ADHD Awareness Week 2023: Supporting Learners with ADHD
In this blog, Karen Pilling, a deputy head and SENCO with over 15 years’ experience, shares her expertise and provides a background to October’s ADHD Awareness Month, including an insight into the condition and how pupils with ADHD and their learning can be better supported in the classroom.
In 2004, three non-profit organisations collaborated to establish an awareness month, aimed at educating individuals in the United States about ADHD, and correcting misconceptions surrounding this condition. The organisations involved were:
- The ADHD Coaches Organization (AOC), which seeks to empower ADHD coaches
- Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), dedicated to providing support, training, and advocacy to individuals with ADHD
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), which focuses on supporting adults with ADHD
Although it started in America, ADHD Awareness Week is now celebrated in Europe too and runs from 1 to 31 October. The theme for ADHD Awareness Month 2023 is “Moving Forward with ADHD”. The aim of the month is to disseminate reliable information about ADHD and its treatments on a global scale.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a condition that affects brain and nervous system development during childhood. It results in a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that can interfere with daily functioning and development.
ADHD often runs in families and has a strong genetic component. It is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in children and is more frequently diagnosed in boys. Children with ADHD experience two main areas of difficulty: inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity.
Inattention difficulties can make it challenging for individuals to organise or complete tasks, pay attention to details, follow instructions or conversations, or remember daily routines. Some people may appear to be “daydreaming” and lack focus.
Hyperactivity and impulsivity can cause restlessness and difficulty with self-regulation. People with ADHD may speak at inappropriate times, interrupt others and find it hard to wait their turn or listen to directions. Impulsiveness can also lead to more accidents and injuries, as individuals may be more active and take more risks. In girls, ADHD often presents as talking rapidly and constantly.
These difficulties are caused by differences in brain development. People with ADHD have slightly smaller brains (although this is not linked to intelligence) and a smaller limbic system. The limbic system is important for learning and memory (hippocampus), and emotional behaviours (amygdala). This can affect areas like emotional regulation, organisation, and executive function, as well as sleep and awareness of danger. People with ADHD may also experience other difficulties, such as autism, dyslexia, or dyspraxia.
How else might ADHD present itself?
Conversely to the above features of ADHD, people with the condition may possess exceptional imagination and creativity. Individuals may also exhibit boundless energy and can become incredibly focused when something captures their attention. ADHD may also lead people to possess a higher risk tolerance, meaning that they are more likely to take risks that others would avoid, which can lead to greater innovation and creativity.
How can we support children with ADHD in school?
- Teaching strategies
Supporting a child with ADHD can be challenging, especially if they can become disruptive when they don’t receive the attention they require. To reduce the likelihood of this behaviour, it’s important to reaffirm your availability through eye contact, shoulder taps, or non-verbal gestures like a thumbs up or smile. Let them know you’re keeping them in mind. Since children with ADHD struggle with inattention, it’s crucial to ensure that they understand instructions and expectations before starting a task. Breaking tasks into manageable chunks can also help prevent them from feeling overwhelmed and losing focus.
It’s also important that children with ADHD are provided with supportive environments that minimise distractions. Maintaining eye contact and being physically close while giving instructions helps. Using the child’'s name when addressing the whole class can also be helpful. It’s important to keep directions clear and simple, since children with ADHD have many thoughts at the same time, making it challenging to understand what's being asked of them.
It’s crucial to note that children with ADHD can struggle with changes in routine or transition. Before making such adjustments, it is essential to warn the child and provide extra support during that time. Parties or trips can overwhelm children, leading to anxiety and overstimulation. Children with ADHD may find self-regulation difficult, making it hard for them to calm down when overexcited. Teaching them self-regulation techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises, and visualisation, can help. Reminding them to use these techniques during events or changes can be beneficial.
Children with ADHD may display persistent low-level disruptive behaviour. They may frequently tap, fidget, or try to interact with others. To manage this behaviour, it’s crucial to establish clear and consistent boundaries while acknowledging that some of these actions may be beyond the child’s control. In some cases, it may be necessary to ignore certain low-level behaviours.
Furthermore, these children may struggle with working independently and may have difficulty working quietly. To support their participation in class, various whole-class techniques can be used, such as asking everyone to write their answers on dry-erase whiteboards and show them to the teacher, encouraging everyone to answer questions in unison (choral response), or having everyone give a thumbs up or down to indicate yes or no answers. These techniques can help engage pupils with ADHD and support their learning.
When it comes to supporting a child with ADHD, the classroom environment is key. These children tend to thrive with increased attention, so may benefit from being seated near the teacher. They should face the teacher, with their back to the other pupils. Additionally, it’s important to surround them with positive role models and avoid placing them at large tables with many other children.
As it is really easy for children with ADHD to become distracted (and to try and distract others), avoid placing the child near heaters, doors, windows, or other potential distractions. High levels of traffic or background noise can also be a problem.
As the busy classroom environment can be very overwhelming for children with ADHD, employing regular physical and brain breaks can really help to reduce this. This may be in the form of a responsibility such as collecting the books or tidying the book area. Ensure that there is adequate airflow and lighting to reduce sensory distractions. As children with ADHD need to move around, they will often be out of their seats or leave the classroom. It is therefore important to seat them where they can easily move around/leave the classroom if needed so that they won’t disrupt others’ learning.
- Learning aids
Children with ADHD may become easily distracted by external stimuli, but they often respond positively to visual cues and examples. To support their independent work, it can be helpful to display key points and vocabulary related to the topic on the whiteboard or their desk. Additionally, posting important concepts around the room on brightly coloured posters can aid their understanding and retention.
To help children with ADHD stay focused without disrupting others, consider providing tools like tangle toys, wobble cushions, or foot rolls. Headsets or workspace dividers can also be effective in reducing distractions while they concentrate.
Creating hands-on learning opportunities and practical activities can make it easier for children with ADHD to engage with the material. Activities like drama and filmmaking may be more effective than simply sitting and writing at a desk. Practical resources can also be useful for subjects like maths and science.
As with all children with special educational needs, it’s essential to understand their strengths and difficulties to support them to achieve success and reach their full potential. Children with ADHD often say that they have a negative experience of school, as they often get into trouble and others can find their difficulties hard to manage. ADHD Awareness Month helps us to be more informed about the challenges for children with ADHD, how best to support them.
The National College offers a range of webinars and courses on supporting children and young people with ADHD. If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
NHS, ‘Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)’, 2023
GOSH, ‘Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)’, 2023
ADHD UK, ‘About ADHD’, 2023
RC Pysch, ‘ADHD in Adults’, 2023
ADHD Foundation, 2023
Psycology Today, ‘1-2-3 ADHD’, 2023
ADDitude, ‘The ADDitude Guide to ADHD Awareness Month 2023’, 2023
ADHD Awareness Month 2023: Inattentive, ADD in Women, Adult Signs (additudemag.com)
ADHD Awareness Month, 2023