The Challenges of Students With ADHD, Autism and More…

A fourth-grade girl daydreams extensively, gazing out the window during lessons. It’s hard to get her attention to have her participate in class. But she’s quiet, so she can sometimes escape notice.

Another student has difficulty staying seated, and can be disruptive on short notice. Sometimes he speaks without being called on, and is angry when made to raise his hand and wait.

A third student is highly intelligent but has trouble focusing on almost any classwork.

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All three have types of ADHD, or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which affects just over eight percent of children today. They experience a range of attention spans and a variety of ways in which they absorb information. It is not unusual today for teachers to be managing multiple children with ADHD, sensory processing challenges, autism or other behavioral or regulation disorders in one classroom.

“Students with ADHD pay the price for their problems in low grades, scolding and punishment, teasing from peers, and low self-esteem,” writes HelpGuide, an independent online guide to mental health and wellness. “Meanwhile, you, the teacher, wind up taking complaints from parents who feel their kids are being cheated of your instruction, and feeling guilty because you can’t reach the child with ADHD.”

It’s important if ADD or ADHD is suspected in a child, to refer him or her for a professional diagnosis. Not all restless or unfocused behavior is a sign of the attention disorder; in many cases, it’s just typical childhood energy. Also, not every child with ADD/ADHD is hyperactive; girls, for instance, more often fit the “inattentive” type of ADD, which presents itself in disorganization, procrastination, daydreaming and introverted social behavior. But many children with the disorder display behaviors like:

  • Being very easily distracted from the task at hand:
  • Performing beneath potential, overlooking details and making careless mistakes;
  • Having trouble listening, waiting patiently, or following instructions;
  • Squirming, fidgeting, getting out of his or her seat;
  • Interrupting, blurting out questions or answers, talking excessively;
  • Resisting tasks that need concentration;
  • Losing track of personal items and forgetting deadlines or commitments.

What causes ADD/ADHD? Research shows it to be largely genetic; some parents of children diagnosed with the disorder often find out then for the first time that they have it as well. But specific causes haven’t yet been nailed down. Experts say simply that people’s brains are wired differently.

Author Thom Hartmann was the first to break people into “hunter” or “farmer” characteristics. Farmers are those who can tend to tasks over the long haul, accomplish the same tasks daily, plan ahead for outcomes and then follow that plan for weeks, months or years. Hunters were those who are better able to hyperfocus on new, interesting tasks; following a trail, for instance, turning this way and that as it changes, abandoning one path if another, better path becomes available. The farmer sees the long picture; the hunter is in the moment, alert to detail. A farmer expends energy in an even manner over time; a hunter expends it in bursts, when needed, and then rests when it isn’t.

Great, you say. I am running a classroom, not a farm or a forest. How do I teach both farmer and hunter types during the same lesson?

“When a teacher expresses to an ADHD student that he is capable and worthwhile, the child believes it,” writes ADDitude magazine, a publication for and about people and professionals who deal with ADD/ADHD. It offers these strategies for creating a classroom that supports students with varying degrees of attention capability:

  • There should be clear routines and rules, starting with what you expect of the students as soon as they enter the classroom.
  • Pair ADHD students with others to help remind them of assignments, tasks and projects in progress. They often need extra supervision to help them stay on task.
  • Be sensitive to accommodations where needed. This can be things like longer time to take tests, or assignments given in parts with separate due dates for each section. It sometimes helps to seat ADHD students closer to you and/or peers who are able to focus and stay on track.
  • Offer choices; this sparks the ADHD brain and produces more focus and positive action.
  • Understand that transition is hard. Changing activities or locations can be an issue for ADHD students. Sticking to routines, and giving reminders that something will happen “in 10 minutes,” can help these students move forward.
  • Allow fidgeting, as long as it isn’t disruptive. And put a high value on recess or exercise time – physical movement can help ADHD students expend energy and then focus when they sit back down to get to work.
  • Provide consistent, positive feedback when appropriate.
  • Stay in constant communication with parents. A partnership between home and school – even in such things as consistently packing and unpacking a child’s backpack, assignments and notes – helps set the student up for success the next day.

“In Mindful Education for ADHD Students, experts Victoria Proulx-Schirduan and C. Branton Shearer remind us of the many strengths that are part of the profile of a child with an attention disorder, including keen spatial intelligence, creativity, and ‘naturalist intelligence’, writes Scholastic magazine. “All too often, these strengths are drowned out by the more traditional demands of the school environment: speaking softly and sitting still. A child with ADD, however, may not only thrive working in your school garden but lead other children in caring for it. Teachers agree it takes time to uncover the strengths of all students, not just those with attention disorders.”

Dominican University of California’s Online Professional Learning Program (DominicanCAonline.com) understands this challenge. In EDUO 9413, “Classroom Strategies for Every Teacher: ADHD, Autism, Sensory Processing Solutions for Behavior, Attention, and Regulation,” teachers of pre-kindergarten to fourth grade focus on how to create a classroom where students with attention disorders can thrive. Taught by Carolyn Catalano, a master’s level occupational therapist, participants will study:

  • The characteristics of ADHD, autism, and sensory processing disorders and how to tell the difference between them;
  • The different types of ADHD, along with its myths and facts;
  • Basic characteristics of children with autism, along with its myths and facts;
  • how classroom design affects students with these diagnoses, along with better classroom design for better attention, behavior, and regulation:
  • different types of sensory strategies to implement in the classroom;
  • how to improve behavior based on sensory clues.

“Keeping a keen eye on kids’ behavior in the classroom is important not just because it affects their learning—and potentially the ability of other kids in the class to learn—but also because it’s a window into their social and emotional development,” writes Child Mind Institute. “When kids are failing or struggling in school for an extended period of time, or acting out in frustration, without getting help, it can lead to a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that gets harder and harder to break.”

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