get my class’ whole attention at one time for long enough to deliver information. By the time I had one section’s attention, another section had entirely lost it. Or, I would start talking and five sets of eyes would lose focus.

So, I decided I would cut down on addressing the whole class and address groups of students. This way I have fewer students who lose focus before I have said three words.

How do I use this? For actual educational small-group stuff. For giving certain instructions where I don’t need everyone at once. For excusing kids for bathroom breaks. Whatever I need, really.

It may seem time-consuming, but when I accounted for the time wasted trying to get everyone’s attention, I found it suitably efficient.

Attention-Getters That Cut Through the Distractions

To continue addressing students, I found that a large group of attention issues is a huge challenge. I think most teachers agree it’s necessary to have a way to quickly and efficiently get the group’s attention. In years’ past, I would use a whistle or a catchphrase and just be prepared to individually approach my one or two students who struggled to notice those.

With ADHD, there’s a lot going on. Students are hopefully doing educational work, but Susie might have on an interesting shirt. Or Teacher’s phone rang. Or a TA is picking up some students for small groups. Or there are clouds outside the window. Or a leg itches. Maybe all of these things. Many ADHD people struggle to filter what’s important when fifty things are happening around them.

And then Teacher wants to throw in a chime or a funny phrase? Just where are students supposed to file that intrusion?

Seriously, I found that no matter how much practice and repetition, many of my students couldn’t “hear” the noisy signal.

I have found two contradictory methods I use when appropriate. The first is to change up the cute catchphrase. A neighboring teacher has posters that list the attention phrase of the week. It keeps things fun, interesting, and novel.

The other is a less-is-more approach. A hand signal, usually as I stand quietly. It’s not the fastest thing on the planet, but it generally works in a reasonable time frame and has the bonus of calming my students down whereas the attention-getting phrase sometimes as the side effect of amping up students. With teaching and practice, my students know they are supposed to repeat the hand signal and quiet down, and they’re excellent about getting each other’s attention. No, it’s not particularly snappy or speedy, but I found it works very well.

The trick is, find something that stands out or apart from everything that is going on. Whatever you use must be something most will be willing to pay attention to or something that will calm everyone down.

Reconsider Seating

A common accommodation I’ve seen is to put students with attention issues in “preferential seating” and I agree with it. Back when I had only a few per class, this was easy enough. Generally this meant at the front of the room/near my desk/away from the door/away from the windows/away from distracting students. I also love the suggestions of alternative seating such as  yoga balls or wiggle chairs.

When you have thirteen students with attention issues, however, who gets this mythical “preferential seating”? They can’t all sit at the front of the room/near my desk/away from the door/away from the windows/away from distracting students. I know and get it that SPED teachers hate to hear that excuse, but physics gets in the way sometimes!

Oh, and the yoga balls and wiggle chairs. Yikes. I find these work with mild to moderate cases, but I have had students that destroy them, throw them, or fall off of them and get hurt. Some kids are calmed by the gentle bouncing or rocking, other students just now have a ball or wiggle seat to play with.

I am not at all against these seats, but they ought to be used wisely. Many kids are great with a little extra wiggle. Others may need something more subtle, like a small bouncy mat for the seat of their chair or a giant rubber hand wrapped around their chair. Others may prefer the opportunity to sit or lie on the floor.

As for official seating charts, in the 2nd grade I can assign seating while still giving plenty of opportunities to ignore it. If a student’s official seat is troublesome and there is no realistic Indiana Jones-style switcheroo possible, try to get them out of that seat as much as possible.

If an IEP or 504 gives more specific instruction than “preferential seating” by all means follow it. If there are too many specific ones to work in your classroom, let your SPED person know and you will likely get further advice.  But when putting all your attention-issue students up front altogether to distract each other is an issue, reconsider what “preferential” means. Really look at that student.

And then, keep them out of those seats as much as possible.

Be Consistent

Yes, we all have heard about being consistent. It’s a good thing, though in my case almost a zen-like goal of attainment and that’s okay. But when half your class has attention issues, consistency should be one of your top priorities. Your average neurotypical kid could likely roll with the punches a little more, but kids with attention issues will need as much consistency as you can get.

Make sure your administration, you, and the parents are on the same page as possible. Have a classroom management plan you can stick to. Make sure expectations are incredibly specific.

I’m the type that would love to let certain things go when they’re not so big of deals, and more on that later. And that would work with other classes, maybe. But when you have students who struggle to catch onto the more subtle social norms and niceties, consistency is a big deal.

Pick Your Battles and Hills of Death

In essence, you may have to decide what’s important to you. I don’t mean get picky and wishy-washy here–again, be consistent. But you may have to reconsider your standards before you decide what merits consistency. Kids with attention issues may not be as socially poised as other kids and that isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Pick a few good, age-appropriate social behaviors and expectations and hold the kids to them.

Teach Social Skills

You may need the aforementioned team help for this. We have a lovely school counselor who gives wonderful social skill lessons. Even so, I have found myself at the social and manner foundations I have broken down and taught this year. Kids with attention issues tend not to be quite on the same social level as other kids their age, either due to other comorbid factors or the simple issue of their attention span getting in the way.

One of the biggest challenges I have found in an attention-issue class is how they get along. My understanding is kids with ADHD or Autism have historically struggled to get along with other kids. But what I found rather fascinating was how much they tended to clash with each other. Imagine breaking up an argument not between one kid with ADHD and a neuroypical kid but two kids with fairly significant attention issues. Social skills here is not just a fancy set of lessons to teach them to get along with everyone else, but with kids similar to themselves.

Discuss social skills and social situations. Role-play. Set expectations of how others are to be treated.

Don’t get too upset if someone does something socially inappropriate. Remind, reteach as necessary.

In some ways, having so many kids in my class with short attention spans made this all the more natural. Beforehand, I tended to scoff at social education as frivolous. But, these kids are in my class and if I want them to function their best, social skills must be taught.

Thoughtfully Use Reward Systems

I am not a fan of clip charts or colored cards or what have you. I find them to often be unnecessary, distracting, and killjoys. My preference is to have listed, taught classroom expectations and a no-fuss counter system. I go the Michael Lindsin route with a clipboard where I can count infractions.

Even with a whole bunch of attention issues, I still find this the best method.

However, some kids really do need extra behavior help. I still hate clip charts and colored cards. I would rather keep this private.

Even with the short attention spans, many of my kids are still generally well behaved. Most kids want to please and do well in school. So, no, I did not put up a clip chart and I kept my private clipboard of infraction marking and I instead went for a whole-group behavior system.

I have a Funko Pop Baby Groot action figure who moves around the classroom. When the whole class is able to work on task, Baby Groot moves from one bulletin board to the other. When he completes a circle around the room, we get a point to be used for extra recess.

Baby Groot works wonderfully for a solid majority of my class.

After that, I prefer to tackle behavior problems individually. With many students happy enough to work for extra recess with only the occasional reminder of behavioral expectations, I am free to work more specifically with other students.

Two students have behavior trackers where they and I can put down how we felt a portion of the day went. Another student checks in regularly with another teacher in the building. Another works for specific rewards.

I like this system because it normalizes good behavior (which is why I don’t care for the fanfare of clipcharts) which even a distracted student can attain. I’m not balancing the behaviors of thirty students. I have that extra attention narrowed down to a much smaller number and the specific behavior coaching they need.

Keep Things Interesting and To-the-Point

I have never been a flashy, dramatic teacher, and I have found that with this group of students that works in my favor as long as I do make a little extra effort to be a little more interesting. I don’t need to do a song or dance every day, but a video here, a joke there, and a thorough-yet-quick lesson in a bright voice does the trick. I use lots of manipulatives and lots of opportunities for independent or partner work. Kids tend to enjoy working together (though some just love getting into a corner to quietly complete their work and mind their own business) and they love manipulatives.

Meditation and Mindfulness

I do like meditation and mindfulness practice. So does our lovely school counselor. She introduced me to a program called Inner Explorer, which leads students through specific guided mindfulness techniques.

I also have less formal approaches. Almost every day, especially if Inner Explorer doesn’t happen, I turn some nature sounds on my phone or computer and we take about 10 minutes to just sit or lie down quietly. It’s tricky for some of my students, but I have seen improvement.

Many of these kids have no idea how to just stop going. This practice gives them an opportunity where, yes, they have to sit quietly. Not the most desired thing for an ADHD kid, but one I still find to be important. Perhaps they more than most need practice on quieting their minds.

I also do plenty of coloring. I always have a drawer of coloring pages or blank paper. When I read to the class, I allow and even encourage coloring. For one thing, I think many kids these days have lost the fire art of just sitting down and coloring. For another, there is a reason adult coloring books are the thing they are. It’s wonderful meditation.

Praise and Be Positive

I’m not a particularly big fan of meaningless filler praise, but I can’t fight the importance of a kind word. If you have such a class, you may have an overly upbeat, energetic bunch. Don’t fight it. Teach a bit of normalcy, but don’t fight the good energy. Praise the kids when they do right. Have kind words ready. Make sure your class is a positive one.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

This might be a repetition of sorts for the team suggestion, but it’s a thing. Having so many kids with attention issues has been overwhelming at times, certainly not the cute and calm classroom I once dreamed of in college. Seek out help. I love teacher forums for this purpose. I guarantee there is some wise guru in your school who may have extra ideas.

I have a few students that are difficult for me to work with. No matter what I do, it seems they aren’t paying attention and have no idea what’s going on. They require nearly constant one-on-one attention.

If this is the situation, don’t put it all on yourself. Document. Talk with parents, talk with colleagues.

Take Care of Yourself and Your Own

I will keep this short and sweet: I don’t believe in the Teacher Martyr. You are but one small factor of your students’ lives and reality. While you can set up a good learning environment and help teaching skills, you are probably not going to “cure” them. Don’t put the weight your shoulders.

Go home at the end of the school day and stop worrying.

It’s an Unusual Classroom, But it Rocks

Teaching a class that goes beyond a few kids with attention issues to half the class is an exhausting surprise if you haven’t been prepared and trained for it. You will see more energy than you’re used to. You may be dazzled by the stunts and shows. You may have kids that scream for no identifiable reason, kids that blather nonsense, kids who roll on the floor/jump on the table/run around the room.

You will also see some awesome kids who are funny, creative, and delightfully offbeat.

That’s a good thing.

You may have a class that isn’t so normal. I hope my tips on survival will help another enjoy such a class.

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